The Art of Three Faiths: Torah, Bible, Qur'an

Copies of the Torah, Christian Bible, and Qur’an are among the most beautifully illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, illustrated here by three remarkable examples from the Getty Museum's collections.

Decorated Text Page, Book of Exodus, from Rothschild Pentateuch (1296) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum


The Torah is the central sacred text of Judaism. In the strictest sense, the word refers to the Pentateuch (“five books” in Greek), which contains the books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Illuminated copies of the Hebrew Bible in codex form (rather than Torah scrolls) began to appear in the mid-thirteenth century.

In northern Europe, these manuscripts served the needs of members of the Ashkenazi Jewish community who had settled in the areas along the Rhine River (now western Germany and northern France). Lavishly illustrated Hebrew manuscripts are exceedingly rare, since Jewish artisans were forbidden by law to join painting guilds. Hebrew manuscripts were often written by itinerant Jewish scribes and illuminated by local (sometimes Christian) artists.

Illumination of the Hebrew Bible centers on the calligraphic forms of Hebrew letters, such as initials, word panels, or decorative frames around blocks of text.

Decorated Text Page, Book of Leviticus, from Rothschild Pentateuch (1296) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The Rothschild Pentateuch

The Rothschild Pentateuch is one of the most elaborately illuminated copies of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible created in the Middle Ages, and is the first Hebrew manuscript to be added to the collection of the Getty Museum. The vitality of the illuminations and the powerful beauty of the letterforms place this Torah among the masterpieces of medieval Hebrew book illumination. Portions of the Torah, based on prescribed weekly readings, are heralded by ornate panels in which letters stand out against colorful backgrounds. 

Decorated Text Page, Book of Numbers (Carpet Page) from Rothschild Pentateuch (1296) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Throughout its more than one thousand pages, the Rothschild Pentateuch features a variety of illuminated motifs that range from the imposing to the whimsical.

Ornamental Hebrew initials and words, gilded or in brilliant colors, dominate the pages, enhanced by a vast array of vibrant figures in the margins.

Decorated Text Page, Book of Numbers, from Rothschild Pentateuch (1296) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Fantastical beasts, animal-human hybrids, and plant forms weave intricate patterns around the highly decorative pages.

Decorated Text Page, Book of Genesis, from Rothschild Pentateuch (1296) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

It also contains extensive examples of micrography, a unique medieval art form developed by Jewish scribes, in which marginal notations written in tiny letters form elaborate geometric designs or shapes of plants and animals that meander along the perimeter of the pages.

Menorah of the Tabernacle, Book of Leviticus, from Rothschild Pentateuch (1287) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

A commanding, shimmering menorah introduces the book of Leviticus. This book documents the proper care of the implements used in the Tabernacle (the earthly dwelling place of God), including the pure gold menorah.

The towers that surmount the illumination evoke the setting of the Tabernacle, where the menorah served as the only source of light.

Decorated Text Page, Book of Genesis, from Rothschild Pentateuch (1296) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The manuscript takes its name from the Rothschild family, famed collectors who owned it in the early twentieth century. The family donated it to the university library in Frankfurt, Germany, sometime before 1920, where it remained throughout World War II. In 1950, the manuscript was part of an exchange between the German government and a Jewish family for land in Frankfurt that had been seized during the war.

The Getty acquired the manuscript from this family in 2018, the result of a thirty-five-year search to extend the breadth of the collection and to share a distinguished example of medieval Hebrew manuscript illumination.

Decorated Text Page, from Rothschild Pentateuch (1296) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Reading the Pentateuch

Each page of the manuscript is divided into portions reserved for different aspects of its reading and comprehension. All of the texts are read from right to left.

At the center is the text of the Torah itself, written in a formal, square Hebrew script. It is accompanied by two sets of markings, one indicating the vowels ("nikkud") and the other specifying the way the text is to be chanted in ritual contexts ("te’amin," cantillation symbols).

The upper and lower margins contain the "masorah magna," a commentary devoted to textual details such as the number of occurrences of individual words, which was intended to preserve the accuracy of the text of the Torah over time.

This commentary written in micrography takes the shape of a fantastic beast.

In the outer margin is commentary by Rashi, an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki (1040–1105). His commentary on the Torah as recorded in the Rothschild Pentateuch is one of the earliest dated copies of this text to survive.

The inner margin (the text on the far left in this view) is occupied by Targum Onkelos, the Aramaic translation of the Torah, with additional interpretation. In a tradition dating to the second century, when Aramaic was commonly spoken, the Torah was read aloud in both Hebrew and Aramaic.

