Gilding the Lily –– and the Thistle

Art

By Malka Percal

Published March 09, 2007, issue of March 09, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Ironically, Barbara Wolff was driven back in time to the laborious techniques of medieval illumination by nothing less than today’s icon of modernity: the computer. When the accomplished botanical illustrator, who would spend days drawing a flower perspective, saw that the same thing could be done instantly with computer-aided design, she knew her craft was about to change. At a career crossroads six years ago, she decided to take a four-day workshop in medieval manuscript illumination. The result was, so to speak, golden.

Wolff, a New York City native, has always been intrigued by ancient manuscripts. Today she uses gold and ground mineral pigments on vellum (parchment) to produce gemlike miniature paintings. The illuminations bring to a single, fine point Wolff’s exquisitely observed botanicals, technical artistry and love of Jewish history. A new exhibit of 18 miniatures at the Yeshiva University Museum, A Talent of Pure Gold: Illuminated Miniatures by Barbara Wolff, takes viewers into a world of profound beauty, clarity and Jewish symbolism.

Illumination, the ornate embellishment used to adorn manuscripts and inspire readers’ sense of the divine prior to the advent of movable type in the 16th century, was not practiced solely by Christians and Muslims. Jewish patrons, as well, commissioned decorated manuscripts. One of Wolff’s reference books is a 13th-century Portuguese manual written in Hebrew letters, by one Abraham ben Judah ibn Hayyim. A single 15th-century copy exists in the Palatine Library of Parma, Italy. Throughout the ages, Jewish manuscripts were burned by the cartload; but some 40,000 survive in libraries around the world. Wolff had a rare chance to work on one last year, the 700-year-old Prato Haggadah, which is now owned by the Jewish Theological Seminary.

During a three-year conservation project in which the volume was dismantled and its pages repaired, Wolff was invited to paint two unfinished folios, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “To have a situation where they’ve just been unbound could happen again maybe a hundred years from now,” she said. Using medieval artists’ recipes and the results of a spectrographic analysis by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wolff re-created the original pigments, glues and inks. The ground azurite and lapis lazuli, oak gall, white lead, pomegranate skin and vermilion, as well as facsimiles of the Prato pages, are displayed in her current exhibit.

Across the hallway, Wolff’s 18 illuminations sparkle. The exhibit, which centers on the seven biblical species symbolizing Israel’s fertility, includes purple olives on a field of woven gold and a trio of golden pomegranates inspired by a silver shekel struck before the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. One particularly stunning miniature, based on a verse from the Song of Songs, pictures an “enclosed garden” of fragrant species — including spikenard, henna, cane, aloe and saffron — on a field of gold. In another painting, a creased golden etrog (citron) on a ground of delicate blue is suspended within an ethereal sukkah of myrtle, willow and date palm fronds.

Wolff has close ties to Israel through her husband, Rudi, whose family fled Germany in 1938. Half the family came to the United States; the other half went to Israel. When Wolff was researching pigments for the Prato pages, she asked Rudi’s brother Moshe, a farmer in the Galilee, for help in locating a plant called turnsole; he found it growing wild in his orchard. Following Wolff’s instructions, Moshe harvested the ripe berries and then soaked small pieces of cloth in their juice. The “clothlets,” dipped in egg white, produced purples for the Prato.

Balancing composition, color and technical perfection, Wolff’s miniatures reward close inspection. Time slows, and the viewer is plunged into an intense world of Jewish imagery. Some of the paintings include fragments of text, mostly from the Psalms, in gold. The exquisite raised letter forms, developed by renowned Hebrew calligrapher Ismar David, range from slender to full bodied. After many thin layers of gesso (a plaster mixture) are laid down to dry — which can take up to three months — the gold is painstakingly applied. It is then tooled, and polished with a small malachite burnisher.

Wolff’s tiny studio in her family’s Upper West Side apartment is filled with volumes she illustrated for the Time Life Nature Library and other publishers. There, amid reference books on art and nature, she is making studies for a new painting based on Song of Songs 2:2 (“Like a lily in a field of thistles, such is my love among the young women”). She collected thistles in Israel last winter; in spring, narcissi sprout among them. Wolff believes narcissus is the “lily” in the verse. She has gilded in silver a raised gesso thistle. But since silver tarnishes, the final version will be platinum.

In the future, Wolff plans to create paintings for private clients. But her dream is to illuminate the 104th Psalm (“How manifold are Your works, O the Lord! In wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of Your creatures”). “It’s like a miniature painting in words of the entire universe: creation, the heavens, stars, sun and moon, day and night, mountains and valleys, seas, and of all living creatures,” she said. “One big statement. That would really say it for me — all my great interests.”

Malka Percal is a New York-based writer.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.