The Haggadah

One of the most significant texts in Judaism, the Haggadah is integral to the celebration of Passover, which begins tonight at sundown.  Hebrew for “telling”, the Haggadah contains passages from Exodus, as well as a ritual guide to the Seder, the Passover meal, which includes prayers, songs, and commentary.  The use of the Haggadah dates back to the tenth century and has not only served a functional purpose, but has been a source of artistic expression.

In the Middle Ages, Haggadot (the plural of Haggadah) were often illuminated, featuring intricate illustrations and designs.  One of the most famous examples of illuminated Haggadot is the Rylands Haggadah, a mid-1300s text from Catalonia illustrated with colorful miniatures that tell the Exodus story.  The most important Hebrew text in the John Rylands Library, it was exhibited at The Met last year.

Using the Haggadah as an inspiration for fine art continues to this day.  Contemporary artist Archie Granot works in the traditional Jewish medium of papercutting.  He applied this technique to a commission he received to create a Haggadah.  His 55-page Papercut Haggadah uses calligraphic text and shapes in place of the typical symbols to give emotional intensity to the work.  Every Hebrew word is handcut, making each word its own individual artistic effort while also part of a whole concept.


Archie Granot
“Haggadah Page 53: Had Gadya (One Kid)”, 2007
From “The Papercut Haggadah”
4 layers of paper, handcut with surgical scalpel
21 x 15 inches
Courtesy of the Artist

The Papercut Haggadah will be exhibited at MOBIA from June 14 to September 29 in our upcoming exhibition, As Subject and Object: Contemporary Book Artists Explore Sacred Hebrew Texts.

Maxwell House has produced a Haggadah, sold in grocery stores with a can of Maxwell House Coffee, every year since 1932.  Recognizable to many, this Haggadah, which focuses more on tradition than exegesis, was even used by President Obama last year during the White House Seder.  In 2011, Maxwell House’s publication made news when the company decided to use gender-neutral language, translating “God is King” to “God is Monarch”, for example.

Do you have any special memories associated with Passover or the Haggadah?  Feel free to share them in the comments section!

Archie Granot
“Haggadah Page 48: U’vchen veAmartem Zevach Pesach (And So You Said: the Pascal Sacrifice)”, 2006
From “The Papercut Haggadah”
3 layers of paper, handcut with surgical scalpel
21 x 15 inches
Courtesy of the Artist

Reliquary Cross

Reliquary Cross, ca. 1180
Made in, Limoges, France
Silver gilt, rock crystal, glass cabochons; wood core
Overall (w/ tang): 11 3/4 x 4 15/16 x 1 in. (29.8 x 12.5 x 2.5 cm) Overall (w/o tang): 10 x 4 15/16 x 1 in. (25.4 x 12.5 x 2.5 cm), Metalwork
Purchase, Michel David-Weill Gift, The Cloisters Collection, and Mme. Robert Gras Gift, in memory of Dr. Robert Gras, 2002
Accession Number: 2002.18

Eastern relics were long-desired by the Catholic faithful in the West because of the connection they had to the holiest people and places in the history of Christianity. Some of the most sought-after relics were pieces of the True Cross on which Jesus was believed to have been crucified.  There were a finite number of slivers in existence, and most of them remained in Jerusalem and the East in the twelfth century.

A double-arm reliquary cross in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been attributed to a workshop from the Limoges region in France and dated to the late twelfth century, approximately 1180.  On the front of the reliquary, a piece of the True Cross is contained within a rectangular metal frame at the upper crossing, and is visible through an incised double-arm cross shape Also included, and identified through inscriptions that run the length of the reliquary and its arms, are: pieces of the Holy Sepulcher and Mary’s tomb; relics of the Holy Innocents; a relic of St. Apollinaris, who was a first-century saint born in Antioch and the first Bishop of Ravenna; a relic of St. Vincent, a third-century deacon killed during Valerian’s persecution of the Christians; a relic of St. Hermes, an early church deacon killed during Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians; a piece of hair from St. Stephen, who was one of twelve disciples to care for the secular needs of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem; a relic from Bethlehem; and a stone from Calvary.  Of the ten relics in total, it appears that eight would have been visible to the viewer by means of transparent rock crystal, or through pierced openings such as the cross or circles in the gilt silver overlay.