At the bottom left is a catchword, a guide to assembling the parts of a manuscript (or book) in the correct order. Catchwords, which appear at the end of a group of pages, give the first word of the next group.

Moses Addressing the Israelites Book of Deuteronomy (about 1450–1500) by Joel ben SimeonThe J. Paul Getty Museum

New Additions

Sometime in the second half of the fifteenth century, one of the folios of the original manuscript was replaced by this insertion, which carefully replicated the original text and commentaries. By this time, however, the manuscript had traveled to Italy, and the illumination reflects a contemporary aesthetic. This folio can be identified as the work of one of the most celebrated Jewish scribe-artists of the Renaissance, Joel ben Simeon.

Initial P: Saint Paul (about 1450) by Stefan LochnerThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Christian Bible

Among the earliest bound and illuminated codices from the Mediterranean world are copies of the Christian Bible written in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Ge’ez, Armenian, and other languages. The first part of the Christian Bible consists of texts from the Hebrew Bible—referred to since the second century by Christian writers as the Old Testament ("Vetus Testamentum"). The New Testament ("Novum Testamentum") comprises accounts of Christ’s life (the Gospels), letters to churches or individuals from his disciples, such as the Apostles Peter and Paul, and a text about the end of time known as Apocalypse or Revelation.

Initial P: Saint Paul with a Sword (about 1450) by Stefan LochnerThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Illuminated Bibles—handwritten and printed alike—are among the most enduring forms of Christian book art produced during the Middle Ages. Produced at a time when Johannes Gutenberg (about 1390–1468) began printing the first books in Europe with movable type, this handwritten Bible observes centuries-old hallmarks of manuscript production, including:

carefully ruled lines (visible in the margins) arranged in two columns . . .

embellished with decorated letters . . .

and pen flourishes.

Initial P: Saint Paul (about 1450) by Stefan LochnerThe J. Paul Getty Museum

On these pages, within the larger initial the artist depicted the Apostle Paul gesturing toward the words attributed to him.

Alternating blue and red letters at the top indicate the book of the Bible—the Letter to the Romans and to the Corinthians.

Phrases written in red indicate the beginning or ending of a book.

This lavish copy of the Christian Bible was made for the cathedral of Cologne, Germany.

Decorated Text Pages (Sūrat al-An‘ām 6:121–122), Bifolium from a Fragmentary Qur'an (9th century ce / second century ah) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum


The words that the angel Jibril (Gabriel) recited to the prophet Muhammad ibn Abdullah (about 560–632) formed the sacred text of the Qur’an, which Muslims believe to be the words of God. The opening line, “In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful," a central tenet of Islam that expresses submission to the will of Allah (God), is repeated in almost every "surah" (chapter). 

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Islamic world spanned a vast territory, from the Iberian Peninsula to northern and coastal Africa, across the Mediterranean basin, and as far as Central and Eastern Asia. Muslims transmitted scripture through oral tradition and in written form for the first few centuries, and later recorded it through beautiful and ornate calligraphy. Artists incorporated Quranic verses into books, textiles, coins, ceramics, and architecture, demonstrating reverence for the written word.

The scribe of this Qur’an began by tracing the shapes of the Arabic letters on a ground layer, and then adroitly adhered sheets of gold leaf, reserved in Islamic art for the word of Allah (God).

Next, the letterforms were outlined in brown ink.

And finally, vowel sounds were indicated by short slashes or colored dots in red, blue, and green.

Ornamental rosettes ("shamsa") mark the end of a "surah" (verse) or contain the number of the surah.

And this intricately ornamented facing page of alternating gold and blue text includes word counts.

The text would have been recited aloud in a mosque, perhaps at the Great Mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia, where the manuscript may have been produced in the ninth century, or the second century AH ("Anno Hegirae"), according to the Islamic lunar calendar.

Credits: Story

© 2020 J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

A version of this material was published in 2018 as the in-gallery text accompanying the exhibition "Art of Three Faiths: A Torah, a Bible, and a Qur’an," August 7, 2018–February 3, 2019, at the Getty Center.

Further Reading:
An Introduction to the Rothschild Pentateuch

Books That Bind: Passover and the Rothschild Pentateuch

To cite these texts, please use: "Art of Three Faiths: A Torah, a Bible, and a Qur’an," published online in 2020 via Google Arts & Culture, Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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