Books / The Arts / Sparks of Inspiration

Illuminated Jewish Manuscripts: Images to Feed the Soul

Illustration©2009 Ilene Winn-Lederer from: Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009)

Illustration©2009 Ilene Winn-Lederer from: Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) Used by permission of the artist.

The images in illuminated Jewish manuscripts are like the embroidery and applique designs on hand-sewn Judaica; they decorate and inspire. And they feed the creative Jewish soul.

Illuminated manuscripts are books that are decorated with images. The earliest examples we have are from the Middle Ages, when books were written by hand. These early illuminated texts were one-of-a-kind pieces commissioned from Hebrew calligraphers and artists. They were books created primarily for personal use –prayer books, collections of psalms, Talmudic texts, and Passover Hagaddahs. And they tended to reflect the artistic trends of the time and place in which they were created.

Between Heaven and Earth by Ilene Winn-LedererLuckily for us, the art of Jewish manuscript illumination continues today. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been trading emails with modern-day Jewish illustrator Ilene Winn-Lederer. She has produced two illuminated Jewish manuscripts: Between Heaven and Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary and An Illumination of Blessings.

Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated ManuscriptsA number of illustrations from Ilene’s books appear in Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts, a survey of historical Jewish illustrated manuscripts from the Middle Ages to today, edited by Marc Michael Epstein, that was released earlier this year.

What I love about Ilene’s work is that even though the illustrations are modern, they capture a sense of folklore. You can see the brush strokes and the pencil strokes. Even familiar Jewish symbols, like the pomegranate and the fish in the top image, suggest something mythological –just look at that fish’s face. The Hebrew letters dance on the page the way I imagine ancient writers of Jewish mysticism saw them in their meditations.

In addition to these books, Ilene has created illustrations for Hadassah and Lilith Magazine.

Stitchburgh by Ilene Winn-Lederer As it happens, one of her first books was about sewing, a children’s book titled Stitchburgh, which she says is her “tribute to the arts of needlepoint and quilting.”

Does she sew? She says no, but she has darned socks for her husband and children, and I say that counts. In fact, since that’s one skill I’ve sometimes wished I knew, I’d say that’s another important art that Ilene is helping to preserve.

“My mother (z”l),” she writes, “was a great one for crochet and embroidery, leaving us a nice legacy of her work.”

We should all leave such a legacy as Ilene and her mom.

Thank you, Ilene, for sharing the illustration at the top of the post with Sew Jewish readers. It appears in Between Heaven and Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary and Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts. Find more images to inspire you on Ilene’s website.

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