Kabbalistic Trees (Ilanot) in Italy: Visualizing the Hierarchy of the Heavens

J. H. Chajes

The image of the Renaissance in scholarship has changed remarkably over the last generations. The seminal works of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries cast it as the precocious precursor of the rational, disenchanted outlook associated with modernity. From the mid-century, however, scholars increasingly turned their attention to the magical and mystical pursuits of the leading exponents and architects of the Renaissance, pursuits that were no less dear to them than their concomitant commitments to the advancement of Humanism—and that were often profoundly intertwined with them. Thus, for example, Pico della Mirandola’s 1486 De hominis dignitate, the “manifesto of the Renaissance,” was revealed in Brian Copenhaver’s well-known study to be deeply indebted to the kabbalistic sources that Pico passionately studied (Copenhaver 2002). Pico’s kabbalistic oeuvre has been systematically examined by Giulio Busi, who has also published critical editions of the Latin translations prepared for him by Flavius Mithridates. Of particular relevance to the current essay is the edition and commentary of the so-called “Great Parchment” (The Great Parchment 2004). Just as key Christian fi gures of the Renaissance took great interest in the Kabbalah, often studying privately with their local rabbis or engaging the services of Jews who had converted to Christianity to assist with the gathering, translation, and study of this esoteric lore, many Italian Jews quite naturally identifi ed with the project of the Renaissance writ large. The “Renaissance style” literary productions of Italian rabbis—which continued well into the seventeenth century, long after the historical period is generally considered to have come to an end—has been extensively treated by social, intellectual, and art historians too numerous to mention. Like their counterparts specializing in Christian Renaissance culture, these scholars of Jewish culture fi rst focused on “secular” expressions of this sensibility before embracing a more complex picture in which “rationalism” and Kabbalah were no longer cast as being in opposition to one another, but indeed frequently concurrent.

If the historical picture of the “Hebrew-speaking Renaissance” is now richly drawn, having attended to most fi elds of Jewish creativity, there remains at least one genre that has only recently received scholarly attention: that known as ilanot. Ilanot, the plural form of the Hebrew word ilan (tree), is a genre borne of the wedding of schema and medium. In its classical form, it is an arboreal diagram inscribed on a parchment sheet. By the sixteenth century, Guillaume Postel and Moses Cordovero articulated such a generic conception of these artifacts, but literary evidence reveals that this designation had already been in use for generations. If the generic term ilanot was a metonym for such a map of God on parchment by sometime in the fi fteenth century, its arrival displaced an earlier metonym for these artifacts: yeriot (singular yeriah), meaning (parchment) sheet (Chajes 2019).

Ilanot are literally maps of God, which in a kabbalistic context means that they provide diagrammatic visualizations of the sefi rot—the divine categories at the heart of this tradition. Given the generic appellation, the arboreal schema is, not surprisingly, dominant. Unlike the Porphyrian Trees associated with this fi gure, which made their debut in medieval natural philosophy in the eponymous commentary of Aristotle’s Categories as a useful means of visualizing the scale of being, the kabbalistic tree is fully ontologized: it is understood, to borrow Gershom Scholem’s phrase, as the true “mystical shape of the Godhead.”

The use of the arboreal schema to represent the structure of the divine did not begin, however, with such dedicated parchments. The earliest extant kabbalistic manuscripts, copied in Rome in the late thirteenth century, include a number of diagrams (Busi 2005, pp. 125–36) among which a tree fi gure that looks rather more like Darwin’s famous tree than Porphyry’s. Early kabbalistic diagrams in codices that represent the sefi rotic structure are generally modest from a graphical-aesthetic point of view, adumbrating or schematizing the arboreal form. The names of the sefi rot are arrayed to suggest the tree, but the medallions and channels we commonly associate with the schema are omitted. These diagrams often accompany discussions of the “correct” structure of the Godhead, and present divergent views of the sefi rotic constellation as found in the works of the early kabbalists.

