Codex Choumach (Picture Pentateuch of Moses dal Castellazzo)

Codex Choumach (Picture Pentateuch of Moses dal Castellazzo) – Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt (ADEVA) – Codex 1164 – Żydowski Instytut Historyczny (Warsaw, Poland)

Venice (Italy) — 16th century

A Jewish illustrated Bible despite the ban on images thanks to the exemption granted by the "Council of Ten" in Venice: Moses dal Castellazzo's impressive woodcuts in an illuminated pictorial chronicle of the Old Testament

  1. This gorgeous Hebrew manuscript features detailed woodcuts by the great Moses dal Castellazzo

  2. Marginal notes in 16th century Venetian dialect suggest that it was the possession of a Christian bibliophile

  3. This is only one of two works of Judaica which is not text-based, but dominated by imagery

Codex Choumach (Picture Pentateuch of Moses dal Castellazzo)

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  1. Description
  2. Facsimile Editions (1)
Codex Choumach (Picture Pentateuch of Moses dal Castellazzo)

An extraordinary rarity: since the prohibition of images in the Decalogue was interpreted much more strictly in Judaism than in Christianity, a Jewish picture Bible should not actually exist. For this reason, Moses dal Castellazzo (1467-1527) needed an exceptional decision from the Venetian "Council of Ten" before the portrait painter and engraver, famous throughout Italy for his artistry, was allowed to express the essential statements of the Pentateuch in his moving colored pen drawings from 1521. They are surprisingly simple, sober, and so reduced to the essentials that they seem almost modern. Yet it is possible that it was precisely through his eye for the essentials in his pictures that the brilliant artist wanted to contribute to a new understanding of the Old Testament prohibition on images. Marginal notes in the Venetian dialect of the 16th century then also indicate that the owner of this particular work was a Christian bibliophile.

Bilder-Pentateuch des Moses da Castellazzo (Choumach-Codex)

The Picture Pentateuch of Moses dal Castellazzo is a Hebrew picture Bible telling the story of the first five books of the Old Testament (Pentateuch). Unlike an illustrated Bible in which the word of God is explained with images, it contains a series of images complete with explanatory legends and Bible verses as headings. The only Jewish parallels to this method of illustration is the Sephardic Pesach-Haggadot. The Warsaw codex is the unique copy of a series of woodcuts, now lost, by Moses dal Castellazzo. Some bibliophile, probably not Jewish but rather a Christian humanist, had it made in the mid–16th century. The pictures in this manuscript, which are outstanding in cultural history, are simple pen drawings colored only occasionally in red, brown, or green tones. The illustrated cycle begins with the Creation, followed by narratives of the five books, and ends with Moses’ death. Several pictorial traditions melt into a harmonious whole in the Picture Pentateuch of Moses dal Castellazzo. The work not only drew the attention of contemporaries, but still catches the interest of many today because of its originality. It is considered a monument which lowers the curtain on a dying epoch.

A Biblical Picture Book

The main feature of the Picture Pentateuch is not its text but its pictures, whose meanings are explained in a few lines. Moreover, the individual biblical events are not portrayed in a single illustration, but are frequently reproduced in a sequence of scenes showing the same protagonists at several stages of the narrative, in the manner of an illustrated chronicle. In line with Hebrew tradition, the pictures are to be read from right to left. The recto pages of the leaves usually have two separate pen drawings set in a frame, while the verso pages have been left blank. The upper margins in nearly all the pictures are filled with one or two lines of Hebrew text, passages of verses from the Bible referring to the picture below. The much larger lower margins of the pages almost always show legends in Italian, consisting of several lines and explaining or completing the picture situated immediately above. Occasionally, the text refers to particularities of the rabbinical tradition represented in the picture. The language is a 16th century Venetian dialect and the letter form also indicates the mid–16th century.

Moses dal Castellazzo

Moses dal Castellazzo was well known in Jewish circles as a painter who enjoyed great reputation. In a letter addressed to the Venice "Council of the Ten" in 1521, he mentioned that he produces woodcuts and requested the exclusive right to print and sell a woodcut series of the Pentateuch, a privilege that was finally granted to him. The printing method for woodcut had already been in use for half a century, when Johannes Gutenberg printed his first Latin Bible between 1452 and 1455. Moses dal Castellazzo used the same printing method to render the first five books of the Old Testament intelligible by means of pictures. He employed multiple sources, several picture Bible manuscripts and woodcut illustrations from early Venetian prints, to which he added contemporary elements, especially costumes. By doing so, Moses dal Castellazzo successfully saved the picture Bible tradition for the new age of printed books and, with the help of the new technology, created a printed, instead of a painted, picture Bible. The great enthusiasm for this woodcut series is not least evidenced by the existence of the Warsaw codex, which represents a copy of this unique document from the end of an era.


Alternative Titles
Bilder-Pentateuch des Moses da Castellazzo
Size / Format
246 pages / 24.1 × 19.5 cm
16th century
123 full-page colored pen and ink drawings
Artist / School

Available facsimile editions:
Codex Choumach (Picture Pentateuch of Moses dal Castellazzo) – Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt (ADEVA) – Codex 1164 – Żydowski Instytut Historyczny (Warsaw, Poland)
Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt (ADEVA) – Graz, 1986
Limited Edition: 950 copies
Facsimile Editions

#1 Codex Choumach

Limited Edition: 950 copies
Binding: Bound in burgundy imitation leather with gold print
Commentary: 1 volume (184 pages) by Kurt Schubert and Ursula Schubert
Languages: German, French, Hebrew, Polish

Prepared by scholars of the Institute of Jewish Studies of the University in Vienna under the direction of Kurt and Ursula Schubert and other internationally known researchers.
1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size) Reproduction of the entire original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding. All folios are cut according to the original.
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