Mount talk examines what religious studies can learn from ancient art
February 23, 2018
NEWBURGH, N.Y. -
Marc Michael Epstein, a professor of Religion and Visual Culture at Vassar College, discussed the importance of Jewish art on February 21 at Mount Saint Mary College.
Marc Michael Epstein, a professor of Religion and Visual Culture at Vassar College, kicked off this semester’s Catholic and Dominican Institute speaker series with “Is a Manuscript A Mirror? What Can Religious Studies Learn from Art?” on Wednesday, February 21 at Mount Saint Mary College.
Oft repeated is the idea that Christians were engaged with art as a religious practice while Jews were prohibited from involvement with the arts by the Second Commandment, Epstein explained. But were they really?
“Jews made art throughout their history,” noted Epstein. “Jewish art is good to think on in the larger spectrum of religious studies because it is so little considered.”
Not only can one view such images academically, noting what people wore, what they ate, and what their houses looked like, but one can also use such art to see “what was in their hearts and minds,” said Epstein.
Regarding Jewish religious texts like the Haggadah, “It’s easy to regard the illustrations of these books as straightforward depictions of the narrative of the Exodus” and beyond, he said. “It is true these illustrations appear to be at first glance simple illustrations of the text they accompany, mirrors of sacred history…but they have a life of their own as separate yet interdependent texts, texts that are really fraught with issues of identity, and self-image, and politics.”
Epstein’s first talk at the Mount in October 2017 was “The Saint John’s Bible: Jews, Christians, and Why Art Matters.” Donald Jackson is the creator of the magnificent Saint John’s Bible – the only handwritten and illuminated Bible produced in more than 500 years. Epstein revealed that throughout the masterwork, Jackson adopts, adapts, and repurposes themes and images from the Hebrew Bible and, in some cases, Jewish visual culture.
Derek Sanderson, assistant librarian for Instruction Services and coordinator of Saint John’s Bible activities; David Kennett, interim president of Mount Saint Mary College; and Marc Michael Epstein, a professor of Religion and Visual Culture at Vassar College view a volume of the Mount’s Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition before Epstein’s talk on February 21.
Epstein was Vassar’s first director of Jewish Studies. He is a graduate of Oberlin College, received his PhD at Yale University, and did much of his graduate research at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has written on various topics in visual and material culture produced by, for, and about Jews. His 2011 book, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination, was selected by the London Times Literary Supplement as one of the best books of the year. Another of his books, Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Manuscript Illumination, was the winner of the National Jewish Book Award in 2015.
The event was sponsored by the Mount’s Catholic and Dominican Institute (CDI). CDI promotes the Mount’s heritage of St. Dominic, advances the Dominican charism of study and service, provides a forum for discussion of contemporary ethical issues, and enhances Catholic and Jewish dialogue. The Institute welcomes persons of varied faiths and acknowledges different religious traditions as essential to the college’s intellectual and spiritual life.