Friday, November 20, 2009

Portrait of Maimonides, Pt. II

Read Part I.

From When Jews Wore Turbans by Eliezer Segal:
Perhaps the most familiar turban in Jewish tradition topped the head of Rabbi Moses Maimonides, the noted 12th-century rabbi and philosopher. The same traditional portrait of Maimonides' stern, bearded visage has been appearing on the title pages of his works since the beginnings of Jewish printing.

In spite of the portrait's widespread acceptance, it has always seemed to me somewhat suspicious. It did not appear until many centuries after the Egyptian sage's lifetime, and it is doubtful that such a picture would have been commissioned by Maimonides himself, who shared his society's rigid disapproval of representational art.

My suspicions seemed to be confirmed a few years back when I visited Jerusalem's L. A. Meyer Museum of Islamic Culture. There among the many fascinating artifacts was sitting a copy of the familiar portrait of Maimonides--except that according to the caption on the exhibit, it was a 16th century Turkish merchant!

It would seem that the early Hebrew printers in Venice or Constantinople, eager to supply their readers with a tangible likeness of the Egyptian Jewish scholar, had simply pulled out an available piece of "clip art" that conveyed a rough image, of what he might have looked like. That picture has defined our conception of Maimonides ever since.
Personally, I'd love to see that woodcut, because I'm not so sure if what he reports is accurate, since the first and last paragraph seems to contain a big error. There's been a turbaned image of the Rambam since the beginning of Jewish printing? Where? (If anyone in Israel could visit the museum and send me a photo of the picture Segal mentions, I would be very grateful!) In fact, so far the source of the portrait captioned Maimonides is the 34 volume encyclopedia Thesaurus Antiquitatum Sacrarum (1744), a monumental work which contained Latin translations of numerous Hebrew works, including a large portion of the Talmud Yerushalmi. It contained the following image:

Thus, I really can't say why Segal writes that Hebrew printers in Venice or Constantinople used that image, or one like it. Since lots of old books, Hebrew and otherwise, have been pored over for centuries and no one has yet produced a Hebrew book from Venice or Constantinople with a turbaned Maimonides portrait, we must dismiss it (although the Thesaurus was printed at Venice). Of course it is unclear how this portrait came about. Obviously someone drew it and someone, perhaps the same person, captioned it "Moses filius Maimon . . . ex antiqua tabula," as it appeared in the Thesaurus. In addition, the picture looks like it was really a medallion. It would be nice to know where it came from, but I digress.

In 1847 Abraham Benisch (1811-1878), editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Two Lectures on the Life and Writings of Maimonides, which he had delivered at the "Jews' and General Literary and Scientific Institution."

The beginning of the book was adorned with the following:

What had happened was, the Italian scholar Isaaco Samuele Reggio (known as Yashar) had discovered the portrait on page 344 of the first volume of the Thesaurus. (In a way it's funny to think of someone discovering something in a book, but he was the first to call attention to it.) Writing about it in a letter he sent in 1844 to the Hungarian Jewish book dealer and scholar Zalman Gottleib Stern, Reggio also included a sketch of the image from the Thesaurus (Reggio was artistic and enjoyed painting). Stern in turn published it as a single sheet, both letter and image. Unfortunately I don't have a good image of that sheet to show, but someone was decent enough to scan it and upload a small one to the Daat web site. Here is what it looked like:

Benisch had received one of the copies -- not from Stern -- and he in turn commissioned a well known English portrait painter, Julia Goodman, to draw the image which I reproduced above.

On pg. 18 Benisch notes that "Nothing authentic has been recorded as to [Maimonides'] exterior or physical constitution." This is in contrast, by the way, with the Rambam's son, for whom a physical description of some kind does exist, if I am not mistaken. Benisch's footnote reads:

As you can see, he basically says that there's no reason to doubt Ugolini's caption in 1744 that the image or medallion was old (i.e., not invented then). Still, that really tells us nothing.

How did Benisch get hold of Stern's sheet? One would have assumed that Stern sent it to him, but someone claims otherwise. Moses Margoliouth, writing to a "Rev. J. Horlock", the letter printed in "A Pilgrimage to the Land of My Fathers" (1850) devoted almost four pages to explaining how it was he who had obtained Zalman Stern's page from a friend, and he had used the image on a prospectus he had published for a "Philo-Hebraic Society" which he had tried to form. Benisch saw the prospectus, and even inquired of Margoliouth as to its authenticity, and from him had learned the whole story (Ugolino, Reggio, Stern). Then, Benisch asked him for a copy of the Reggio sheet, and had Julia Goodman draw it anew. He then appended it and referred to it in his published lectures, not forgetting to lavishly thank Julia Goodman--

--but for all this, he did not acknowledge it or thank him, and Margoliouth was quite upset about it, assuming that it was just another example of the lousy treatment he received from Jews like Benisch, because he was a Jewish Christian (and missionary to the Jews, he forgot to mention). As you can see, he was so annoyed he even took a swipe at Goodman's artistic ability!

Interestingly, he also says that in France he saw several images which looked similar, which were claimed to be Maimonides, and heirlooms.

Here's a copy of Margoliouth's prospectus for the Philo-Hebraic Society, however it doesn't include the Rambam image:

Moses Margoliouth was born in 1819 in Suwalki (the same Lithuanian town that R. Dovid Lifschitz was the rav of, incidentally, more than a century later) and moved to England when he was 19. A year later he had converted to Christianity and went on to become a fairly prominent Anglican minister.

Here's a portrait of Moses Margoliouth -- an authentic one:

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