The famous Kennicott Bible is one of the most lavish mediaeval Spanish manuscripts in existence. This completely vocalised Bible with massoretic notes, hand-written in a clear Sephardi script of the Middle Ages, was lavishly illuminated and bound into amorocco goatskin box binding, blind-embossed on all six sides.
This treasure of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, is named after Benjamin Kennicott, the English Hebraist (1718-1783) who continued the English tradition of studying the Hebrew bible. A canon of Christ Church, Oxford, Kennicott spent his life comparing textual variants of hundreds of Hebrew manuscripts worldwide. His findings were published in his Dissertatio Generalis.
In the course of his work Kennicott acquired this manuscript for the Radcliffe Library from where it was transferred to the Bodleian in 1872. While the text of the Bible is the traditional massoretic text, it is the elaborate, imaginative decoration for which it is treasured. The Bible is astonishingly well preserved for, in 235 years, only 30 art historians and scholars have been privileged to study it.
The history of the manuscript began in La Coruña (Corunna), north-western Spain, in 1476 when Isaac, son of Don Solomon de Braga commissioned a famous scribe, Moses Ibn Zabara to write the Tenach (Old Testament) together with Rabbi David Kimchi’s (RaDaK) grammatical treatise Sefer Mikhlol.
Moses Ibn Zabara states at the end of the biblical text, in a lengthy colophon, that he finished the work in the town of La Coruña, in the province of Galicia in north-west Spain, on Wednesday, the third day of the month of Avin the year 5236 from the creation (24th July 1476). He says that he was wholly responsible for the entire text of all twenty-four books of the Bible: he copied it, added the vocalisation marks, wrote all the notes of the massorah, and finally checked it against a traditionally accurate Bible and corrected his text. He wrote the Bible for the “admirable youth, Isaac, son of the late honourable and beloved Don Solomon de Braga, [may his soul] rest in [the Garden of] Eden. The blessed Lord grant that he study it, he and his children and his children’s children throughout all the generations, as it is written (Joshua 1:8), ‘This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein.’ And God enable him to produce many books, in order to fulfil the saying (Ecclesiastes 12:12), ‘and moreover take care, my son, to produce many books, books without end’ Amen, God grant that it be so.”
Executed almost twenty years before the final Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, at a time when they were already being harassed by the Spanish Inquisition, this manuscript shows what great importance Jewish communities attached to the perpetuation of their heritage by investing in the production of an accurate and beautifully adorned Bible.
From its inception the manuscript was planned as a lavish work. Two hundred and thirty-eight of the 922 pages of the Bible are illuminated with lively colours, burnished goldand silver leaf. In a unique statement at the end of the manuscript, the Jewish artist Joseph Ibn Hayyim writes his own colophon. While the scribe was always the more important (and well-paid) of the team, it is rare to find a Hebrew manuscript with a flamboyant Jewish artist whose extraordinary colophon appears in huge letters at the end of the book.
The highly stylized figures - almost modern in their abstract rendering - delight the eye with the richness of their colours and their varied compositions. The zoomorphic and anthropomorphic letters in the artist’s colophon are a manifestation of his rich imagination.
Joseph Ibn Hayyim created in his own individual and distinct style a unique masterpiece. King David on his throne, Jonah being swallowed by a fish, or Balaam as an astrologer consulting an astrolabe, are but a few of the text illustrations in the Kennicott Bible. Even RaDaK’s grammatical treatise Sefer Mikhlol was not copied as an austere text, but written within magnificently decorated arcaded pages, placed at the beginning and end of the Bible, possibly because the manuscript was commissioned for the youthful Isaac, in the hope that it might encourage his interest.
The original manuscript is still housed in its contemporary morocco box binding,blind-tooled and embellished with cut-out endpapers using motifs similar to the intricate, colourful carpet pages which divide the Bible into its three main sections:Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographa.
The production of the entire manuscript, from the preparation of the parchment leaves to the ultimate phase of binding, bears witness to the close co-operation between the scribe, the illuminator and the patron.
Cecil Roth considered the Kennicott Bible “A masterpiece of Mediaeval Spanish Jewish art...” and “one of the finest Hebrew manuscripts in existence.”
The manuscript contains the entire Tenakh (Old Testament) together with RaDaK’s (Rabbi David Kimchi) Sefer Mikhlol, a grammatical treatise on the Tenakh.
Published as a sumptuous facsimile after five and a half years in the making, the Kennicott Bible facsimile, inspired and enthusiastically supported by the late David Patterson, was acclaimed by many libraries, including the Bodleian Library (see letter), as the best quality that had ever been achieved in a facsimile. This was partly due to the excellent condition of the original manuscript, but to a greater extent to the undiminishing quest for perfection at every stage of its reproduction.
