Miriam and Companions Dancing. Unknown, Spanish, from the Golden Haggadah, c. 1320. British Museum, London.

Miriam is a female character from the Old Testament Bible who features in the Book of Exodus. She is a popular figure among Jewish feminists because she is a relatively strong woman doing many noble tasks, like saving her baby brother, Moses, and ensuring his survival to adulthood by acting as his nursemaid as well as providing a well, which was the source of water for the Israelites in their forty year wander through the desert.

She is depicted here in a contemporary style with several female companions in the Golden Haggadah made in Barcelona, Spain, for a wealthy Jewish family around 1320. It was illuminated by two unnamed artists whose style would have been influenced by the French Gothic tradition.

The manuscript is a Haggadah, meaning “narration” or “telling” and is the service book used by Jewish families for the ‘seder’, a ritual meal eaten on the eve of the Passover festival. The Golden Haggadah, so named because of the use of gold leaf, is to be read right to left and shows stories from the Books of Genesis and Exodus as well as scenes of Jewish ritual. It is typically the most decorated of Jewish texts.

Miriam is said to have sung a song in celebration of God drowning the Pharaoh’s army in the sea. Perhaps this is that scene, as she holds a timbrel (tambourine) and is joined by maidens dancing and playing musical instruments of the time. The curve of the women’s bodies and the fact that they are dancing and holding hands may point at a contemporary courtly dance.

Although being Spain and showing women of Middle Eastern origin, this is clearly an idealized contemporary interpretation. The females are depicted very much alike, with few distinguishing features, seeming all to the standard of slim, long wavy blondes that were typical fashion of European texts.

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