Illumination of early hebrew manuscripts and historicism in russian decorative art

Olga Vasilyeva

Illumination of early hebrew manuscripts and historicism in russian decorative art

The manuscript collection of Abraham Firkovich, housed in the National Library in St. Petersburg, is a well-known and unique collection of rare literary works, scientific treatises and religious texts. It was Abraham Harkavy (1839–1919) who first described the 11,000 items of Hebrew codices and fragments, publishing roughly 400 articles and books of his own in the 42 years during which he worked in the Imperial Public Library. As a Semitologist rather than a scholar of art, the ornate decoration of the manuscript did not seem to especially interest Harkavy. Coincidentally, the head of the Department of Arts and Technologies of the library was the art historian Vladimir Stasov, a scholar suited to the appreciation of such a treasure. Beginning in 1856, Stasov worked to compile the album “Slavic and Oriental ornamental pattern in ancient and modern manuscripts”. In order to do so, Stasov took full advantage of the rich resources of the library’s Manuscript Department, making many copies of the works in his own hands. Stasov paid particular attention to the remarkable early illuminated manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, acquired between 1862 and 1874. Rather than including these examples in a book of his own, Stasov approached the Orientalist, bibliophile and member of the prominent family of financiers, David Ginzburg, to publish an album of the ornamental patterns which decorated the Hebrew manuscripts in the Firkovich collection.

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