Double-arm in form and covered with glass “gems” and inset relics, this small reliquary cross thus appears to “bridge” Byzantium and the West.  The surface decoration, consisting of pearled metal edges, engraved concentric circles, glass “gems” and faience gives the cross a decidedly western aesthetic and is consistent with objects from twelfth-century Limoges, but Byzantine qualities are equally prominent.  For example, the double-arm shape is typical of crosses made in the East and is not usually seen in the Latin West.  Additionally, the ten relics inset throughout the cross are ones associated with sites in the Holy Land.  To further complicate matters, many of these sites were under the control of the Latin West in the twelfth century.

The transition in medieval worship from concealing holy objects, to gazing upon them, to ultimately holding them close to the body, had an impact on the form of such reliquaries, including their size and the inclusion of visible or “exposed” relics.  This shift in the preferred method of “seeing” resulted from the nature of relics themselves.  Gazing upon individual strands of hair, bits of cloth, and miniscule slivers of the cross would not have necessarily moved one to have a transcendental experience.  Conversely, reliquaries, in their most elaborate forms made of gold, silver and brightly colored glass, would have been a substitute for such a visually lackluster relic.  The unimpressive visual aspect of smaller relic fragments may have contributed to the development of even more beautiful, more stunning containers.  The colorful gems and shining metal would have captured the gaze, encouraging all who looked upon them to contemplate the sacred contents within.  There was a fine line, though, a contradiction because while it was important to consider the holy relics inside the stunning object, the ultimate goal was to have a divine, other-worldly experience sparked by the contents but not the container. The practice of holding the objects close to the body provided an additional layer of “seeing”.  Rather than becoming transfixed by the container instead of the contained relics by way of the eyes, the faithful moved the relics closer to the body for a corporeal experience of the divine.  This was not a completely new idea, as discussed earlier by Egeria and other eastern chroniclers; however, it became more common in practice in the East and West during the twelfth century when this cross was made.

- JK for MOBIA

“Purification of the Temple” by El Greco

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) (1541 – 1614)
Purification of the Temple, c.1600
oil on canvas
16 1/2 x 20 5/8 in. (41.9 x 52.4 cm)
Henry Clay Frick Bequest
Accession number: 1909.1.66

Jesus went into the Temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the stools of those who sold pigeons,and said to them, ‘It is written in the Scriptures that God said, “My Temple will be called a house of prayer.” But you are making it a hideout for thieves!’” (Matthew 21:12-13)

When Domenikos Theotokopoulos – better known as El Greco – painted Jesus expelling money lenders from the Temple in Jerusalem, a narrative found in all four Gospels, the religious and cultural backdrop was a Church divided.  In the midst of the Protestant Reformation and the Counter Reformation, the story of Jesus, who had never before been cited in the canonical Gospels as being physically assertive, driving out those who tainted the purity of his Father’s house was especially resonant.  In areas of Europe where Protestantism was taking hold, iconoclastic riots resulted in the forcible stripping of “painted idols” from churches.  The defamation of the sacred permeated the atmosphere in which El Greco and his contemporaries were working.

El Greco’s c. 1600 Purification of the Temple enhances the New Testament scene with the inclusion of Old Testament sagas that were seen as typological precursors to the Temple incident.  Featured as bas-reliefs on the Temple walls are the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:21-24) and the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19).  The Expulsion relief is on the left of the archway that leads out of the Temple, above the group of sinners being cast out by Jesus.  The Binding of Isaac relief, on the right, is placed above Jesus’s followers and believers, who watch the dramatic scene unfold.  The Expulsion correlates to Jesus’s act of purification, while the Akedah is viewed in orthodox Christianity as the antecedent of Jesus’s death on the cross, an event that occurred nearly a week after the incident in the Temple.

This small but moving painting is an understated jewel in the Frick Collection.

- T.C. for MOBIA

Spotlights on Broadway: Queen of Spades

Januwa Moja
Queen of Spades, 1996
Mixed fabrics with metallic ribbons, 20 x 60 in.
Courtesy of the Artist
Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Artist and designer Januwa Moja designed Queen of Spades to honor the goddess Oya/Yansa.  Oya is an Orisha, a Yoruba deity or spirit meant to reflect one of the manifestations of God.  Moja invoked Oya because the deity is a warrior spirit who controls the weather (especially the winds, which bring change) and who guards the realm of the ancestors.  She is the also the Orisha of the Niger River in western Africa; in Yoruba, the river is called Oya, which literally translates to “She tore.”  In Santeria, a practice that combines African and Caribbean religion with Roman Catholicism, she is identified with Our Lady of Candelaria, an apparition of the Virgin Mary honored on Tenefire, one of the Canary Islands.

