The Prato Haggadah

The Prato Haggadah (Spain), c. 1300 with later additions, 85 leaves, tempera, gold, and ink on parchment, 21 x 14.9 cm (The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary)

Additional resources

This work at The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Silvia Centeno and Nellie Stavisky, ” The Prato Haggadah: an Investigation into the Materials and Techniques of a Hebrew Manuscript from Spain in Relation to Medieval Treatises,” in Craft Treatises and Handbooks: The Dissemination of Technical Knowledge in the Middle Ages, edited by Ricardo Córdoba (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013), pp. 161–84. edited by

Naomi Steinberger, ed. The Prato Haggadah: Companion Volume to the Facsimile Edition (Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, 2007).

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in the Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at a rare manuscript. This is the Prato Haggadah. It dates to about 1300, and what’s especially fascinating about it is that it was never finished, and that gives us a lens onto the process of medieval bookmaking.

Dr. Ariel Fein: [0:26] This is a Haggadah, which is used on the Jewish holiday of Passover. Every year, Jews around the world commemorate the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, their journey from slavery to freedom, at a ritual meal called a seder.

Dr. Zucker: [0:44] At that meal, this book is used to guide the family through the story and through the blessings.

Dr. Fein: [0:50] Illuminated Haggadot began to be produced in the 14th century.

Dr. Zucker: [0:55] This particular version is among the highest quality. The artist who laid down the initial lines that would eventually be painted and gilded had extraordinary skill.

Dr. Fein: [1:05] If we flip through the pages of this manuscript, we see pages at varying levels of completion. The folio that we’re looking at only has a preparatory drawing, so this is the very first stage. Others are nearly complete, while others are somewhere in between.

Dr. Zucker: [1:25] We’re so lucky that today the curators have opened this book to one of the last pages, which depicts the flood of Noah, but here there is no gilding, there is no color that has been added. What we see only is the ink of the original artist.

[1:41] The book itself is quite small, and then the drawing is even smaller. We see a double-ruled frame and then a double scene. At the top, we see the ark of Noah, but it doesn’t look like a boat.

Dr. Fein: [1:54] This ark actually looks like medieval caskets. We see the lock, we see the individual panels of this casket, and the nails. This kind of casket would have been used to hold jewelry or other precious objects.

Dr. Zucker: [2:12] Here, it doesn’t hold gold and gems, it holds the pairs of animals as well as Noah and his family. Each neatly compartmentalized.

Dr. Fein: [2:21] That order is in contrast to the chaos below. We see the buildings that have been toppled over by the deluge, by the flood.

Dr. Zucker: [2:31] We see towers that have been toppled, and all of this is under the waves. Then there’s one more element in the upper left corner.

Dr. Fein: [2:39] We see the dove that has returned to the ark with an olive branch, alerting Noah that the flood is over. God’s promise to Noah to begin anew.

Dr. Zucker: [2:52] There’s a second bird, just to the left of the dove. This is the raven that Noah had sent out first, but a bird that did not return to the ark, and is seen here, still eating its prey.

Dr. Fein: [3:03] Unfortunately, we don’t know anything about the history of this manuscript prior to the early 20th century. This Haggadah does not have a colophon or a signature page, so we don’t know the name of the scribe or the patron.

[3:19] It is very similar to other Haggadot produced around the early 14th century in Spain. Produced for the Sephardic Jewish communities, it was customary to include images from the Bible. These stories from the creation to the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt would have served as a preface for the story to come in the Haggadah.

Dr. Zucker: [3:44] We’re looking at a very precious object, one that was not only costly in terms of its materials but extremely labor intensive. It would have taken a number of calves in order to produce this.

Dr. Fein: [3:56] In a Hebrew manuscript, the scribe would have been responsible for laying out the text and the images, because they would have been familiar with the Hebrew text itself.

Dr. Zucker: [4:09] There’s an opportunity then to create a relationship between what is being depicted and what is actually being stated in the text. Because this manuscript is not complete, it is actually a revelation to us in the modern era.

Dr. Fein: [4:21] It was clearly deemed to be precious enough to be preserved, and we are so fortunate that it was.

[4:29] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Ariel Fein and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The Prato Haggadah," in Smarthistory, December 8, 2022, accessed May 19, 2024,