It is not apparent that the authors of these early treatises regarded such diagrams as trees, despite their frequent use of arboreal metaphors in the adjacent texts. In fact, the tree was one of the two dominant metaphors for the shape of the divine in classical Kabbalah, the other being the human body. In the seminal thirteenth-century introduction to the sefi rot, Sha‘arei orah (Gates of Light), by the Spanish kabbalist Joseph Giqatilla (extant only in manuscripts from the fourteenth century and later), we thus fi nd him drawing a “form” (tzurah) of the sefi rot that could rightly be classifi ed as an arboreal diagram, but which he clearly meant to suggest the human form. It is truly a “stick fi gure,” as, for instance, in a mid-sixteenth-century Italian manuscript now preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris (MS hébr. 822, fol. 94r). There was no need to choose between the two metaphors, of course. The rabbinic tradition had for centuries insisted on the confl ation, intentionally misreading Deuteronomy 20:19 as “man is like the tree of the fi eld.” I suspect that the rich mythologomena associated with the tree in Jewish tradition—from the Tree of Life of Genesis, to the “Tree that is All” of the foundational kabbalistic Bahir of twelfth-century Provençal provenance, as well as the scientifi c prestige of the Porphyrian Tree, ultimately conspired to bring kabbalists to effect the confl ation of metaphor and schema. And if these trends began with the emergence of Kabbalah in Provençe and Spain, and ultimately led to the production of ilanot wherever there were kabbalists, it is clear that the development and full fl owering of this genre took place on Italian soil from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century and beyond.

Although no parchment-sheet ilanot have been found from the fourteenth century, we know they were in use—and in Italy. In that century, the Italian kabbalist Reuben Sarfatti composed the texts for two such artifacts. They have survived, almost exclusively, in text-only copies (The Great Parchment 2004, pp. 23–27). Known as “Commentary on the Great Parchment” and “Commentary on the Lesser Parchment,” these works, as they have reached us, were copied from the ilanot (referred to still as yeriot) of which they were originally an integral component. Sarfatti’s textual compositions were devoted to introducing the sefi rot to those beginning the study of the Kabbalah. It was a commonplace of the time to refer to such introductions as “commentaries” on the sefi rot, and the genre proved to be immensely popular. Gershom Scholem devoted an early publication to listing, catalogue-style, no less than 134 such treatises (Scholem 1933–34). As basic research on ilanot has advanced, the close connection between these two genres has become clear: in many cases, the texts we fi nd inscribed in and around the sefi rotic trees of ilan parchments can be identifi ed with one of the “commentaries” in Scholem’s catalogue. It is not always clear whether an ilan—as “iconotext” combining text and image—came fi rst, or whether an existing text was subsequently re-presented by the maker of an ilan. Either way, the intimacy of these genres is highly signifi cant and illuminates a central function of the ilanot of the era. Rather than representing kabbalistic knowledge in the linear mode of pure textuality, the ilan inscribes it in loco. Organized in and around the diagram, this knowledge is layered and patterned to reveal complex but ordered fi elds of meaning. Spatializing information is also critical to its recollection, a mnemonic function that we now know, thanks to the studies of Mary Carruthers and Lina Bolzoni among others, to be no less about generative creativity than about storage and retrieval. Using an ilan was thus an invitation to practice Kabbalah in a manner that combined textual study, visualization, and some form of mental manipulation or movement as suggested by the diagrammatic shape or structure. Pedagogy and theurgy thus went hand in hand. The medium may also have lent a certain performative impetus of its own, as parchment sheets (scrolls or rotuli) were, by this period, reserved exclusively for ritual use among Jews: Torah scrolls, phylacteries, doorpost scrolls (mezuzot), scrolls of Esther. One did not merely study a parchment but perform it.

