Marc Michael Epstein

MArc Michael EpsetinMarc Michael Epstein, Professor of Religion on the Mattie M. Paschall (1899) & Norman Davis Chair of Religion and Visual Culture at Vassar College was Vassar’s  first Director of Jewish Studies. He is a graduate of  Oberlin College, received the PhD at Yale University, and did much of  his  graduate research at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has written on various topics in visual and material culture produced by, for, and about Jews.  His most recent book, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination (Yale, 2011) was selected by the London Times Literary Supplement as one of the best books of the year. During  the 80s, Epstein was  Director of the Hebrew Books and Manuscripts division  of Sotheby’s Judaica department, and continues to serve as consultant to various  libraries, auction houses, museums and private collectors throughout the world.

Session 1: How Jews Made Art in spite of the Second Commandment—And Why It Matters

What is “Jewish art”? Is it just a pretty ornament for the more important aspects of culture and history? A footnote? An afterthought? Why is it important? We will explore the parameters of image-making within Jewish law, interrogate the difference between Jewish “art,” “visual culture” and “material culture, and take us on a whirlwind tour of the Jewish relationship with the visual, asking the question “what can we say about Jewish art that is different than what is usually said about it?” We will learn how Jewish art, rather than encapsulating a particular aesthetic alone, can reveal the often hidden and occasionally subversive sentiments of its patrons and audiences throughout history. 

Session 2: Messages of Protest and Dreams of Subversion: Political Dimensions of Art Made For Jews

Apparently “innocent” images can teach us a great deal about the most crucial issues facing Jews in both medieval and modern times— their self-image, their relations with their neighbors and their relationship with God. We will explore a particular—and rather unexpected—symbol that was developed by the patrons and artists of the medieval haggadah as an example of Jewish creativity, ingenuity, and political savvy.

Session 3: Trials and Triumphs:  Jewish Women in Medieval Spain and the Mystery of the Golden Haggadah

The so-called Golden Haggadah, illuminated in Catalunia (possibly Barcelona) between 1320 and 1330 is often described as being among the most beautiful manuscripts created for Jews in the Middle Ages. It contains some stunning, yet mysterious images and its patron is unknown. Reading and interpreting those images against their historical and textual backgrounds, Professor Marc Michael Epstein of Vassar College presents startling new speculations regarding its original patrons and the times in which they lived—the vibrant world of high medieval Sephardic culture.