Before reproduction could commence, the manuscript had to be photographed, an especially difficult task considering that disbinding of the manuscript was not permitted and the sides of the box binding prevented easy access of the large-format camera. The Bodleian Library’s photographic department nonetheless overcame these seemingly insuperable problems and produced a fine set of photographs (on specially matched film) of the manuscript within its box-binding.
Colour Separation and Proofing
In order to reveal up to 24 different colours applied by the artist in a single square inch of design, computer-controlled laser scanners were used to produce the first colour separations. Printed proofs were then compared against the original manuscript and adjustments noted on the proofs to be corrected later, by hand, by the colour separators in Milan. As many as four sets of proofs were made and compared against the original in Oxford in order to achieve perfect colour fidelity before printing. In order to ensure and maintain the quality of colour and accuracy of detail while printing, Linda and Michael Falter stood at the printing press and personally checked the quality of every sheet for the duration of the printing process.
Not satisfied merely to reproduce the appearance of parchment, the original folios were studied and measured for their thickness, weight and opacity. One of the oldest Italian paper mills was commissioned to produce a paper with the unique transparency, presence and feel of parchment which took more than a year to develop. The paper is so close in appearance and feel to real parchment that it leads many experts believe it to be the real thing!
Facsimile Editions sought out a company in Italy that for generations had practised the Master Printer’s craft. Grafiche Milani, then under the direction of Luigi Canton regarded the reprinting of the manuscript as a supreme challenge in which the entire workforce would strive to produce a book of unparalleled, consummate beauty. Their ingenuity, dedication and integrity ensured perfect reproduction of the lavish gold and silver and the intricate yet vibrant colours of the hundreds of illuminated pages. Many processes and materials were used in unusual combinations to produce these effects.
Reproducing the extensive gold and silver metal leaf of the original was a major challenge which was eventually completed by seven craftsmen working continuously for four months applying leaf by hand to each illumination.
The scribe would have bought the very best parchment available, but occasionally a skin would have a hole in it. The cost of parchment being high, the scribe could not afford to throw it away so he would carefully circumscribe it in the text. The hole in the facsimile was cut in exactly the same position as the hole in the manuscript. This meant that the printing not only had register perfectly on each side of the page but the printing of both sides of the sheet had to be positioned with perfect relative precision so that when the hole was cut no text was damaged.
Finding a binder to accurately copy the binding of the original manuscript was not easy. Embossed in minute detail on all six surfaces, its style is extremely rare - only six box-bindings are known to exist - but it is this binding that has preserved the manuscript for more than half a millennium.
In order to create the handmade brass dies used to emboss the soft morocco, Master binders painstakingly traced the box’s detailed design in a time-consuming and costly process carried out in the Milanese atelier of the renowned Angelo Recalcati.
No effort was spared in reproducing the cut-out paste-downs which decorate the inside front and back covers, both of which are painted beneath intricate cut-out interlacing bands. Once bound, the edges of each leaf were gilt with 23 carat gold.
The facsimile and commentary volume are presented together in an elegant presentation case.
The facsimile can be personally dedicated by an expert calligrapher at no extra charge. Whether the facsimile is intended as a gift to an institution or a private individual, our calligrapher can inscribe a beautifully illuminated gift certificate with an inscription of your choice.
The edition is strictly limited to 500 numbered and 50 ad personam copies. Every copy is accompanied by a certificate bearing the seal of the Bodleian Library, verifying the number of the facsimile and the size of the edition. The number of each facsimile is discreetly yet indelibly blind-stamped on the inside of the back cover using minute steel dies.
At the completion of the edition, the printing plates were destroyed, in accordance with halachic requirements, thus protecting the significant investment value of each copy. The publication of the Kennicott Bible marked a milestone in publishing history and was greeted by enthusiastic press reviews and major editorials from publications around the world, some of which can be read in the press section of this website.
Shipping, Packaging & Insurance
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The study of the Kennicott Bible and its illuminations was carried out and written especially for this facsimile byProfessor Bezalel Narkiss, Founder of the Centre for Jewish Art, Jerusalem, and Dr Aliza Cohen-Mushlin, its Director.
Contents of the commentary volume:
The introduction deals with the physical description of the manuscript, and tells the story of its creation and programme. The illustrations were studied for their style and origin and the unique artistry of Joseph Ibn Hayyim is discussed in a special chapter interpreting his relations to both the older and contemporary art of Spain.
A fascinating story is told in a popular manner, with the thorough knowledge of experts augmenting the understanding of the Kennicott Bible for laymen and scholars alike.
Excerpt from the commentary volume:
The Commentary Volume contains many additional illustrations of comparative material and is produced as a separate volume the same size as the facsimile. It is bound in the finest morocco to complement the Bible. The two volumes are cased in a presentation portfolio box.