Sarfatti’s “Commentary on the Great Parchment” provides a fi ne example. It was listed by Scholem in his catalogue of sefi rotic introductions (Scholem 1933–34, no. 28 and no. 52, under different titles). It was also studied by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola in the Latin translation prepared for him by Flavius Mithridates, again strictly as a text. These texts (Hebrew, Latin, and even a new English translation) were published not long ago in a critical edition produced under the direction of Giulio Busi—the pioneer of the study of “visual Kabbalah.” Busi rightly noted the connection of a very amateurish sketch found in a manuscript now preserved in the Biblioteca Palatina in Parma (MS parm. 2419, fols 2v–3r), as related to such a parchment, but this sketch contains little beyond basic captions. Only one fact escaped the attention of these preeminent scholars: the existence of a 1606 copy of a much older ilan that included Sarfatti’s complete Hebrew text. The old, Italian ilan had been acquired by Cardinal Giles of Viterbo early in the sixteenth century. It would subsequently pass to the library of Caterina de’ Medici, the Italian noblewoman who became the queen of France. The ilan was in such poor condition and so diffi cult to read that the great scholar Isaac Casaubon found it impossible to decipher upon discovering it among.

In addition to Sarfatti’s text, this ilan displays many of the features found in early ilanot: above the arboreal diagram, a circle suspended with its bottom-half blackened and its top inscribed with Ein Sof (No End), representing the apophatic divine; the tree of sefi rot, with large, inscribed medallions and channels; drawings of the candelabrum (menorah) and shewbread table (shulhan); a representation of the Chariot, with the four four-headed “beasts” (kruvim) carrying the Throne of Glory (Ezekiel 1); and a view of the Garden of Eden, and its Cherub-guarded gates. The candelabrum and shewbread table, each bearing a long history of symbolic and contemplative meaning, were arrayed to the right and left of the tree, in accordance with their placement in the southern and northern sides of the Temple. The Chariot with its four four-headed angelic beasts was the quintessential marker of the liminal zone between creation and creator; these beasts guarded the gates of Eden (Genesis 3, 24) and appeared when the skies opened above Ezekiel’s head to reveal the “Heaven of Heavens” (Ezekiel 1)—the latter being the direct inspiration for many diagrammatic kabbalistic renderings. They also adorned nearly every component of the Tabernacle—designed to create a portal to the divine—from the tent tapestries to the Ark of the Covenant. In a glance, therefore, we may already sense how the ilan invited the contemplative to explore and to integrate the symbolic systems of a variegated body of Jewish esoteric knowledge, represented in a map-like diagrammatic form. The manuscripts that arrived in the Bibliothèque royale of Paris from Caterina’s collection. Casaubon thus commissioned the skilled Scottish Hebraist James Hepburn to undertake its reproduction (Grafton and Weinberg 2011). Hepburn was not merely a talented Hebraist, but a fi ne artist—as his famous “Virga Aurea” engraving, which he printed in Rome in 1616, amply demonstrates. Hepburn’s copy of the old ilan, which includes a colophon in which he is called “Jacob Hebron,” is today in the collection of the University of Oxford (Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Hunt. Add. E.; Neubauer 1886–1908, no. 2429) (see fi g. 1).

Sefi rotic tree featuring Sarfatti’s Commentary on the Great Parchment, copied by James Hepburn, 1606. Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Hunt. Add. E


In addition to Sarfatti’s text, this ilan displays many of the features found in early ilanot: above the arboreal diagram, a circle suspended with its bottom-half blackened and its top inscribed with Ein Sof (No End), representing the apophatic divine; the tree of sefi rot, with large, inscribed medallions and channels; drawings of the candelabrum (menorah) and shewbread table (shulhan); a representation of the Chariot, with the four four-headed “beasts” (kruvim) carrying the Throne of Glory (Ezekiel 1); and a view of the Garden of Eden, and its Cherub-guarded gates. The candelabrum and shewbread table, each bearing a long history of symbolic and contemplative meaning, were arrayed to the right and left of the tree, in accordance with their placement in the southern and northern sides of the Temple. The Chariot with its four four-headed angelic beasts was the quintessential marker of the liminal zone between creation and creator; these beasts guarded the gates of Eden (Genesis 3, 24) and appeared when the skies opened above Ezekiel’s head to reveal the “Heaven of Heavens” (Ezekiel 1)—the latter being the direct inspiration for many diagrammatic kabbalistic renderings. They also adorned nearly every component of the Tabernacle—designed to create a portal to the divine—from the tent tapestries to the Ark of the Covenant. In a glance, therefore, we may already sense how the ilan invited the contemplative to explore and to integrate the symbolic systems of a variegated body of Jewish esoteric knowledge, represented in a map-like diagrammatic form.

