30 Amazing “Ketubbot” Jewish Marriage Contracts at the Jewish Museum in New York
One of the world’s foremost collections of decorated Jewish marriage contracts (ketubbot) is held by The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Thirty of the finest are on display at The Jewish Museum in The Art of Matrimony: Thirty Splendid Marriage Contracts from The Jewish Theological Seminary Library from March 11 through June 26, 2011. 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 Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, consisting of more than 600 works, is one of the world’s greatest, with 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. An 1885 contract from Damascus includes vivid colors and lush floral imagery echoing the blessing bestowed on a couple as they stand under the bridal canopy: “Grant perfect joy to these loving companions, just as You made your creations joyful in the Garden of Eden.”
Also on view is a distinctive 1749 ketubbah from Venice featuring the twelve signs of the zodiac and an intricate love knot that has no beginning or end, a design element borrowed from Italian folk culture. In unusually romantic engagement articles, the bride and groom “agree to conduct their mutual life with love and affection, without hiding or concealing anything from each other; furthermore, they will control their possessions equally.“
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. Its design shows his fascination with Hebrew calligraphy, including a red stamp, containing all the letters in the Hebrew alphabet, that came to be Shahn’s personal emblem.
Before a wedding, the families of Jewish brides and grooms traditionally negotiate a marriage contract (ketubbah). This document sets forth the husband’s obligations to his wife and specifies the monies due her in the event of a divorce or his death. While other types of Jewish marriage contracts date back to the mid-fifth century BCE, the text of the ketubbah as we know it today was codified some time between the first and fifth centuries CE.
Kettubot were not merely legal documents but became splendid works of art. Beginning with the first simply decorated examples from medieval Egypt, they were frequently embellished with decorative borders and fine calligraphy. Over time the ornamentation became increasingly elaborate, and by the seventeenth century, they were richly decorated with figurative, floral, architectural, and geometric designs. Regional stylistic traditions developed, emanating from the two major centers of ketubbah ornamentation, Italy and the Middle East.
The Art of Matrimony: Thirty Splendid Marriage Contracts from The Jewish Theological Seminary Library was curated by Sharon Liberman Mintz, Curator of Jewish Art, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The exhibition coordinator is Susan L. Braunstein, Curator of Archaeology and Judaica, The Jewish Museum.
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