The earliest known visual travelogue to the Holy Land documents a 14th-century pilgrim’s journey

September 17, 2021 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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Just in time for Sukkot, one of the three pilgrimage festivals in Judaism, the Israel Museum presents the earliest, most detailed and comprehensive depiction of the holy places in the Land of Israel: A parchment scroll, the work of a medieval Jewish artist-pilgrim from Egypt, whose imagery reflects a wealth of customs and traditions associated with the pilgrimage to holy sites—many of them shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Tower of David, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze

The exquisite scroll has recently arrived at the Israel Museum, where it will be displayed in Israel for the first time as the centrepiece of the Painting a Pilgrimage exhibition, opening this month. 

Examining the scroll

The Florence Scroll (so named after its eventual place of discovery) was created by a 14th-century Jewish painter from Cairo, who set out on a pilgrimage to the holy sites, in a journey from Egypt in the south to Lebanon in the north. Originally measuring more than eleven meters in length, the scroll depicts its creator’s journey and portrays sites in these lands, as well as Jordan and Israel, including the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Temple Mount. 

Around the mid-14th century, the scroll arrived in Italy, probably by Italian pilgrims, and eventually found its way into the collections of the National Central Library in Florence. In 2008, it was discovered there by chance by Dr Rachel Sarfati, Chief Curator of the Israel Museum’s Wing for Jewish Art and Life. Researching in the world’s great libraries ahead of a 1990s exhibition at the Museum, Dr Sarfati was captivated by the colourful scroll and embarked on a journey of her own, to discover its origins and history. The scroll had been initially catalogued as dating to the 19th century, but she found that in fact, it had been created five centuries earlier. 

The Florence Scroll unfolds a sweeping view of sanctified places, Some of these sites no longer exist; others continue to be visited by pilgrims today. Thanks to a medieval Jewish artist-pilgrim from Egypt, we have been granted a glimpse of the physical and religious landscape of our region in his time.

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