Sefi rotic tree, Candia (Crete), 1451. Vatican Library, Vatican City, MS Vat. ebr. 530 III

Sefi rotic tree, Candia (Crete), 1451. Vatican Library, Vatican City, MS Vat. ebr. 530 IIIWithout the original parchment for comparison, it is hard to assess whether Hepburn was faithful to its aesthetics and merely recreated them, or whether he took the liberty to embellish as he copied. Hepburn’s ilan is indeed a beauty, with its rich dyes (applied also in the sefi rotic medallions so as to convey their respective color associations), fl oral decorative motifs, and cherubic angel fi gures. Its Throne of Glory recalls the “cabinet-style” throne chairs of Renaissance Italy, which could be found in the homes of Florentine nobility. Giuliano de’ Medici had a particular broad one at his Palazzo Strozzi; more modest throne chairs resembling the one pictured in the ilan could be found in synagogues as well. Such a “synagogue throne” from Siena was in the Berliner Kunstgewerbemuseum at the beginning of the twentieth century (Bode 1902, p. 19). The Throne of Glory may also be compared to much earlier artifacts, such as the sixth-century Episcopal Throne of Archbishop Maximianus in Ravenna’s Museo Arcivescovile. Unlike the rest of the fi gures of the ilan, the Throne of Glory is rendered to suggest three-dimensionality. The fi rmament upon which it sits is also drawn as a cube, with diagonals converging underneath it from each of four corners—a technique used in medieval treatises of geometry to convey three-dimensionality but indeed unusual to fi nd in kabbalistic works, to say the least (for a cube represented in two dimensions using the same technique, see, e.g., Gerbert of Aurillac, Geometria, c. 980, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Selden supra 25, fol. 119v; English, Canterbury?, c. 1200).

It would seem that the basic graphic elements of ilan parchments we have noted were in place by around 1400. They provided the matrix for any number of texts—from singular compositions such as Sarfatti’s to eclectic anthological collages. An examination of the latter reveals not only what was on the bookshelves of the kabbalists who extracted the passages for inscription in and around the diagrammatic elements, but what they thought particularly signifi cant in each.

Of course, not all ilanot had the aesthetic ambitions of the Hepburn ilan—which too may have outstripped its long-lost model in this regard. Few ilan parchments from before 1500 have reached us, and those that have are truly austere. Like Hepburn’s ilan, they avail themselves of an entire parchment sheet. Inscribed upon the sheet is a single, albeit large, arboreal fi gure that serves to visually organize a commentary on the sefi rot. A Vatican parchment (Vatican Library, MS Vat. ebr. 530 III) is a striking example despite its visual austerity (see fi g. 2). Its top edge cut in a manner that retains something of the natural contours of the animal skin while suggesting something like a clerestory roof, this intriguing ilan was drafted in 1451 according to the colophon on its verso. The text arrayed throughout is a commentary on the sefi rot that was listed, in its two very similar forms, in Scholem’s aforementioned index (Scholem 1933–34, nos. 76 and 115). A version of the same commentary appears on an ilan recently discovered in the Biblioteca Queriniana of Brescia (MS L FI 11; see cat. 30 and fi g. 3). The schema of the Brescia ilan is somewhat unusual and clearly expresses a view of the sefi rotic structure in which the central Tiferet is dominant. The “arrowhead” element atop Keter is also distinctive; might it be related to the cut of the parchment found in MS Vat. ebr. 530 III? Neither of the two ilanot embed Ein Sof in shape of any kind, preferring instead to write of the Infi nite in the upper background space of the parchment.

