Several months ago, the Los Angeles art collaborative Fallen Fruit (David Burns and Austin Young) began an artist residency at the Skirball to develop an installation for our Ruby Gallery. Fallen Fruit’s community-based projects use fruit as a medium to explore social engagement, so we invited them to search our collection of Jewish artifacts for anything fruit related! After surveying a range of fine art and ritual objects featuring figs, etrogs, apples, oranges, and many other fruits, they could not take their eyes off of a seventeenth-century ketubbah that was richly decorated with fruit and animal motifs, zodiac signs, and biblical scenes.
In Hebrew ketubbah (plural, ketubbot) literally means “what is written.” It is the term used for a marriage contract, a custom that originated in biblical times. In an era when women were regarded as property rather than as equals, its purpose was to protect the married woman in the event that she was divorced or widowed. It specified that she must receive a material sum, including the dowry she brought to the marriage, to assure her support and well-being. Over the centuries the ketubbah has evolved in many Jewish communities from a legal document to a symbolic expression of mutual love and respect between equal partners. Today, particularly in the United States, many couples compose their own ketubbah texts and personalize the design.
The Skirball has one of the most prominent collections of ketubbot in the world, with over 430 in the collection from countries such as Italy, Egypt, Persia, Germany, and the United States. A majority of the collection belongs to the special tradition, developed in Jewish art, of the decorated marriage contract. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, the custom of illuminated ketubbot flourished in areas of Sephardi settlement such as Italy, Amsterdam, London, North Africa, and the Near East. Nearly half of the entire Skirball collection consists of ketubbot produced in Italy during the golden age of the illuminated ketubbah, from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.
The particular ketubbah that inspired Fallen Fruit’s project is from Busseto, Italy. The traditional Hebrew text was copied by the scribe in 1677, and this text was set in its beautifully crafted frame about a century later. The frame includes an inner border constructed with an intricate die-cut technique. The contract is signed by two rabbis from the Busseto community to sanction the marriage of the bridegroom, Jacob, son of Eliezer Mogil, and the bride, Dolce, daughter of the late Isaac Navarra, on March 5, 1677. Made out of parchment (animal skin), the ketubbah features five biblical episodes and twelve signs of the zodiac set in roundels. The upper edge is devoted to scenes from the story of Adam and Eve. As Eve extends her arm to pick a fruit that resembles a pomegranate, the inscription reads: “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:13). Other biblical scenes include Delilah cutting Samson’s hair and Jacob’s ladder. In order to put this exceptional ketubbah on display, we first had to enlist the help of a conservator who specializes in manuscript treatment. The conservator’s job is to keep the piece from deteriorating and to ensure its long-term preservation.
Conserving the Busseto ketubbah required a few steps. First, there were some flaking pigments of paint that had to be fixed—a common problem for ketubbot, since they are painted on the flesh side of the parchment, which has a smooth surface that causes paint to come off over time. Small tears in the parchment also needed to be repaired by joining them with Japanese tissue fibers. For display purposes, our conservator then hinged the ketubbah to secure it to a mat.
Finally, weights were applied to assure that the treated area lay flat upon drying. Come see this glorious artifact, now on display in our core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, and visit the art installation Fallen Fruit of the Skirball in the Ruby Gallery (located right outside the café) while you’re here! We are grateful to the artists for their inspiration, which has revived this treasured example of Jewish heritage. Shopping for a ketubbah? View the fine selection at Audrey’s Museum Store, or shop online.