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Portrait of the Artist as Rain(bow) Maker: Joseph ben Meir Schmalkalden

(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic Specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Among the rollcall of Jewish artists across the centuries, the name Joseph ben Meir Schmalkalden rarely if ever appears. Until now his work has largely been known through two miniature Hebrew prayer books — one in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem; the other in the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana in Amsterdam — neither, perhaps, especially noteworthy. But now, thanks to a new acquisition here in the Library of Congress, our long-neglected artist may soon enjoy the attention he so richly deserves. Like his other two manuscripts, this new acquisition is a miniature Hebrew prayer book of a kind known as the “Order of Prayers before Retiring at Night,” but this manuscript, which was created in Mainz, Germany sometime around 1745, reveals an artist who was clearly working at the height of his powers.

Joseph ben Meir Schmalkalden flourished during a period in which Hebrew manuscript illumination was enjoying a considerable renaissance in Central Europe, with wealthy Jewish families eagerly acquiring these beautifully decorated prayer books for use in home and synagogue (See Additional Readings: Schrijver). Because the artists who created these luxurious Hebrew manuscripts worked from an established iconography and in a style which became synonymous with the genre as a whole, it comes as no surprise to find a strong affinity between all three of Schmalkalden’s known manuscripts. And yet, the Library’s newly acquired manuscript is outstanding in every way. To appreciate the artist’s powers, let us look, for example, at the image below, one of three full-page miniatures in the manuscript. Here we see King David playing his harp in the late watches of the night, as rabbinic legend tells us he was wont to do. The royal chamber is depicted in exquisite detail, and an entire psalm (Psalm 134) is written there on the open page of David’s miniature prayer book:

King David playing the harp. “Order of Prayers before Retiring at Night.” Mainz, [1745]. Fol. 10v- 11r.

Like many prayer books of this genre, the manuscript also contains blessings of various kinds. Eighteen of the manuscript’s 24 leaves have been decorated with brightly colored images ranging from floriated initial words to full-page panels, some highlighted with gold and silver. One of the most striking miniatures accompanies the blessing over “the fruit of the tree.” Here a lady in very fashionable décolleté sits under a heavily-laden fruit tree, culling her fruit in the kind of manicured garden that was so popular in Baroque Europe:

Miniature from the manuscript “Order of Prayers before Retiring at Night.” Mainz, [1745]. Fol. 19v-20r.

Another lovely miniature accompanies the recitation of the blessing over the Sabbath lights, here represented by an overhead oil lamp of a type common in 18th-century Central Europe:

Miniature from the manuscript “Order of Prayers before Retiring at Night.” Mainz, [1745]. Fol. 23v.

Unlike most Hebrew manuscripts from this period, we do not learn the name of the artist and scribe from the title page but from another (and most unexpected) place altogether:

“Order of Prayers before Retiring at Night,” Mainz, [1745]. Fol. 20v-21r.

The miniature on this page illustrates the blessing one recites upon seeing a rainbow: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, King of the Universe, who remembers the covenant, is faithful to His covenant and keeps His promise.” The “covenant,” of course, refers to the story of the Flood in the Book of Genesis, at the end of which God promises never to destroy the earth again and creates the rainbow in token of his promise (Genesis 9:13). The lady in the darling straw hat holds an open book in which the entire blessing is written, and then just underneath it, in the tiniest letters imaginable, the artist has signed his name as well as the place in which he created the manuscript: Mainz.

Detail showing the artist’s signature in bottom left-hand corner (fol. 21r).

Why, one wonders, did Schmalkalden sign his name here? What made the page with the rainbow so appealing to him? Obviously, we have no definite answer to this question, but we can suggest at least one interesting possibility.

By the middle of the 18th century, the rainbow had been the subject of intense interest for at least two thousand years, with artists, thinkers, and theologians all using it as a touchstone for their own ideas about art and the inimitability of God. It was a conversation that apparently started with Aristotle, who noted in Book III of his “Meteorology” the inability of painters to capture the colors of the rainbow:

These are almost the only colours which painters cannot manufacture: for there are colours which they create by mixing, but no mixing will give red, green, or purple. These are the colours of the rainbow, though between the red and the green an orange colour is often seen.