Sefi rotic tree and comments, fi fteenth century. Biblioteca civica Queriniana, Brescia (cat. 30)

Not every ilan was committed to parchment. It is at times diffi cult to tell whether the more amateurish sketches drawn upon the opening or closing binding pages of old codices were fashioned by students on the basis of their own readings and for their personal use, whether they were preliminary studies for what might next be executed on parchment, or if they were copies quickly made of impressive yeriot. In this regard we may point to the very old codex that is today housed in Munich’s Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS hebr. 119. It is a small miscellany and the compositions it contains were copied by different hands; one of the scribes, a certain “Shem Tov son of Jacob the Sefaradi,” left a colophon attesting to his having created the work for himself in the city of “Modon on the Sea,” today Methoni in Messenia (Peloponnese, Greece), once under Venetian rule. In 1404, Shem Tov, who wrote in a Spanish script, left a fascinating rota diagram of the sefi rot with permutations of the Tetragrammaton inscribed around a central medallion in which Tiferet, the central sefi rah, was inscribed. The rest of the miscellany, also dated to the fi fteenth century, is written in an Italian script—and concludes with an arboreal diagram that shows just how established was the genre by this time. The template that we see in the “Great Parchment” is essentially the same: a denary tree occupies the large, central space of the double page, fl anked on either side by candelabrum and shewbread table. The lowest sefi rah of malkhut, identifi ed with the most immanent expression of the Godhead, the divine presence called Shekhinah, appears as if it were docking atop the celestial spheres—the latter represented, not surprisingly, as concentric circles. By illustrating the created cosmos with this established astronomical schema, the ilan aligns itself with a prestigious scientifi c tradition and stakes its claim to a totalizing knowledge that literally goes beyond it. Arrayed in four squares around the meeting point between the divine and celestial spheres is the illustration of the Chariot, here rendered schematically rather than with the representational approach we have seen in Hepburn’s copy of the Great Parchment. In this rather improvisational sketch—an impression confi rmed by the scribe’s attestations to elements in need of revision—we fi nd texts written in every conceivable angle, in and around the diagrammatic elements. Among them are selections from the seminal thirteenth-century Meirat Einayim (Light of the Eyes), and, most prominently, from the Zohar commentary by the great early Italian kabbalist, Menachem Recanati. During the fourteenth and fi fteenth centuries, most Italian kabbalists knew of the Zohar primarily through Recanati’s commentary—and the Italian ilanot of this era rarely contain zoharic material that is not borrowed from his popular work..

Although the basic elements of ilanot in these centuries were stable and recurring, the range of kabbalistic positions on basic questions relating to the layout of the divine topography produced graphic variations. Some of these variations seem to refl ect local preferences. To take a very easily discernable example, we may observe the array of the top three sefi rot of any given ilan. In those we have adduced thus far, the arrangement is triangulated. Spanish kabbalists believed this layout to be the most accurate representation of the structure of the uppermost sefi rot, made in keeping with the zoharic traditions they so revered.

4. Elijah Hayyim of Genazzano, Iggeret hamudot, 1526. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, MS hébr. 857, fol. 9r
5. Sefi rotic tree, early sixteenth century.
Vatican Library, Vatican City, MS Vat. ebr. 441, fol. 111v

