n 1992 His Majesty King Juan Carlos publicly retracted the order of expulsion of the Jews from Spain in a sincere bid to undo the evil committed by the Inquisition centuries ago. This extraordinary and unprecedented turn of fate has been commemorated by the publication of a magnificent facsimile edition of a unique manuscript.
The Alba Bible is not merely a superb example of Spanish manuscript illumination. It is all that remains of one of the last attempts to heal the rifts between Jews and Christians that finally led to the calamity of expulsion. The facsimile has been published as a contribution to and celebration of the reconciliation, and renewal of understanding in taking place in our own time.
In 1422 against a backdrop of intense anti-Jewish feeling in Spain, Don Luis de Guzmán, Grand Master of Calatrava, arrived at a decision that only by commissioning a Castilian Bible, translated directly from the Hebrew, accompanied by a commentary reflecting the Jewish understanding of the texts, would Christians comprehend differences between Christian and Jewish attitudes, and come to tolerate each other's views. The decision was itself remarkable, since Don Luis, as a high ranking Churchman, wielded immense power in Castile. He discovered that Rabbi Moses Arragel, of Maqueda in Castile was capable of such a task, and commanded him to produce the work in return for a generous remuneration. The Rabbi had good reasons to be reluctant - by exposing the Jewish view he feared he might fuel antagonism towards Jews, and himself in particular. He firmly refused, pointing out a Jewish prohibition against illustrated Bible manuscripts, and sparking off a lively correspondence with the Grand Master. This has luckily survived.
A team of Christian artists was employed to illustrate the text. What emerged is no less than a masterpiece. Known as the Alba Bible, after its eventual owner, it is the most important manuscript to have survived from the reign of King John II.
The Alba Bible, with its 515 folios and 334 miniatures, is a powerful work of visual art. But still more significant is the vast commentary it contains. Rabbi Moses showed great independence and courage, and his translation and commentary make few concessions to Christian thinking. It is rich in extracts not only from rabbinical writings such as the Targumim, Midrashim and Talmud, but also from later works such as the Zohar. Rabbi Moses gave the artists detailed instructions on the illustrations, furnishing them with specifically Jewish interpretations of biblical scenes.
It is remarkable that the Jewish view is the one that is regularly portrayed: no other extant manuscript contains so many rabbinically inspired miniatures. Cain kills Abel by biting his neck like a serpent, exactly as is described in the Zohar, for instance. We know that Rabbi Moses Arragel finished the manuscript on Friday 2 June 1430 in Maqueda, but a long time afterwards he had still not been paid for his work. All sight of him is then lost. Most off the Jews of Maqueda converted to Christianity at the end of the fifteenth century, but the name Arragel does not appear among those who were baptized. The Alba Bible seems to be his only monument.
After the manuscript left his hands it was scrutinised by Franciscan censors in Toledo until 1433. From there it was passed to the University of Salamanca and it was finally submitted to detailed examination at the Franciscan monastery in Toledo. This culminated in a public disputation at which theologians, knights, Jews and Moors argued their views. Following this, the manuscript disappeared until 1622 and it is now housed in the great library of the Liria Palace, seat of the Grand Duke of Alba and Berwick.
Spanish Jewry had great powers of recovery. This unique work shows how, despite the prevailingly negative attitudes to the Jews and the looming problem of the conversos, enlightened personal initiatives could still carry great weight in Jewish-Christian relations.
The paper for this facsimile has been especially milled in Italy, and has the exact feel and opacity of the original parchment. The facsimile and its companion volume will be published in a limited edition of five hundred copies. The facsimile is bound in a Mudéjar style morocco binding.