This was an axiom due to be repeated many times over the centuries in one variation or another. In 13th-century Paris, Bartholomy Anglicus stated categorically that “no peyntour may peynte the raynebowe” (Book 11, p. 581), and back in merrie olde England, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, and John Pecham were all intent on similar discussions. Interest in “rainbow-theory,” as it was called, peaked in the studies of Isaac Newton, whose circular diagram of colors became the model for many color systems over the next two centuries, beginning with Claude Boutet’s painter’s circle in 1708. And closer to Schmalkalden’s own day and age, Swiss naturalist Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672–1733) helped keep the fires of “rainbow-theory” burning through his well-known “Physica Sacra,” published in 1731-35.

Against this background, it seems that by signing his name where he did, on the page with the rainbow, our artist was dipping his paintbrush into the age-old debate, whether consciously or not, and in a playful act of ars poetica showing his own creative powers and what he, the artist, could achieve through his art. While we cannot, of course prove this theory, our reading of Schmalkalden’s signature does find interesting parallels in the world of European art. As art historian Louisa C. Matthew reminds us, “[t]he placing of a signature on a painting is a conscious act by the painter that establishes his or her presence” (See Additional Readings: Art Bulletin, p. 630). Recent studies have pointed to other significantly laden signatures in works of art from the Renaissance and Baroque. Michelangelo , for example, signed his Pietà along the breast of the Virgin Mary, a “conspicuous assertion,” according to scholar Rona Geffen, “of authorial pride signaling professional self-awareness” (Artibus et Historiae 24, no. 48, p. 126). Some of the Venetian masters, such as Bellini and Carpaccio, at times used the placement of their signatures in order to declare their piety and also “as trompe l’oeil devices . . . to impress the viewer with the painter’s skill in more varied and assertive ways.” Surely this last remark might serve for Schmalkalden as well, for even if we ignore the “rainbow theory” hypothesis, the artist was still using his signature to show off his talents as a Hebrew artist and scribe.

On the subject of Schmalkalden’s personal life we know very little. The name Schmalkalden itself comes from a small town in eastern Germany. One imagines that the artist’s family lived there at some point in history, for in between pogroms and expulsions Schmalkalden harbored a tiny Jewish community from the year 1298 on. But by 1745, when Joseph created this manuscript, Schmalkalden had become the family name rather than its place of residence. It seems he lived for a time in Mainz, and perhaps in Amsterdam, too. But for at least the last 25 years of his life, Schmalkalden lived in the very north of Germany, in Hamburg. Thanks to a slim German book published in Hamburg in 1904, we also know that he was eventually buried in the Jewish cemetery in nearby Altona, then under the Danish crown (“Hamburgs deutsche Juden” p. 296, #3912).

Copperplate engraving by Schmalkalden on title page of a printed book. Amsterdam: Leib Moses Zussmans, 1759. Schmalkalden’s name is engraved on the base of the right-hand pillar.

It also turns out that Schmalkalden was related by marriage to Moses Mendelssohn, famous champion of the Jewish Enlightenment. There is a whole cache of letters written by Mendelssohn to Joseph ben Meir Schmalkalden over a period of 24 years dating from 1762-86, two years before the latter died (Vol. 20, 2: “Briefwechsel 1761-1785”). From these letters we learn that in Hamburg our wonderful artist turned to business, so that we hear of him dealing in a case of silk stockings here, or in a shipment of tobacco or lemons there (e.g., letters #96; #103). But he does not appear to have prospered in any of these business activities, and an attempt to find a wife does not seem to have been crowned with success. Joseph ben Meir apparently went childless to his grave, for in the prayer book now housed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, he uses the Hebrew formula for a writer who has no progeny apart from his writings.

All in all, one gets the sense of an artist who was first-rate in talent, but unable to do more than cope in the workaday world or to find the commissions he needed to support his art. He did engrave the title page for a book printed in Amsterdam, in 1759, and though it’s a beauty, it is the only one we’ve been able to find thus far.

It would seem, therefore, that Joseph ben Meir Schmalkalden was not very good at the business side of things; not very good at making money, not very good at finding commissions. Not much of a “rainmaker,” as we might put it today. But “rain-maker” or not — he could make one very fine rainbow.

Additional Readings:

Emile G.L. Schrijver and Anna E.C. Simoni, “‘Be-ôtiyyôt Amsterdam’ Eighteenth-century Hebrew manuscript production in Central Europe: the case of Jacob ben Judah Leib Shamas.” Quarrendo. v. 20, issue 1 (Jan. 1990), pp. 24-62.

Louisa C. Matthew, “The Painter’s Presence: Signatures in Venetian Renaissance Pictures.” The Art Bulletin, Volume 80, no. 4 (December 1988), 616-648. Here p. 630.

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