The Alba Bible
A superb example of manuscript illumination and the very first translation of the Hebrew Bible and glosses into Castilian.
1,046 pages containing the first translation of the Hebrew bible into Castilian by Rabbi Moses Arragel at the behest of Don Luis de Guzmán, Knight of the Order of Calatrava.
Executed in Maqueda, Spain from 1422 to 1430
A strictly limited facsimile edition of 500 numbered copies
ISBN 84 60418 650
Maqueda, Castile 1422
A prominent Churchman, Don Luis de Guzmán, commands the renowned scholar Rabbi Moses Arragel de Guadalajara to undertake a task of major significance. He is to translate the Hebrew Bible into Castilian and compile an extensive commentary, to be accompanied by a wealth of illustrations and illuminations in a monumental manuscript. The rabbi, loyal to his ancestors and his people, was most reluctant to agree to prepare a text which he felt might conflict with Christian doctrine and thus expose Spanish Jewry to attack.
Pressure exerted by the ecclesiastical authorities eventually forced him to relent. The manuscript known today as the Alba Bible was completed in 1430. It might well have become a symbol of hope for those Jews and Christians who, prior to the tragic end of the Jewish presence in medieval Spain, sought to improve Jewish-Christian relations. Instead, their attempts failed, and the hostility fanned by the Inquisition culminated in the Expulsion of 1492. From now on the manuscript, at that time abandoned and probably even left unbound, will be able to play the role intended for it.
The Alba Bible is not merely a superb example of Spanish manuscript illumination. It is all that remains of one of the last attempts by intellectual Jews and Christians to heal the rifts that finally led to the calamity of expulsion. The facsimile was published as a tribute to and celebration of the reconciliation and renewal of understanding taking place in our own time.
Jewish culture penetrated deeply into Spanish life, and its influence can still be felt now, even 500 years after the Expulsion. The successful integration of the Jewish contribution was based on centuries of peaceful relations.
The eleventh century saw, in some areas, total equality of Jews and Christians. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Jews were instrumental in translating Greek writers such as Plato and Aristotle from Arabic versions into Hebrew and assisting Christians in making Latin translations, effectively reviving the intellectual world of antiquity in Europe via Spain. Furthermore, Jewish works, such as Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed, were translated from Arabic into Hebrew and then Latin, enabling them to have an impact on Christian scholars, and influencing scholars such as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas.
Rabbis such as Moses Nachmanides and David Kimchi embellished Spanish Jewry with their wisdom and understanding, helping to engender a society that valued books not only for their contents but also for their physical beauty. Judah ibn Tibbon, writing to his son, urged him to "Make thy books thy companions. Let thy bookcases and shelves be thy gardens and thy pleasure grounds. Feed in their orchards; pluck the fruit that grows therein, gather the roses, the spices and the myrrh. If thy soul be full and weary, change from garden to garden, from furrow to furrow, from view to view..."
In 1422, during a lull in the often intensely anti-Jewish feeling in Spain, Don Luis de Guzmán, Grand Master of Calatrava, arrived at a decision that only by commissioning a Castilian Bible, translated by someone able to refer to the Hebrew and to compile a commentary reflecting the Jewish understanding of the texts, would Christians comprehend the differences between Christian and Jewish attitudes, and come to tolerate the other's views.
The decision was itself remarkable, since Don Luis, as a high-ranking Churchman, wielded immense power in Castile. He discovered that Rabbi Moses Arragel, from the small town of Maqueda in Castile, was a person capable of such a task, and commissioned him to produce the work in return for a generous remuneration. The Rabbi had good reason to be reluctant - by exposing the Jewish view he feared he might fuel antagonism towards Jews, and himself in particular. He firmly refused, pointing out a Jewish prohibition against illustrated Bible manuscripts. His protest sparked off a lively correspondence with the Grand Master that has luckily survived.
