The Limits of Alterity in Ashkenazic Manuscripts

Speaker: Professor Elina Gertsman, Professor of Medieval Art, Case Western Reserve University.

This paper focuses on the woefully understudied Hammelburg Mahzor (Darmstadt, HLH Cod. Or. 13), a Jewish festival book completed in Lower Franconia in the middle of the fourteenth century. The book’s most remarkable feature is perhaps the inclusion of carefully curated zoocephalic, or theriomorphic, figures: humans with beastly and bestial heads. By virtue of their alterity, the zoocephali call attention to themselves with emphatic force. The purpose of this talk is to explore the semiotics and phenomenology of this alterity, and to suggest that its presence lies at the intersection of language, philosophy, poetry, and history. In the Hammelburg Mahzor this visual idiom also signals distinction, albeit in a way that, conspicuously, collapses temporalities, tests the limits of alterity, and makes an argument about likeness and difference. By foregrounding linguistic elisions between words, images, and the celebrants, such an idiom establishes visceral connections with the community of the book’s users. Ultimately, theriomorphs stand as a fitting metaphor for medieval Jewish art as it has been viewed in mainstream scholarship.

Elina Gertsman is Professor of Medieval Art at Case Western Reserve University. In addition to numerous articles, she has authored The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages: Image, Text, Performance (2010); Worlds Within: Opening the Medieval Shrine Madonna (2015); The Middle Ages in 50 Objects (with Barbara H. Rosenwein); and The Absent Image: Lacunae in Medieval Books (2021). She has also edited a number of books, including Visualizing Medieval Performance: Perspectives, Histories, Contexts (2008); Crying in the Middle Ages: Tears of History (2011); Thresholds of Medieval Visual Culture Liminal Spaces (2012, with Jill Stevenson); Myth and Mystique: Cleveland’s Gothic Table Fountain (2016, with Stephen Fliegel); and Abstraction and Medieval Art: Beyond the Ornament (2021). Her work has been supported by the Guggenheim, Kress, and Mellon Foundations as well as by the American Council for Learned Societies.

Organised by Dr Tom Nickson (The Courtauld).

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26 Jan 2022

Wednesday 26th January 2022, 5pm - 6.30pm GMT

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Illustrated page of a manuscript containing Hebrew writing
Zoocephalic Mattityahu The Hammelburg Mahzor, Hammelburg, 1347-1348. Darmstadt, HLH Cod. Or. 13, fol. 33r.