The Dance of Miriam and preparation for Seder, from the Golden Haggadah by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

The Dance of Miriam and Preparation for Seder, from the Golden Haggadah, c.1320–30, Illuminated manuscript, 245 x 190/195 mm, The British Library, London, Add MS 27210, fol. 15r, © The British Library Board (Add MS 27210, fol. 15)

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The Frame Drum

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The Golden Haggadah is a Hebrew service book for the celebration of Passover Eve that originally belonged to a wealthy medieval Jewish family. Richly illuminated, the manuscript was produced in Catalonia in the early fourteenth century. Each full-page miniature comprises four panels meant to be read from right to left (beginning at the upper right)—as when reading Hebrew.  

This is the Golden Haggadah’s final fully-illuminated folio, and its first panel shows Miriam’s victory song (Exodus 15:20), followed by the preparations for the ritual Seder in the three accompanying panels: the distribution of matzoh and horoset to children at the upper left; the cleaning of a house by the women in preparation for the Passover at the lower right; and the slaughter of the Passover lamb and the purification of utensils at the lower left .

It is interesting that the decision was made to highlight Miriam’s Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:20) in this folio rather than the song recited by her brother Moses (vv.1–19). In making this choice, the focus of attention is directed to her ritual leadership of a religious and politically significant ceremony: the celebration of the deliverance of the Israelites from their enemy.

Miriam is depicted as a young maiden, clad in an elegant medieval gown. She holds a small square frame drum (adufe) decorated with an Islamic motif, alongside three other female musicians who play a lute—an instrument associated with the female form (Dowling Long 2011: 108–113)—a circular frame drum (pandero), the cymbal, and clappers.  

Interestingly, in many cultures, the adufe or frame drum is a woman’s drum, associated with female sexuality. Often it is the only drum that women are permitted to use (Montagu 2007: 29)—a tradition that continues in parts of Portugal and Spain today (Cohen 2008). Doubleday (2008: 13) notes that the drum is ‘a symbol par excellence of the womb’, with the drum skin signifying ‘the unbroken hymen’, and the women’s drum playing ‘likened to sexual intercourse’ (ibid: 28).  

It is no wonder that the artists of the Golden Haggadah included it in their depiction of Miriam playing her ‘timbrel’, alongside other scenes of Jewish domestic life, where a women’s role, as a mother and a homemaker, are considered pivotal in nurturing and sustaining the religious life of the community.   

 

References

Cohen, Judith R. 2008. ‘“This Drum I Play”: Women and Square Frame Drums in Portugal and Spain’, Ethnomusicology Forum, 17.1: 95–124

Doubleday, Veronica. 2008. ‘An Overview of Musical Instruments and Gender’, Ethnomusicology Forum, 17.1: 3–39

Dowling Long, Siobhán. 2011. ‘Musical Instruments in Biblical Art: Evaristo Baschensis’s Still Life with Musical Instruments’, in Bible, Art, Gallery, ed. by Martin O’Kane (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix), pp. 97–121

Montagu, Jeremy. 2007. Origins and Development of Musical Instruments (Lanham: Scarecrow Press)

Saulter, Cia. 2010. The Miriam Tradition: Teaching Embodied Torah (Urbana: University of Illinois)


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