My husband and I have just returned from a glorious week exploring Andalusia, a journey that I’ve wanted to make since I began my work in the Hebrew manuscript arts close to three decades ago. Long fascinated by the thought and creativity of the Jewish communities of Cordoba, Toledo, Granada and other towns in southern Spain, and the centuries of intellectual and artistic interchange among the Jewish, Muslim and Christian cultures of the region, I have frequently incorporated motifs from the world of the Sephardic Jews into my books and ketubot. So, it was an extraordinary joy to wander in the midst of the whirl of color, geometry and space throughout the region, albeit always conscious of being surrounded by the ghosts of the Jewish courtiers and scholars whose world was destroyed by the surrounding cultures.
Now, I’ve written about the symbolism of my paintings of Shabbat Candlelighting from Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification earlier in these posts, but given my deeper appreciation of the visual and cultural impact of certain motifs in the paintings, I’d like to share the Hebrew illumination with you again, and share some of my new impressions of its meaning.
What took me completely by surprise as I stood in the midst of the ornate, yet always elegant buildings in the locales of Jewish Spain, how the vivid spaces pervade the senses, immersing one’s entire consciousness in a sea of color and form. Fortunately, at some level I must have intuited this immersion in creating these paintings. In designing these paintings I strove to communicate the all-immersive depth of love for the Divine that we express in the blessing, incorporating a bit of astrophysics (which, for once, I will not discuss here) and several motifs from Moorish art.
Look for a moment at the geometric motif surrounding both paintings. The pattern I used here is one of many variants on similar themes. The photo above shows a closely related tiled pattern that I found in a building that, prior to the 1492 Expulsion, had been a grand Jewish house in Cordoba. This pattern is part of a family of similar designs that in Muslim theology—just as in Jewish belief—expresses the notion that all form expands from and contracts back to, the one God; I incorporated this design into my Candlelighting illuminations as its visual expression. The sensory immersion in this pattern as one stands inside this once Jewish building is as immersive as the faith in one God as one recites the blessing over Shabbat candles.
Let’s look now at the stylized candle flames above, filled in with a pattern of gold arabesques over a ground of celestial light-blue, reminiscent of the biblical t’chailet color; I placed some small area of this motif in every illuminated painting in the Kabbalat Shabbat book to allude to the shefa, the divine energy suffusing Creation.
Now, this arabesque pattern is ubiquitous in art of the Muslim world; I drew this specific variant from a Turkish source, yet I was moved to find related designs throughout the Alhambra, the grand fortress-palace, “paradise on earth” begun in the tenth century, where the eleventh century Jewish courtier scholar and poet, Shmuel haNagid, was Grand Vizier. Indeed, a similar pattern decorates the walls of the same chamber in the Jewish house mentioned above.
Today, the Spanish government has placed little brass plaques bearing the Hebrew legend “Sepharad Zakhor,” (Remember Sepharad) throughout the once-Jewish neighborhoods of Andalusian towns, yet the Jewish visitor is surrounded by ghosts. But the visual art and poetry of the once-vibrant communities of Sepharad still lives, not only in modern Sephardic communities, but in the hearts of all of us who enjoy their art today. And just now, a motif from one of the synagogues in Toledo—one that I’d never seen in books—is finding its way into the ketubah I’m creating for a thoroughly Ashkenazi niece and her fiancé, to enhance their new Jewish home, to inspire a new Jewish marriage.
If you would like to see more of the way I integrate the arts of the Jewish past—both visual and poetic—in my work, please do see my new illuminated book of the entire Kabbalat Shabbat traditions, Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification, available at your favorite book-source.