Published: March 1, 2011
One of the world’s foremost collections of decorated Jewish marriage contracts (ketubbot) is held by the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary here, and 30 of the finest will be on display at the Jewish Museum in “The Art of Matrimony: Thirty Splendid Marriage Contracts from The Jewish Theological Seminary Library,” March 11⁊une 26.
From one of the earliest known decorated pieces (Twelfth Century) to recent creations, these exquisite marriage contracts provide a wealth of information on the artistic creativity, cultural interactions and social history of the communities in which they were created. Ketubbot, which typically record the bridegroom’s obligations to his bride in case of death or divorce, have been integral to Jewish marriage for millennia. They were kept in the homes of married Jews living in the West under Christian governance or in the East under Muslim rule.
The ketubbah collection of the Jewish Theological Seminary library, consisting of more than 600 works, has superb examples of virtually every extant type. The largest number of ketubbot in the exhibition are from Italy, where the art of the decorated ketubbah found its most beautiful expression during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries under the influence of Renaissance and baroque art.
Magnificent marriage contracts from Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Persia, Syria and Turkey, each absorbing the visual language of the surrounding culture, are also included. In addition, visitors can see examples from Croatia, France, Greece, Israel, the Netherlands, Ukraine and the United States.
The marriage contracts in this exhibition represent the great diversity and range of Jewish settlement throughout history. They offer a fascinating look at the lives of individual couples, varied marriage customs and the spread of artistic styles through commerce and trade.
Included in the exhibition is a fragment of a rare Twelfth Century marriage contract from Egypt. A 1764 ketubbah, the earliest known decorated marriage contract from Baghdad, features elaborate designs on decorative paper from Augsburg, Germany, indicative of the commercial ties that bound far-flung Jewish communities together.
Also on view is a distinctive 1749 ketubbah from Venice featuring the 12 signs of the zodiac and an intricate love knot that has no beginning or end, a design element borrowed from Italian folk culture.
Hand decorated ketubbot began to go out of fashion in the late Nineteenth Century, but were revived in the 1960s with highly individualized texts and ornamentation, perhaps as part of the renewed interest in exploring Jewish identity. An example of this trend is papercut artist Archie Granot’s 1999 work, which shows his personal style and technique for Jewish ritual works, distinguished by multiple layers of cut paper.
The exhibition also includes a 1961 ketubbah from the collection of the Jewish Museum by artist Ben Shahn, created more as a work of art than a usable contract.
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