In the mid-sixteenth century, R. Moses Cordovero, whose name bespeaks his family’s Iberian origins and whose magnum opus, Pardes Rimmonim, both preserved and codifi ed kabbalistic opinions in a manner recalling the halakhic oeuvre of his Safedian neighbor R. Joseph Karo, decided unequivocally in its favor. Cordovero refers to the overall schema as segolta, segol, segol: the names of particular paratextual symbols used in the cantillation and vocalization of the Torah that resemble deltas and nablas. The mnemonic had been coined by the kabbalist R. Judah H· ayyat, a refugee of the 1492 Spanish expulsion, in his Minhat Yehudah, a work he composed in large measure to assert the authority of Iberian traditions in his new home, Italy. It seems that among Italian kabbalists, there was a certain preference for a different confi guration of the uppermost sefi rot, one in which they were centered one atop the other. Why? Because the spatial implications of right and left could not possibly apply to such sublime recesses of divinity—something of a philosophical concern, in keeping with the general character of so much Italian kabbalistic speculation. This tower-like confi guration may be seen in many Italian codices of the period, with examples including the Iggeret hamudot of R. Elijah Hayyim of Genazzano from the late Quattrocento (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, MS hébr. 857, fol. 9r, an Italian manuscript dated 1526. On this work, see Lelli 2002 and fi g. 4 above), in the sefi rotic diagrams included in Seder ha-ilan (Order of the Tree), an anonymous Italian work that may be compared to the emblem books of the period that feature symbolic images and accompanying explanations (e.g. in Vatican Library, Vatican City, MS Vat. ebr. 441, fols. 110r–117v, an Italian manuscript dated to the early sixteenth century (see fi g. 5). Dr. Eliezer Baumgarten and I are nearing completion of a critical edition of this work, to be published in the Vatican’s Studi e testi series). Of particular interest is the arboreal diagram displaying this confi guration that also includes decorative botanical elaboration, something rarely found in kabbalistic trea tises. As we shall soon see, the grandest of all Renaissance ilan parchments, the anonymous creator of which drew extensively on Seder ha-ilan, fashioned the dominant central fi gure of the imposing rotulus in this “Italian” style.

Elijah Menahem Halfan, with the assistance of Abraham Sarfatti, Sefi rotic tree, Venice, 1533, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence (cat. 29)

Additional examples of variations expressing conceptual differences could be proffered, but let us suffi ce with two: the representation of Ein Sof, the Infi nite represented above the sefi rotic tree, and what might be called the overall perspective of a given ilan. Regarding the former, the black and white circle was widely used—generally with black below and white above (as we have seen in Hepburn’s ilan as well as in the Iggeret hamudot). A white bottom and black top might be used as well, however, as in Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS hebr. 119. These variations suggest differing conceptions of the relationship between the sefi rot, which for all their sublimity retain some degree of knowability, and the Infi nite. The issue of perspective was hotly debated in these centuries as well. Why was the right side of the divine represented by the vertical sequence of sefi rot on the right side of the arboreal diagram as we face it? Would that not imply that they were on the left of the divine? Would that not throw all of kabbalistic symbolism, with its clear associations between right and mercy opposing left and judgment into disarray? Rather than enter the thicket of such discussions, a story will suffi ce: the aforementioned R. Judah H· ayyat tells of having seen an ilan that was the mirror image of the iconic tree. As if spun 180° on its vertical axis, it expressed the divine perspective: right and left as dexter and sinister. “And I bear witness that I saw in an Italian city called Reggio, in the possession of a man of understanding, an ilan that was drawn in this [inverted] manner. And they told me that a great man had made it.” No ilan of this sort has reached us, although suggestive “misplacements” of Abraham (associated with the right but inscribed on the left) and Ishmael (vice-versa) are to be found, including in the Hepburn ilan.

7. Sefi rotic tree, fi rst half of the sixteenth century.
Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Hunt. Add. D

No review of the Italian ilanot of the Renaissance would be complete with at least a brief discussion of two other artifacts—one, indeed, a family of manuscripts with some dozen extant witnesses. The other is a unique ilan crafted in 1533 by R. Elijah Menahem Halfan, in collaboration with his mentor, R. Abraham Sarfatti. Today in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence (MS Firenze, Bibl. Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. XLIV.18; see cat. 29 and fi g. 6), this ilan was discovered by Isaia Sonne (Sonne 1934) and then described by Giulio Busi (Busi 2005, pp. 385–86) and by Fabrizio Lelli (Lelli 2008). Let us begin with this latter scroll. Writ large, Halfan’s ilan has quite a bit in common with Hepburn’s: the large denary tree dominating its center, the candelabrum and shewbread table (supplemented by additional fi gures in this case), and an even more elaborate representation of the Garden of Eden. These elements are well-executed, the scene in Eden representing an attractive, smiling couple on either side of a tree with green leaves and red hanging fruit. In the background we see a section of the wall that is imagined having surrounded the garden, albeit with an open door. Approaching the happy couple is a satyr-like creature riding a dragon, refl ecting kabbalistic traditions that cast the biblical snake as the demonic couple Samael and Lilith. Although neither the divine Chariot nor the celestial spheres are drawn, two Cherubs (as in Hepburn’s ilan, of the “cherubic” rather than of either the beastly or the diagrammatic sort)—presumably representing those atop the Ark of the Covenant—are placed among the other Temple vessels, whereas the central, lower-most inscription declares that “from here and below is the World of the Spheres (galgalim).” Mention should also be made of the peculiar detail of the replicated but miniaturized arboreal diagram placed just below the central fi gure. This diminutive tree seems to represent the sefi rot apprehensible by the human mind, as they are separated from the larger tree above them by an arching biblical inscription: “no person may see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Halfan’s ilan is also densely inscribed with texts. Here again, the text is of the “Commentary on the Sefi rot” genre, and is Halfan’s own, who maintains to have followed the recommendations of the older Abraham Sarfatti (Scholem 1933–34, no. 10, attributed to Halfan; at no. 119 the text is mistakenly presumed to be anonymous). Halfan’s responsibility for both the textual and graphic facets of his ilan shows us with unusual clarity the profound convergence of the two genres of ilanot and sefi rot commentaries.

