Manuscript Ketubah: The Research Behind the Design

by Ariela

Manuscript Ketubah

Manuscript Ketubah

I have a serious aversion to including design elements that mean nothing just to look cool. Whenever I put binary in a piece, it actually says something. I have done a custom piece with live Javascript forming the roots of a tree and two different ketubot with musical notation for the cantillation of the clients' favorite verses from the Song of Songs. 

When I started working on the Mansucript ketubah art, I knew that there would be research involved. Illuminations have extensive symbolism and iconography associated with them, and I would no more pick and choose images for this design at random than I would include garbage code in a piece about programming - aside from pinching my own sensibilities, it would likely be most irritating to the target audience. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of experience with the study of illuminated manuscripts. Sure, I look at them more frequently than the average person on the street, I'm a calligrapher. But beyond recognizing certain alphabets (what we now call "fonts") and artistic styles as being typical of certain eras and places, I don't actually know much. I certainly don't know enough about the symbolism to avoid accidentally putting something utterly inappropriate in the design. To the research-mobile!

I got a bunch of academic articles from and JSTOR, and while they were very helpful, they didn't cover everything I needed. I used their bibliographies as a jumping-off point to compile a further reading list. Some visits to the Chicago Public Library and a bunch of Inter-Library Loan requests later, I had a bunch of notes and a good start on reference images. 

Psalter owned by Owen Jones, dated between 1400 and 1424 C.E. National Art Library: MSL/1902/1683

Psalter owned by Owen Jones, dated between 1400 and 1424 C.E.
National Art Library: MSL/1902/1683

The Layout

I made a conscious decision not to limit my reference and inspiration images to historical ketubot. There are plenty of reproductions of actual historical ketubot, and I wanted this to be something different. I also wanted to appeal to a wider audience: from RenFaire afficionad@s to fantasy-lovers to history geeks.

I wound up looking primarily at Psalters and Books of Hours for inspiration for my layout. I liked the layouts, with an off-center text and illumination that spread to the edges. I chose to base the core box area around the text most heavily on the page shown to the left, MSL/1902/1683, known as the Owen Jones Psalter, after its former owner. I fell in love with the scrollwork in the frame around the edges of the text and liked the discrete circles with more representational imagery. Some manuscripts mix the representational stuff in with the vines, and I decided I didn't like that as much.

With that choice, I also chose a time frame: circa 1400 C.E. This helped me narrow down the rest of my reference images to a more manageable selection.

I also chose to use the Owen Jones as a primary reference for my color palette and color usage. While most Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts have similar palettes, due to the pigment that was available, the application can differ greatly to very different effect, and I decided that maintaining the Owen Jones color usage would act as a unifying effect to tie together the elements from various sources. 

I collected most of my online reference images into a Pinterest board that you can see here.

The Imagery

Imagery and in Medieval and Renaissance illumination was loaded with symbolism. So this was the place that I focused most of my research. In particular, the religious elements were a minefield. There was overt antisemitic imagery running through Medieval manuscripts in particular, and I wanted to avoid that at all costs. On the other hand, Jews sometimes appropriated Christian imagery and used it to subvert the anti-semitic narrative, so simply limiting myself to imagery found in Jewish sources would not suffice to avoid it entirely.

Moreover, I didn't simply want to avoid using offensive imagery and symbols, I wanted to use positive ones that would be appropriate for a marriage contract. I also wanted to keep them neutral enough that they would not be off-putting to non-Jewish couples who might be interested in the design with the Secular English text.

I consulted Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature by Mark Michael Epstein, and Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink, edited by Epstein, to choose motifs that would make the most sense.


Even before I started on the animal images, I put the cluster of pomegranates up at the top. Pomegranates are one of the Seven Species named in the bible as being particular products of the Land of Israel, part of G-d's promise to the Children of Israel of plenty when they settle in the land promised to them. While I found no particular Medieval or Renaissance symbolism assigned to them, I folded them in as fitting with the twining vine, acanthus leaf, and flower motif that runs throughout manuscript illumination of this period.


The first animal I chose was the peacock. In addition to being beautiful, peacocks are immortal in Jewish mythology. Thus they frequently appear in images where the hope is for something to last, such as a marriage. They continue to be a common visual trope in ketubot today, and I felt it was a perfect place to start the imagery of the Manuscript ketubah.


The second was the elephant. While the elephant and castle has warlike connotations, elephants eventually came to symbolize stability in Medieval Christian illumination. In Jewish illuminations, this theme of stability was picked up and carried one step further - the elephant in Jewish illuminations was a representation of the Torah, whose stability underlies all Jewish life. Elephants have a tendency to look rather bizarre in Medieval and Renaissance illumination, seeming largely to be drawn by people who are copying copies of drawings made based on bad descriptions of elephants. I chose the least silly reference image I could find.


The fish is a common element in lots of Jewish symbolism, written, visual, and also food. Fish is a symbol of fecundity, productivity, and plenty, as G-d blesses fish in Genesis 1:22 to be fruitful and multiply. This is why many people have the custom of eating fish heads on the new year; the head for the new year and the fish for abundance. They are not terribly popular on modern ketubot compared to peacocks, and I liked the element of being unusual while still fitting the imagery well. I put the fish on a contrasting background of burgundy, however, because I couldn't bring myself to reproduce contemporary water imagery.


The final symbol is the daffodil. The daffodil, also known as the narcissus, is identified by Baruch Sienna as being the flower actually meant by the שושנה named in the Song of Songs, not a lily as it is usually translated.

The Fonts

The fonts were also a challenge. I wanted something that could be contemporary with the Owens Psalter. The English was easy to choose, as the Owens Psalter has a Roman alphabet in it. I used a variation of the Gothic Blackletter alphabet (also known as Ye Olde English Fonte) called Textura, with illuminated Ws that look notably different from those in the rest of the text, but are nonetheless standard for illuminated Gothic Ws.

Ashkenazic semicursive

Ashkenazic semicursive

The Hebrew was more of a challenge. I wanted to use something specifically used in Hebrew codices at the time, not a hand that would be used in a Torah. An obvious choice would have been the Ashkenazic semicursive, but aside from having issues finding good, high-resolution images of the complete alphabet in that hand, I was worried it would not be readable for your average reader.

Eventually I settled on using the script from the Birds Head Haggadah, from circa 1400 C.E. in Germany. Learning to write it was an immense challege, as they shaped their pens entirely differently back then. But I am very happy with the result.

Do you have a question about the Manuscript Ketubah? Tweet at us! We're @geekcalligraphy.