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Art history from below: the imagery of the Cairo Genizah

T-S K5.82
T-S K5.82 (recto), one of the Genizah artworks featured in the exhibition as "The Ark and Evil Eye".
Author: 
Sarah Sykes
Wed 26 May 2021

Scattered through the many Genizah manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah are doodles and page decorations, drawings and designs. When studying and cataloguing thousands of pages of text you will only come across these pictures on occasion, and often, if you are busy deciphering the handwriting and identifying the author, the pictures can be an interesting sideline, a bit of light-hearted amusement or only given a brief glance.

Now, however, Pinar Zararsiz, during her internship (2019-2020) at the Woolf Institute in Cambridge, has gathered together many, and a wide variety of, examples of the artwork hidden among the texts.

Brendel Lang, artist and art historian, had for some years taken a particular interest in artwork to be found in the Genizah, and the Unit’s researchers would send her details of images and the classmarks where they could be found so that she could examine them further and render her own drawings. She pointed Pinar in the direction of many interesting pieces, and on further exploration, with the help of Dr Miriam Wagner (Exec. Dir. at the Woolf Institute and sometime Genizah researcher), added more to the collection of images to be investigated.

The culmination of this work is now to be seen in a new exhibition at the Woolf Institute which opened on a wet and windy afternoon on 21 May 2021. Introduced by Miriam, Pinar explained how she had brought together this disparate selection of drawings connected by one thing – that they came out of the Cairo Genizah. An art historian herself, she set to the task of investigating the history and story behind each picture working out its likely provenance and investigating the cultural, religious and historic meanings often hidden in plain sight within the images – obvious to the Cairene of the Middle Ages, but not at all to our modern eyes. She has picked out the meaning of a colour used here, an ornamentation there and gradually pieced together the historical clues which shine new light on these treasures within treasure, which she divulges in the description alongside each picture.

The pictures have been hung in the Woolf Institute’s stairwell, along with a brief description and a QR code which, once scanned, links to a short recording with additional information about each picture. It is amazing to see the rich selection of artwork to be found in the Genizah, from a seemingly simple line drawing of Noah’s ark, full of symbolism, to an ornate calendar pictured as a glowing sun to many colourful ketubba, there are many amazing pictures with fascinating stories. 

The exhibition is open to the public, currently by booking through enquiries@woolf.cam.ac.uk. Later in the year, as pandemic restrictions ease, it is hoped that people will be able to drop in and view at their leisure. If you are unable to visit in person you can visit virtually. A catalogue containing the pictures and descriptions is also available. 

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