Moja constructed this from different patterned fabrics significant to different parts of Africa.  These brightly colored fabrics are produced for export in Holland and Indonesia.  African communities use the cloth in various significant ways – for example, politicians will buy bolts and have their portraits printed on the fabric for distribution during a political campaign.

Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Moja created the feathered headdress and two necklaces as part of this ensemble.  The necklaces, made from bone, antler, beads, and cowry shells, are not made to be worn as mere decorative jewelry, but armor, as befits the powerful Oya.

Photographer Renee Cox wore Queen of Spades and its headdress in her work Yo Mama Madonna.  Cox chose Moja’s garment because of its distinctly African look, which aligned with her artistic vision.  In the photograph, Cox, donning the pieces, depicts herself as the Madonna, with her own son representing in Christ Child on her lap.  Cox’s choice to include Queen of Spades as part of her work draws an interesting connection to Oya’s identification with the Virgin of Candelaria, as the latter is sometimes depicted as a Black Madonna.  This plays into Moja’s vision of the robe as a way of honoring the goddess as she was seen in the African Diaspora.

Come see Queen of Spades and other inspiring works of art at MOBIA!

- T.C. for MOBIA

Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Check It Out: “Piero della Francesca in America”

Just across the park from MOBIA, located right on Fifth Avenue, is the famous Frick Collection. Now on view is an exhibition dedicated to seven works done by Italian Renaissance master Piero della Francesca (1411/13-1492).  Piero della Francesca in America brings together six panels from the altarpiece of Sant’Agostino, a church in Sansepolcro, Italy, the most extensive reassembling of the polyptych ever exhibited since its dismantling.  The exhibition also features Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels, the artist’s only intact altarpiece in the United States.

Piero della Francesca (c. 1411/13–1492),
“Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels”, c. 1460-70
Oil (and tempera?) on poplar panel, transferred to fabric on panel
The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

See Piero’s rendition of saints like Apollonia, patron saint of dentists, and Augustine, whom the artist portrayed as wearing a cloak depicting scenes from the life of Christ.  You may also recognize Augustine’s mother, St. Monica, the focus of a spotlight post on this blog few months ago (did you know that it became a rule of the Augustinian Order that there had to be a likeness of Monica in every Augustinian church?).

Piero della Francesca in America is on view until May 19.  The Frick Collection is located at 10 East 71st Street.

Now on view at MOBIA

MOBIA’s newest exhibition, Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery, is now on view!


Renée Stout (1958- )
“Church of the Crossroads”, 1999-2000
Neon and wood, 52 x 37 x 3 in.
Courtesy of the Artist and Hemphill Arts

Ashe to Amen investigates the intersections and crossroads of aesthetics and belief in African American art. For more than two centuries, the Bible has been a catalyst for this multicultural and initially disenfranchised artistic community and has been inspiring the creation of sacred, spiritual, and religious spaces and identity. The exhibition’s title takes its name from praise terms commonly used in African and African American communities. Ashe, a Yoruba word, refers to the creative power of an artist to make something happen. Amen is an affirmation meaning essentially “so be it”.  The visual continuum on display in Ashe to Amen presents the inventive, deeply personal, and ongoing interpretations of the Bible created by artists from the African American community.

Featuring the work of pioneers in the field – Henry Ossawa Tanner, Jacob Lawrence, and William Edmondson, among others – alongside contemporary artists and designers, the exhibition showcases works of various media and highlights the integral ways in which art impacts the religious experience.


Bessie Harvey (1929-1994)
“Black Horse of Revelations”, 1991
Painted wood with fabric, beads, and miscellany, 54 x 45 x 15 in.
Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY
Gift of Avalie Saperstein in memory of Elyse Saperstein
Photo by Gavin Ashworth, New York

Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, Guest Curator of Ashe to Amen: African-Americans and Biblical Imagery, was interviewed by Interfaith Radio.  Listen to hear some of the details regarding the amazing works of art now on view.

Ashe to Amen will be on view at MOBIA until May 26, 2013; at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture June 22 – September 29, 2013; and at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens October 20, 2013 – January 5, 2014.

Visit our website,, to check our calendar of upcoming events and public programs.