Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Is this Abarbanel?

Probably not, but it is an interesting and somewhat tantalizing idea.

In 1882 a magnificent 400-year old series of painted panels were (re)discovered in a Lisbon church. Painted between 1471 and 1482, by Nuno Gonçalves, these Boards or Panels of Saint Vincent depict various ecclesiastical and court personalities in 15th century Portugal. I will leave the symbolism and interpretations to the art historians. But of interest is a figure who appears on the sixth panel. Wearing a six pointed red star, he must be a Jew, as Jews were required then to wear such a symbol on their clothing, holding open a Bible with some indeterminate characters.

Although I do not think this is the mainstream opinion, some scholars argued that this man must be/ could only be/ hopefully was, none other than Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel. Others are less certain, and will only agree that he must be a rabbi, or certainly a Jew.

In 1968 Charles Sterling and Jean Rosenwald wrote an article on 'The Panels of Saint Vincent and their Enigmas' (French) in  L'Œil (1968), n° 159. Taking the position that it is Abarbanel, they made the following arguments.

First, he is beardless. Other depictions of Portuguese rabbis showed them with beards. Abarbanel was not a rabbi, at least nor professionally, and at least not then. He was, rather, a figure of the Portuguese royal court. Secondly, and more dubiously, the Bible that he is holding is opened roughly two thirds which is where the Prophets are located. Furthermore, some say that the Bible which Saint Vincent holds, elsewhere in the panel, is opened to John 14:30-31. I haven't seen a clear enough image to know if this is so. In Christian exegesis, these verses in John find its parallel in Isaiah 66:18-19. It is clear that actual Hebrew is not written in the Bible the Jewish man is holding, so historians basically have to guess based on the shape of the fake letters and the fact that it is a Jew holding it, that it is a Hebrew Bible. Some argue, however, that it is a Latin Bible, in Gothic characters. Again, not having seen a clear high resolution image I wonder if the Saint Vincent Bible is actually in clear characters and if the identification of the passage as John 14 is accurate or a guess.

Abarbanel is identified with his biblical commentaries (which, I might add, were authored years and even decades in some case after these panels were painted) and as a theologian. Thirdly, they note that as a Jew of high standing Abarbanel was specifically exempted by the king from wearing the six-pointed red star. If so, what to do about the fact that this man wears the star? They claimed that examination of the panels indicate that the red star was added later and this can be seen by the way it does not naturally flow with the material of the cloak. I might say that if this is so then we might have to be at least cautious that this man is Jewish altogether. Another thing I think has to at least be pointed out is that Abarbanel was born in 1437. Now, the precise date of the panels is unknown. Some sources indicate between 1471 and 1482, as I wrote at the beginning. Wikipedia paskens the 1460s, or at least between 1450 and 1471. Goncalves' page would seem to indicate that as late as 1490 was a possibility (see here). Nevertheless, Abarbanel fled to Castile in 1483, so if the famous Jewish court figure Abarbanel is truly being depicted, we ought to assume that it was prior to 1483.

Now I ask you: if we assume 1470s, is this the face of a man born some 35 years earlier or less? I doubt it.

See here and here for some excerpts from the article by Sterling and Rosenwald.

Here is the panel, followed by a detail:


  1. Here's one: The six-pointed star was not widely used as a Jewish symbol until much later- certainly not in Sephardic countries.

  2. It isn't a magen david. It is the 6 pointed red star which Jews were compelled to wear on their clothing in Portugal. This is an authentic detail. If it is original to the panel, then it is undoubtedly a Jew. If it was added later then either the man was turned into a Jew by whomever added it, or if it is indeed Abarbanel, or another court Jew who was legallly exempted from wearing it, then it could still be a Jew.

  3. After such a long break this is what you come back to us with!?


    Joking ;)....

  4. I'll be the frumak... the payos are cut way to high.

  5. Whether it is or isn't, I like his hat. He also looks tired.
    looks a bit like Sweetums. Dan Klein, what do you think?


  6. Sweetums is better looking. In any case, the standard portrait of Don Isaac shows him with an immense white beard: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Isaac_Abrabanel.jpg
    Of course I have no idea as to the authenticity or provenance of this portrait, but it bears no resemblence at all to the dude in the St. Vincent panels.

  7. Maybe it's just me but I don't see any six-pointed star on his hat at all.

    The classic image passed around as the Abarbanel is the one here http://www.iliesi.cnr.it/perl/pagina_xhtml.pl?scelta=19&autore=Abravanel,%20Isaac%20ben%20Judah (@ the end of the page you'll see "imaggini"/images) this picture is the one printed on his seforim and the most commonly used.

    A bit more substancial evidence is from the general depictions of Abarbanel wherein they in no way resemble the man above http://no666.wordpress.com/2006/02/04/%D7%A9%D7%A8-%D7%90%D7%95%D7%A6%D7%A8-%D7%99%D7%94%D7%95%D7%93%D7%99-%D7%91%D7%A1%D7%A4%D7%A8%D7%93/

  8. Not his hat - on the garment itself. Look closely. It is a red "star" on his chest, just above the Bible(we would think of it more like an asterisk shape).

    In any case, as far as I know there is no physical description of him. I must stress that I think it is most likely not meant to be him in the Saint Vincent Panels, or to put it another way, there is nothing convincing other than pure desire and fantasy to suggest that it is him. However, I do agree that we have little reason to assume he wore a beard, certainly not then.

  9. Abarbanel is identified with his biblical commentaries (which, I might add, were authored years and even decades in some case after these panels were painted) and as a theologian:

    In fact he wrote the majority of his Periush Al Neviim Rishonim( Yehishua Shoftin and Shmuel ) in 1483 just after fleeing to Spain



Related Posts with Thumbnails