We conclude with the crowning achievement of Italian ilan-making in the Renaissance. Sometime in early to mid-sixteenth century, a still unidentifi ed Italian kabbalist and scribal artist was inspired to create an ilan of unprecedented scale and beauty (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hunt. Add. D). A broad, long parchment rotulus, illuminated, colorful, and intricately inscribed, it was a masterpiece by any standard. Over its multiple stitched membranes, this great parchment revealed a map of the heavens—and the “Heaven of Heavens”—stretched out, not like parchment, as in Psalm 104:4, but upon it. On parchment sheets stitched sequentially to form a long, vertical rotulus, he inscribed an iconotextual summa: an integrated presentation of the visual and textual Kabbalah as he knew and understood it, expressed in the exquisite conventions of representation that reigned in the Renaissance Italy of his day. Its aspirations to pansophy, or universal knowledge, is evident in its dedication of the bottom third of the rotulus to the presentation of a Ptolemaic scheme of the earth surrounded by the heavenly spheres (fi g. 7).

The imposing vertical scroll is lushly fi lled with hundreds of discrete graphic elements, diagrammatic schemata, symbolic forms, and decorative embellishments, around and within which texts are inscribed. Finely wrought, its density is made possible by the elegant precision of its execution, impressive from afar for its grand scale and, when inspected closely, in the details of its minutiae. Although at present we cannot identify its author, his creation was clearly appreciated, as the many copies that remain with us fi ve hundred years later attest. Copying this work was anything but a trivial matter: only scribes with a mastery of their craft—including complex draftsmanship and decorative illustration—could take on such a commission, and only the wealthiest patrons could have afforded to place an order. Unlike many ilanot, this was most certainly not made by kabbalists for themselves or their students. This luxury manuscript would have undoubtedly been commissioned by the individuals and families for whom illuminated festival prayer books, hagadot, ketubot, and the like were fashioned. Given the interest in Kabbalah in Renaissance Italy among non-Jewish elites, the acquisition need not have been limited to wealthy Jews alone. In all likelihood this was the “Tree of Kabbalah” to which Benedetto Blanis, a Florentine Jew of the early seventeenth century, referred in a letter to his patron Don Giovanni de’ Medici (Goldberg 2011, pp. 120–21):

I am delighted to have so important a Tree of Kabbalah here in Florence, brought from Lippiano at my request. I am having it copied on vellum with great diligence, so it will not be inferior to the original in any way but even better. I hope that this Tree will please Your Most Illustrious Excellency and that we will be able to enjoy it together.

The Tree was cultural capital: to possess it was literally to possess an all-encompassing picture of the cosmos in an age during which the distinction between a picture and the thing depicted, the sign and its referent, was often elided. It would have been presumed to be a powerful talisman as well, the divine structures it represented not being merely symbols but fi gures of divine reality itself.