The first twenty-five folios of the Alba Bible contain transcriptions of the detailed exchanges between Don Luis and Rabbi Moses, documenting their negotiations up to the moment when the Rabbi finally agreed to take on the task, perhaps against his better judgement. A full-page miniature depicting its completion shows Don Luis de Guzmán enthroned like King Solomon, with the Rabbi on his knees before him handing over the codex. Two monks, a Franciscan and a Dominican, were assigned to help the Rabbi in his work, doubtless in a supervisory role. A number of Christian artists were employed to illustrate the text. What emerged is no less than a masterpiece. Known as the Alba Bible, after its eventual owner, it is the most important manuscript to have survived from the reign of King John II.
The Alba Bible, with its 513 folios and 334 miniatures, is a powerful work of visual art. But still more significant is the vast commentary it contains. Rabbi Moses showed great independence and courage, and his translation and commentary make few concessions to Christian thinking, although he must have been aware of the dangers awaiting both him and the Jewish community. It is rich in extracts not only from rabbinical writings such as the Targumim, Midrashim and Talmud, but also from later works such as the Zohar - the source book of Jewish mysticism. Rabbi Moses may well have given the artists detailed instructions on the illustrations, furnishing them with specifically Jewish interpretations of biblical scenes. The resulting images are also very important as cultural records, since contemporary weapons, musical instruments, furniture and costumes are all depicted. The cooperation between the Christian patron and the Jewish author-translator makes the Alba Bible a vital element in the ancient and troubled Christian-Hebraic tradition.
Rabbi Moses Arragel
Against such a social background, it is remarkable that Rabbi Moses Arragel succeeded so often in presenting the Jewish view: no other extant manuscript contains so many rabbinically inspired miniatures.
For instance, Cain kills Abel by biting his neck like a serpent, exactly as is described in the Zohar. Similarly, religious objects from the Temple are depicted just as in Hebrew Bibles of the same period. We know that Rabbi Moses Arragel finished the manuscript on Friday 2 June 1430 in Maqueda, but a long time afterwards he had still not been paid for his work, and all sight of him is then lost. Most of the Jews of Maqueda converted to Christianity at the end of the fifteenth century, but the name Arragel does not appear among those who were baptized. The Alba Bible seems to be his only monument.
After the manuscript left his hands on that Friday in 1430, it was apparently scrutinized by Franciscan censors in Toledo for a considerable time, probably until 1433. From there it was passed to the University of Salamanca, where the Dominican Juan de Çamora carried out a preliminary examination, and it was then submitted to a detailed examination at the Franciscan monastery in Toledo. This culminated in a public disputation at which theologians, knights, Jews and Moors argued their views. Following this, the manuscript disappeared until 1622, when it reached the great library of the Liria Palace, seat of the Grand Duke of Alba and Berwick, where it has been housed ever since.
Don Luis de Guzmán
Fortunately for historians, the patron of the Alba Bible, Don Luis de Guzmán, is an important and well-known political personage in the history of Spain. Ironically, the Bible could not be ceremoniously presented to him on its completion, since war was impending, and the scene magnificently depicted in it was probably never enacted.
Few records remain from the unsettled years of John II's reign (1406-54). Of these, the Alba Bible is the most important to have survived. Despite the anti-Jewish riots and mass conversions of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Spanish Jewry had great powers of recovery. This unique work shows how, despite the prevailing hostility to the Jews and, the looming problem of the conversos, it was still possible for an enlightened individual to attempt to reverse the overwhelmingly negative trend in Jewish-Christian relations.
