In 2002, the Dr. Bernard Heller Foundation awarded The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary a grant for the full conservation of one of its most important manuscripts, the Prato Haggadah (MS 9478). This Haggadah, produced in Spain circa 1300, is among the oldest of all illuminated Spanish Haggadot and one of the few unfinished illuminated Hebrew manuscripts.
The art of the Prato Haggadah is witty and imaginative. The manuscript is replete with decorated initial word panels, foliate ornamentation, and hybrid figures. Several illustrations relate directly to the text, such as depictions of the Four Sons, the matzah, the maror, and a medieval rendering of the Land of Goshen. The Prato Haggadah contains motifs common in medieval manuscripts, and many folios reflect the artist's sense of humor: a hare hunt extends across several folios; hybrids are depicted playing contemporary musical instruments; a simian figure holds a gold ball; several dual-bodied heads stare wildly at the reader; and the word "Hallelujah" spews forth from the open mouth of a hybrid. For reasons that remain obscure, the manuscript's illumination was never completed. It is precisely the unfinished nature of the codex that allows the viewer to see the stages of production of an illuminated manuscript: the scribal arrangement of the text; the artist's preparatory drawings; the application of gesso to cushion gold or silver leaf; the addition of the leaf; the painting of a wide variety of pigments; and the outlining of the illuminations with ink.
The text of the Prato Haggadah is also distinctive. Although it includes the standard biblical, talmudic, and midrashic texts, as well as the liturgical poetry common to other Spanish Haggadot, the Prato Haggadah lacks all elements associated with the Passover meal. Kiddush, blessings for matzah and maror, instructions for the feast itself, and grace after meals are absent. Scholars have suggested that Haggadot of this kind may have been written to be read publicly in the synagogue, after which people would return to their homes for the meal. This phenomenon is found in other Spanish Haggadot and is explained by medieval sources as satisfying the requirement to recount the story of the Exodus for people unable to lead or attend a seder.
Many Sephardic Jews immigrated to Italy following the expulsions from the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century, often taking their manuscripts with them. Though we do not know when the Prato Haggadah left Spain, the manuscript includes an Ashkenazic liturgical section probably added in northern Italy in the sixteenth century and a censor's signature from Italy dated 1617. In addition, the volume contains many textual emendations and corrections inserted over several centuries. Though the Spanish or Ashkenazic sections of the manuscript cannot be definitively dated or localized, scribal practices and liturgical variants provide a general overview of the history of the manuscript and its owners.
The Prato Haggadah was disbound in order to facilitate the comprehensive conservation of the manuscript, providing The Library with the rare opportunity to devote an entire exhibition to a single volume. The Library is proud to present nearly fifty folios of the Prato Haggadah, which highlight some of the manuscript's most interesting and significant characteristics and allow the viewer to explore the world of illuminated medieval manuscript production.