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.