The first 50 pages of the manuscript contain Rabbi Moshe Arragel’s ‘Memorandum’. Moshe Lazar describes it in the commentary volume as follows:
Having clearly stated that his intention was not to criticize or denigrate the faith and beliefs of Christians but to present, as demanded by his patron, a full rabbinical exegesis accompanied by the diverging views of Christian theologians, Arragel recommended to his readers to consider his method of presentation:
- when there are no major or strong opposing views between the Christian and Jewish interpreters on a concept, sentence or the intended meaning of a sequence, his gloss should be acceptable to readers of both religions;
- should he have forgotten, here and there, clearly to delineate between the contrasting opinions of Christian and Jewish exegetes, the Christian reader, if confronted by a comment which might be contrary to the principles of his faith, should consider it a Jewish opinion, but not intended as a negation of the reader's faith; similarly, a Jewish reader, when placed before an opinion contrary to the principles of his faith, should read it as a Christian interpretation, handed to him in a register of diverging views by the friars working with him, and not as the opinion of a Jewish commentator or rabbi;
- wherever fundamental and opposing interpretations exist, they will be clearly indicated and brought to the attention of the reader in the opening part of the glosses;
- the selected commentaries represent the best he could find in the rabbinical tradition and in the materials offered to him by the friars from Toledo and Salamanca;
- as his work was intended solely to be a compendium of exegetical materials - leaving readers free to accept or reject opinions which would not strengthen their faith - Arragel suggests that a proper title for his scholarly enterprise should be “la memoratiua” (“the Memorandum”). Arragel might have had in mind a similar technical Hebrew term used by medieval collectors of midrashim, namely yalqut (collection), as for example in the work Yalqut Shim’oni.
Arragel also compiled a Glossary for the Perplexed in which he explains several hundred words and concepts, mostly Latinisms, neologisms and technical terms including those which deal with key concepts in Christian and Jewish interpretations of the Scriptures.
The manuscript continues with the Biblical texts as follows:
Song of Songs
In 1992, His Majesty King Juan Carlos of Spain publicly retracted the 500 year old order that signalled the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. It had never formally been repealed. At last, Jews are officially welcomed back to the country from which their ancestors were driven, and old communities re-established, in a sincere bid to undo the evil committed by the Inquisition centuries ago.
Commissioning the facsimile
This extraordinary and unprecedented turn of fate was commemorated by the publication of a magnificent facsimile edition of this unique manuscript. After the Duke of Alba generously offered to allow a facsimile to be made of his masterpiece, the publishers of the Alba Bible facsimile received the following commission from its new patron Señor Mauricio Hatchwell Toledano: "I want the most beautiful facsimile ever produced, no more, no less..."
Just as the manuscript itself was ordered by a powerful leader, so the facsimile is the brainchild of Mauricio Hatchwell Toledano the moving force behind the International Jewish Committee Sepharad '92, and the founder of the Fundación Amigos de Sefarad of Spain. He decided that the Alba Bible would be a living testament to the spirit of 1992, reviving and fulfilling the long-forgotten hopes of those who had laboured over it five centuries before.
Message from the Chairman of Sepharad '92
1492 represents a gigantic step in the history of mankind due to the discovery of the New World. It is also the date of an event that deeply and forever marked the destiny of Spain, since at that date it took the decision to expel its Jews, which, as Professor John Eliott said, weakened the foundations of the Spanish Monarchy at the very beginning of its imperial journey.
In fact, for Spanish Jews Sefarad was not a country of exile but rather a homeland. Very rarely, if at all, did a Jewish community reach such splendour, such glory and for such a long period, almost 500 years.
The school of translators of Toledo, cradle of the modern Spanish language, is an outstanding example of this Golden Age, a fortunate period in which the faithful researchers of the three monotheistic religions, children of the same God, worked in harmony to provide the world, in a unique and truly exceptional case, with some more light and more hope in a frame of TOLERANCE.
1992 marked the fifth centenary of the sudden interruption of an age that still today holds us in awe. To commemorate this spiritual odyssey, which belongs to the Jewish patrimony, Sephardim and Ashkenazim together constituted the International Jewish Committee Sepharad '92. Its members were Jews and non-Jews and included the Foundation Friends of Sefarad, Jewish communities throughout the world, and the main North American and European Jewish Organizations. The Honorary Chairman was Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel.
We, the International Jewish Committee Sepharad '92 wish to give a balanced version of history, in particular of our own history, in the dawn of the 21st century. 1992 must represent not only the legitimate reminder of the tragedy we went through, but also the occasion to acknowledge and help the entire world:
- to know and to learn the history of our ancestors in Spain, who were not only massacred by intolerance but buried a second time by the forgetfulness of history
- to remind the world, Jews and non-Jews, about what is unfortunately taken for granted, but which has to be emphasized and repeated time and time again: the Jewish contribution, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi, to Western civilization. In addition, as the People of the Book, Jews have in the last generation, with the resurgence of the State of Israel, proved their ability in agriculture, high technology and the art of military survival.
- to acknowledge the message of the previous centuries: that TOLERANCE is a desirable form of civilization for humanity and a formula for progress in the future of nations.
"Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption"
Mauricio Hatchwell Toledano
Production of the facsimile
Unrelenting in his quest for the finest quality, he commissioned Facsimile Editions, to produce the facsimile to hitherto unsurpassed standards, combining the finest materials and the very best craftsmanship.
Its paper, formulated to reproduce the exact feel and opacity of the original parchment, was milled in Italy for the facsimile. The pages of the manuscript were disbound at the Palacio de Liria in Madrid by James Brockman, the Master Bookbinder from Oxford, enabling each folio to be laid flat for photography. Israeli photographer David Harris brought equipment from London and Jerusalem to Madrid in order to photograph the manuscript, using large-format film, especially manufactured in a single batch, and processed at the same laboratory in order to ensure a constant colour balance. Over the following year, colour separators from Milan joined Linda Falter and the printer for regular meetings at the Palace in Madrid, where proofs of each page were compared in every detail with the original, until the finest possible colour-match was achieved.
Every brush-stroke and gold dot was examined and all are reproduced in the facsimile. Michael and Linda Falter stayed in Milan for the entire period of the production, where their team of craftsmen worked under their constant supervision. Echoing the atmosphere surrounding the original making of the manuscript in Maqueda, specialists from all over Europe were brought to Milan, to ensure that the facsimile would match the original as closely as possible.
The original binding of the manuscript no longer exists, so a blind-tooled Mudéjar binding, now in Toledo Cathedral and produced in the same time and geographical area as the manuscript, was used as a model for both the facsimile and for a new binding of the original manuscript. Finding morocco goatskins large enough to cover the boards was a daunting task for the binder, Angelo Recalcati, working from his atelier outside Milan.
Presentation at the palace
The culmination of this year-long publishing project took place on 31 March 1992 at the Pardo Palace, Madrid, when His Majesty King Juan Carlos of Spain was presented with a copy of the Alba Bible facsimile. On the same occasion he revoked the order of the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and formally welcomed their descendants - and all Jews - back to Spain.
Only 500 copies of the facsimile and its commentary volume have been produced. It is the publishers’ firm belief that by making this medieval masterpiece available to a wider public, they are fulfilling the desire of its makers, and bringing to fruition - albeit five centuries later than anyone would have wished - the atmosphere of tolerance and understanding for which they laboured, and for which they - and many subsequent generations - have prayed in vain.
The facsimile should not be regarded as a mere object of beauty, for those who made the manuscript were primarily mindful of the words and message it contains. Aware of this, Mauricio Hatchwell Toledano set in motion the commissioning of leading scholars to provide detailed explanations and analyses of the manuscript. The results of their work appear in an elegant, heavily illustrated commentary volume designed by the eminent typographer Gerald Cinamon (with assistance from Anthony Kitzinger), with chapter openings designed and hand drawn by master calligrapher Satwinder Sehmi. The commentary volume sets the manuscript in its historical background, in the period leading up to the Expulsion and is edited by Jeremy Schonfield, specialist in medieval manuscripts and Jewish culture.
Shlomo Ben-Ami, at the time, Israel's Ambassador to Spain, describes Sephardi Jewry's contribution to Spanish civilization.
Sonia Fellous-Rozenblat, of the C.N.R.S., Professor of Jewish Art at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, Paris, examines in detail the background to the commissioning of the manuscript and describes the symbolism of its magnificent iconography. Sonia Fellous has since published a beautifully illustrated description of the manuscript’s iconography: Histoire de la Bible de Moïse Arragel (Somogy éditions d’art, France ISBN 2-85056-516-4)
Moshe Lazar, Professor of Comparative Literature at U.C.L.A., studies the Bible translation and the commentary appearing in the manuscript.
Angus McKay, Professor of Medieval Spanish History at the University of Edinburgh, discusses Jewish-Christian relations in Spain at the period of the Alba Bible.
The commentary volume is bound in a morocco binding to complement that of the facsimile.
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