Bard News & Events

Press Release


Emily Darrow

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y.--Marc Michael Epstein, associate professor of religion and teacher in the Jewish Studies Program at Vassar College, will speak on the topic of "Birds Head Revisited: The 'Birds Head Haggadah' and Jewish Identity" on Wednesday, April 10, at Bard College. The lecture--presented by the Jewish and Medieval Studies, Art History, and Religion programs, as well as the Chaplaincy at Bard College--is free and open to the public and will begin at 6:00 p.m. in Room 115 of the Olin Language Center.

The so-called Birds Head Haggadah, presumably illuminated in Mainz, Germany, around 1300 and now in the collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, possesses all the classic qualities of a perpetual enigma, according to Epstein. Within the field of Jewish art, it is, in its own unassuming way, as mysterious as the Pyramids of Giza, the monoliths of Easter Island, or the Mona Lisa's smile.

Throughout the manuscript's 47 remaining folios, illustrations depict a variety of figures portraying the narratives of the Exodus and engaged in religious observances of Passover eve. Most of these figures are represented not with human heads, though, but with the countenances of birds, sometimes supplemented with animal ears or with human accoutrements of hair, beards, and a variety of headgear. To the 20th-century eye, this juxtaposition of human bodies with birds' heads is quirky, disquieting, and impenetrable.

Epstein will raise some as-yet-unasked questions about the iconography of this enigmatic and important manuscript in an attempt to tackle some of its mysteries. He will offer a new analysis of the birds' heads against the backdrop of previous interpretations and in the context of a reappraisal of the iconography. Epstein will present his approach to the manuscript as a model of the kind of inquiry that is still, he believes, a desideratum in the field of Jewish art.

A graduate of Oberlin College, Marc Michael Epstein received a Ph.D. at Yale University, having done much of his graduate research at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His work marshals the methodologies of art history and classical Jewish textual study as well as those of cultural studies and the histoire des mentalit├ęs. He is the author of numerous articles on topics in Jewish art, as well as the books Dreams and Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature; The Jerusalem Haggadah: Gateway to the Haggadah; and "If Lions Could Carve Stones . . .": The Medieval Jewish Minority and the Allegorization of the Animal Kingdom: A Textual and Iconographic Study. His new book, Overthrowing the Idols: A Radical Reappraisal of Jewish Visual Culture, deals with topics ranging from rabbinic aesthetics to post-Hassidic kitsch and is forthcoming from the University of California Press. During the 1980s, Epstein was director of the Hebrew Books and Manuscripts division at Sotheby's Judaica department, and continues to serve as a consultant to libraries, auction houses, museums, and private collectors throughout the world, among them the Herbert C. and Eileen Bernard Museum at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, for which he curated the inaugural exhibition.

For further information about the lecture, call Rona Sheramy, assistant professor and director of Jewish Studies at Bard, at 845-758-7090 or e-mail

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This event was last updated on 03-19-2002