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Presented By: History of Art

The Breath of Every Living Thing: Zoocephali and the Limits of Alterity

The 2nd Annual Forsyth Distinguished Lecture Series - Elina Gertsman, Case Western Reserve University

Haman and His Sons Hanging from a Tree, The Hammelburg Mahzor, Hammelburg, 1347-1348. Darmstadt, HLH Cod. Or. 13, fol. 53v. Haman and His Sons Hanging from a Tree, The Hammelburg Mahzor, Hammelburg, 1347-1348. Darmstadt, HLH Cod. Or. 13, fol. 53v.
Haman and His Sons Hanging from a Tree, The Hammelburg Mahzor, Hammelburg, 1347-1348. Darmstadt, HLH Cod. Or. 13, fol. 53v.
Abstract: This paper focuses on the woefully understudied Hammelburg Mahzor (Darmstadt, HLH Cod. Or. 13), a Jewish festival book completed in Lower Franconia in the middle of the fourteenth century. The book’s most remarkable feature is perhaps the inclusion of carefully curated zoocephalic, or theriomorphic, figures: humans with beastly and bestial heads. By virtue of their alterity, the zoocephali call attention to themselves with emphatic force. The purpose of this talk is to explore the semiotics and phenomenology of this alterity, and to suggest that its presence lies at the intersection of language, philosophy, poetry, and history. In the Hammelburg Mahzor this visual idiom also signals distinction, albeit in a way that, conspicuously, collapses temporalities, tests the limits of alterity, and makes an argument about likeness and difference. By foregrounding linguistic elisions between words, images, and the celebrants, such an idiom establishes visceral connections with the community of the book’s users. Ultimately, theriomorphs stand as a fitting metaphor for medieval Jewish art as it has been viewed in mainstream scholarship.

Bio: Elina Gertsman, Professor of Medieval Art at Case Western Reserve University (where she is Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan Professor in Catholic Studies II), has authored an extensive series of field-changing, prize-winning publications. Her many books include The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages: Image, Text, Performance (2010), Worlds Within: Opening the Medieval Shrine Madonna (2015), and most recently The Absent Image: Lacunae in Medieval Books (2021), winner of the 2022 Charles Rufus Morey Prize. Her work has been supported by the Guggenheim, Kress, Mellon, and Franco-American Cultural Exchange Foundations as well as by the American Council for Learned Societies. In 2022 she was elected a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America.
Haman and His Sons Hanging from a Tree, The Hammelburg Mahzor, Hammelburg, 1347-1348. Darmstadt, HLH Cod. Or. 13, fol. 53v. Haman and His Sons Hanging from a Tree, The Hammelburg Mahzor, Hammelburg, 1347-1348. Darmstadt, HLH Cod. Or. 13, fol. 53v.
Haman and His Sons Hanging from a Tree, The Hammelburg Mahzor, Hammelburg, 1347-1348. Darmstadt, HLH Cod. Or. 13, fol. 53v.

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