Extracted from the schemata within and around which they are inscribed are texts that add up to over 30,000 words. A careful study of these texts is only now taking place. Indeed, the brief entry in no. 829 of the Margoliouth Catalogue (Margoliouth 1909–15) and the poetic lines in Giulio Busi’s pioneering monograph are the only descriptions of the Tree ever published (Busi 2005, pp. 387–88). Hand-written notes in the archives of Gershom Scholem reveal that the legendary scholar had inspected the exemplars in the British Library and the Bodleian at the University of Oxford. Scholem wrote that they contain an “unknown gigantic text” (unbekannter Riesentext) and copied the colophon of MS Or. 6465 from the British Library in London (the note is found in fi le 92.4 of the Scholem archives, held by the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem). In this colophon—the only one found to date on a witness in this manuscript family—the itinerant Polish kabbalist David Darshan takes credit for having drafted the copy while in Modena in 1556.

Until all of the texts have been transcribed and sourced, we must be circumspect in our characterization of its authorial voice, but still, the Tree seems anything but the work of a neutral compiler. Its selections and the connective tissue that binds them reveal an author/editor who chose, introduced, adapted, and integrated a wide range of material— kabbalistic and scientifi c, philosophical and magical. In his world, these terms were fl uid, complementary, and overlapping if not homologous. Initial surveying reveals an integrative, synthetic, even encyclopedic work, with selections drawn from the corpus of kabbalistic literature circulating in mid–fourteenth-century Italy, including passages from, among others, the Bahir, Nachmanides, the ’Iyun circle, Joseph Giqatilla, Ma’arekhet elohut, Menachem Recanati, Abraham Abulafi a, and Joseph ben Shalom Ashkenazi. The presence of Maimonides is also felt. The absence of texts from the zoharic literature (citations from Recanati aside) and of post-1450 materials more generally, provides a terminus post quem that is in full accord with the results of preliminary paleographic and aesthetic analysis, which reinforces the dating of the original to the late fi fteenth century.

Just as the creator of the Tree assembled its texts from the corpus at hand, so too its images. Gazing from afar, two stand out: the large, decadal arboreal diagram that dominates the upper two-thirds of the long parchment, and the formidable representation of the concentric circles of the Ptolemaic heavens fi lling its bottom third. For a kabbalist c. 1500, these were the two authoritative schemata for mapping the structure of the sefi rot and the spheres. The central ilan of the Tree adopts the tower-like array of the three uppermost sefi rot. The image of the lower frame, with its spheres sliced into the twelve divisions of the zodiac, is in accordance with the Ptolemaic world-picture and would have been familiar to, and accepted as authoritative by, any scholar of the age.

Taking a closer look at the details of this great parchment, smaller images abound. There is the “Eye”: atop the highest sefi rah, the Infi nite God (’Ain Sof) is fi gured as an open eye. There are dragons and snakes, bubbling springs and fl owing rivers, altars and candelabra, and, most surprisingly, rabbis: Rabbi Akiva, one of the “four who entered Pardes,” pictured to the left of the spheres. Akiva stands tall above the spheres as well, amidst the Chariot beasts that stand just below the concave, rainbow-like fi rmament upon which a pedestal is inscribed, the “fi gure of the Throne” (dmut ha-kise). Were we looking at a Christian cosmograph of the spheres—Jesus and the saints might have been pictured above them in the Empyrean. For our kabbalist, however, the fi gure of the Divine above the Chariot is visualized as the sefi rotic tree.

The great Tree was not a huge textual anthology that happened to be inscribed alongside a myriad of images over a series of parchment sheets. To the contrary, in it, text and image are thoroughly interwoven. This kind of inseparable wedding of text and image has been called an “iconotext” by scholars and refers to an artifact in which the two elements cannot truly be separated. How was one to engage—we can hardly say “read”—with this ilan? This luxury manuscript is hardly representative of the genre, of course. It can be studied, navigated thoroughly and methodically, but it was likely perceived more as a talisman than a textbook. As it represents the totality of the cosmos, it is not necessary that every part be read and studied, because they convey the idea in its entirety. The sublime is characterized by the very fact that it is too much, too great to grasp.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestTweet about this on Twitter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *