Codex Choumach (Picture Pentateuch of Moses dal Castellazzo)

Codex 1164 - Żydowski Instytut Historyczny (Warsaw, Poland)

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Extent / Format

246 pages / 24.1 x 19.5 cm

16th century
Artist / School

Moses dal Castellazzo


123 full-page coloured pen-drawings

Short description

The Pentateuch, the biblical Hebrew text containing the first five books of the Old Testament, is a cornerstne of the Jewish faith. The Picture Pentateuch of Moses dal Castellazzo is a picture Bible featuring gorgeous woodcuts by the great Moses dal Castellazzo. This 16th century printed book is unique for several reasons, foremost due to its unique image plan, whereby biblical scenes are represented by a series of woodcuts, wherein the character depicted is shown in sequence at several stages of the narrative. Additionally, marginal notes in a 16th century Venetian dialect suggest that this particular specimen was the possesion of a Christian bibliophile, and rather than being an object of religious devotion, was an object of study for one interested in the rabbinical tradition represented therein.

Facsimile editions available


A Formerly-Missing Picture Bible

The Picture Pentateuch of Moses dal Castellazzo is a Hebrew picture Bible telling the story of the first five books of the Old Testament (Pentateuch). Unlike an illustrated Bible in which the word of God is explained with images, it contains a series of images complete with explanatory legends and Bible verses as headings. The only Jewish parallels to this method of illustration are the Sephardic Pesach-Haggadot. The Warsaw codex is the unique copy of a series of woodcuts, now lost, by Moses dal Castellazzo. Some bibliophile, probably not Jewish but rather a Christian humanist, had it made in the mid-16th century. The pictures in this manuscript, which are outstanding in cultural history, are simple pen drawings colored only occasionally in red, brown, or green tones. The illustrated cycle begins with the Creation, followed by narratives of the five books, and ends with Moses’ death. Several pictorial traditions melt into a harmonious whole in the Picture Pentateuch of Moses dal Castellazzo. The work not only drew the attention of contemporaries, but still catches the interest of many today because of its originality. It is considered a monument which lowers the curtain on a dying epoch.

A Biblical Picture Book

The main feature of the Picture Pentateuch is not its text but its pictures, whose meanings are explained in a few lines. Moreover, the individual biblical events are not portrayed in a single illustration, but are frequently reproduced in a sequence of scenes showing the same protagonists at several stages of the narrative, in the manner of an illustrated chronicle. In line with Hebrew tradition, the pictures are to be read from right to left. The recto pages of the leaves usually have two separate pen drawings set in a frame, while the verso pages have been left blank. The upper margins in nearly all the pictures are filled with one or two lines of Hebrew text, passages of verses from the Bible referring to the picture below. The much larger lower margins of the pages almost always show legends in Italian, consisting of several lines and explaining or completing the picture situated immediately above. Occasionally, the text refers to particularities of the rabbinical tradition represented in the picture. The language is a 16th century Venetian dialect and the letter form also indicates the mid-16th century.

Moses dal Castellazzo

Moses dal Castellazzo was well known in Jewish circles as a painter who enjoyed great reputation. In a letter addressed to the Venice "Council of the Ten" in 1521, he mentioned that he produces woodcuts and requested the exclusive right to print and sell a woodcut series of the Pentateuch, a privilege that was finally granted to him. The printing method for woodcut had already been in use for half a century, when Johannes Gutenberg printed his first Latin Bible between 1452 and 1455. Moses dal Castellazzo used the same printing method to render the first five books of the Old Testament intelligible by means of pictures. He employed multiple sources, several picture Bible manuscripts and woodcut illustrations from early Venetian prints, to which he added contemporary elements, especially costumes. By doing so, Moses dal Castellazzo successfully saved the picture Bible tradition for the new age of printed books and, with the help of the new technology, created a printed, instead of a painted, picture Bible. The great enthusiasm for this woodcut series is not least evidenced by the existence of the Warsaw codex, which represents a copy of this unique document from the end of an era.

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