leanor Foa Dienstag

Hebrew Illumination For Our Time: The Art of Barbara Wolff

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You Renew the Face of the Earth from Psalm 104.

The Morgan Library and Museum, well known for its collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, just opened an exhibition, Hebrew Illumination for Our Time, that enhances and extends its holdings in the rarified area of hand crafted illuminated manuscripts.

The exhibition focuses on two complete works recently created by New York artist Barbara Wolff: a Passover Haggadah for the 21st Century (now known as the Rose Haggadah), and an illustrated version of Psalm 104. Wolff uses the techniques and materials of medieval manuscript illumination to fashion contemporary pieces. Both works were created for art patron Joanna S. Rose and, ultimately, donated by her to the Morgan.

If, like me, you know nothing about the techniques of manuscript illumination, the best place to begin your visit is by watching the video, produced by the artist, on the techniques and materials she uses. It begins with the purchase of the right parchment (goatskin? or calf?), the hiring of a Hebrew calligrapher, then moves on to the slow, thoughtful, almost meditative process of conceiving and drawing each illustration, as well as the weeks-long process of creating gesso, and applying it as a base to each letter before layering gold leaf on top. Finally, there is the application of gold paint, which often serves as background for her gilded letters and illustrations.

Below, are scenes from the video, set up in a corner of the exhibition space on the second floor.

Morgan2Applying Gesso

Morgan3Wolff Handling Gold Leaf

Morgan4Calligrapher at Work

Morgan5Applying Gold Leaf to Hebrew Letters

Morgan 6Page with Gold Leaf Letters and Shell Gold

Morgan7Working on an illustration for the Haggadah

Morgan8Finished Flower Illustration

Morgan9Page and Illustration from the Rose Haggadah

Morgan11Page and Illustration from the Rose Haggadah

Morgan11aPage and Illustration from the Rose Haggadah

Wolff, a world famous botanical and natural science illustrator, spent years on these two manuscripts which incorporate an incredible array of flowers and animals as well as imagery drawn from archeology and traditional religious works. As one watches the brilliant and beautiful images that emerge from this laborious and precise process, one’s admiration for and appreciation of the artist grows.

Below is an example of how Wolff adapted a medieval image of “Starry Twins,” which she first saw and admired in the Morgan Collection, and incorporated it into one of her modern illustrations.

Morgan12Medieval Book of Hours with “Starry Twins” from the Morgan Collection

Morgan13Wolff’s incorporation of “Starry Twins” in her illustration, Bless The Lord, O My Soul, from Renew The Face of the Earth: Psalm 104

Because neither of the two “books” are bound, all ten leaves from Psalm 104 and all seventeen bi-folios from the Rose Haggadah are on view.

Morgan14Page and Illustration from the Rose Haggadah

Morgan15Close Up of Illustration

Morgan16Wolff’s How Manifold Are Thy Works: Psalm 104

For those fascinated by the exhibition and the process of illuminated manuscript creation, there will be a number of public talks and family programs in February, March and April.

You don’t have to be Jewish or religious to fall in love with the exquisite artistry of Barbara Wolff. It’s an amazing show.

Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag

Hebrew Illumination For Our Time: The Art of Barbara Wolff
February 6 – May 3, 2015
The Morgan Library and Museum
225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street
Tuesday – Thursday, 10:30 to 5 p.m.
Friday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Saturday 10 a.m.to 6 p.m.
Sunday 11 a.m.to 6 PM
Closed Mondays


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