The Columbia University Seminar on Religion and Writing

Meetings Fall 2021

This term the seminar will convene on Mondays.  We will continue to meet on ZOOM as the digital medium allows us to invite speakers from outside the tristate area.  Please note that the meeting times change as needed to accommodate the time zone of the speaker.  If you wish to attend a meeting, please email our rapporteur Anya Wilkening (abw2163 [at] columbia.edu). 

October 4, 2021 – Christopher Melchert (University of Oxford): The Early Epitome (mukhtaṣar) of Islamic Law: Evolution of a Genre

Monday, November 8, 2021, noon-2 pm (NYC) – Dagmara Budzioch (Hebrew University of Jerusalem/University of Wroclaw): The Art of Oriental Esther Scrolls: Hebrew Manuscripts between Jewish and Muslim Worlds 

Esther scrolls (Heb. pl. megillot Esther) are parchment manuscripts of the Book of Esther.  The story of the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people from annihilation at the hands of Haman, the highest official of the Persian King Ahasuerus, is read aloud every year on the festival of Purim, most commonly in the synagogue.  Decorated Esther scrolls first emerged in Italy in the 1560s, and gained their greatest popularity among Italian Jews during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  This creative endeavor spread gradually to other European Jewish communities, living mainly in Holland and Central Europe.  Only from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards were illustrated Esther scrolls produced in Muslim-ruled societies.

Illustrated Esther scrolls are very attractive and highly important Jewish artifacts, which emerge after the fifteenth-century adaptation of letterpress printing to the production of Hebrew books.  Although all Esther scrolls include the same text, they differ significantly in terms of the motifs, layout, and techniques used to adorn them.  These differences reflect the general tendency of Jewish art to adapt the artistic vocabulary of the dominant – Christian or Muslim – milieus.  Such influence is already visible in the decoration of the earliest extant Hebrew codices from the tenth century which feature the same motifs as manuscripts produced in the Islamic lands.  Extant oriental Esther scrolls, mainly from Morocco, Iraq, and Turkey, form a relatively small corpus of manuscripts, and they are rarely a subject of scholarly discussion.  Their ornamentation is strongly influenced by Islamic art, as it reflects the intense interest in architectonic and floral motifs, geometric and abstract ornaments, and calligraphy.  For the same reason, animals, human figures, or narrative scenes from the Book of Esther rarely appear in the decorative program.  Since most scrolls do not have colophons, their ornamentation – in particular their architectonic frames, large calligraphic letters, and carpet pages – is used for discerning their date and origin.  During the presentation, the main types of decorated oriental scrolls will be shown, and their ornamentation will be compared with that of manuscripts such as marriage contracts.  This will be a starting point for the discussion of the transmission of artistic traditions between the Jewish and Muslim worlds.

Monday, December 6, 2021, 8-10 pm (NYC) – Suzanne Wijsman (University of Western Australia): Seeing the Sounds of Love: Visions of Women and Music in a Fifteenth-Century Jewish Prayer Book

The Oppenheimer Siddur is a richly illuminated, small format Ashkenazic book of daily prayers in the Oppenheim collection of Oxford’s Bodleian Library (https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/objects/e0e188d1-75b0-4309-a085-8cde913c9f3c/).  The manuscript’s colophon tells us that it was completed in 1471 by Asher ben Yitzḥaq for use by his children.  That Asher ben Yitzḥaq was not only the scribe, but also the artist of this manuscript has been confirmed in prior research by identification of common stylistic elements in the artwork and text embellishment, along with scientific imaging analysis of pigments and production process.  This means that the illuminated texts of the Oppenheimer Siddur reflect the singular, personal perspective of its creator as expressed throughout the manuscript in its scribal, material and artwork features.  Among the most notable of these is the pervasive musical theme that is woven through its many decorated pages, and three unusual illustrations that associate women with music, including two showing them in active performance.  Women playing musical instruments seldomly appear in medieval Hebrew manuscript art and, when they do, they are most often associated with a specific, archetypical narrative context, such as depictions of Miriam with her timbrel illustrating the Exodus story in Passover haggadot.  Rabbinic prohibitions against instrumental music in the synagogue mean that the presence of performing musicians—especially women playing musical instruments in a medieval Jewish prayer book that would likely to have been intended for use by men—is an intriguing anomaly in a Jewish liturgical manuscript. Relying on iconographical and textual evidence, this paper will explore the links between these three images in the Oppenheimer Siddur and topoi referencing music seen often in Northern European secular art of the late medieval period, but rarely in the art of Hebrew manuscripts, such as the allegory of the folly of love.  It will discuss how these images of women and music resonate with other musical iconography in this medieval Jewish prayer book, and how they relate to broader medieval Jewish iconographic traditions as well as to Jewish literary sources, such as midrashic commentaries on the biblical Song of Songs which, in Jewish tradition, is read as a love allegory.  Examination of this body of evidence may help to explain the raison d’être of this feminine musical imagery in the Oppenheimer Siddur and inform its interpretation as visual commentary on the liturgical texts where it occurs.

Meetings Spring 2022 – dates and titles TBA

Eve Krakowski (Princeton University) 

Henrike Lähnemann (University of Oxford)

Brinkley Messick (Columbia University)

Columbia University encourages persons with disabilities to participate in its programs and activities.  University Seminar participants with disabilities who anticipate needing accommodations may contact the Office of Disability Services at 212.854.2388 or disability@columbia.edu.  Disability accommodations, including sign-language interpreters, are available on request.  Requests for accommodations must be made two weeks in advance. 

The official page of the Columbia University Seminar 751 is available at http://universityseminars.columbia.edu/seminars/religion-and-writing/.  Please contact us, if you have any question about the seminar.  Information about its history is available at  https://researchblogs.cul.columbia.edu/islamicbooks/religionwriting/usem751history/.  The abstracts of all talks since January 2012 are archived at https://researchblogs.cul.columbia.edu/islamicbooks/religionwriting/abstracts/

Susan L. Boynton, co-chair
Columbia University, Department of Music
slb184 [at] columbia.edu

Dagmar A. Riedel, co-chair
Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies/Columbia University
dar2111 [at] columbia.edu

Anya B. Wilkening, rapporteur
Columbia University, Department of Music
abw2163 [at] columbia.edu

Last updated, 11 October 2021