The Altona Haggadah: The conservation and rebinding of an 18th-century illuminated manuscript

By Doris St-Jacques, Lynn Curry and Maria Trojan-Bedynski

The 1763 Haggadah manuscript is part of the Jacob M. Lowy collection of Judaica and Hebraica at Library and Archives Canada. It was created in Altona, Germany, which at the time was one of the Danish monarchy’s most important harbour towns and a major center of Jewish life and scholarship. The manuscript could be described as a sophisticated form of folk art and an important social document, giving testimony to how middle-class Ashkenazi Jewish families celebrated Passover. The Haggadah contains 97 illuminated miniatures and was intended to be read during the Jewish Passover Seder meal.

An analysis of the 48 pages of handmade paper textblock conducted at the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) revealed that the text is handwritten in iron gall ink and the pigments used in the miniature paintings are predominantly vermilion (red), Prussian blue, and atacamite/verdigris (green copper-based). A yellow glaze-like paint was also identified and the gold-toned colours were found to contain flakes of brass.

The paper, inks and many painted areas were in fragile condition due to corrosion of the iron gall inks and the copper-based pigments. There are also large brown stains on several pages caused by splashed red wine, likely having occurred during the Seder meal.

Two close-up colour images of pages from the manuscript. On the left, Hebrew writing with cracks in the ink letters and on the right, some colour miniature paintings in red and green.

Two examples of cracks and losses in the manuscript, caused by the corrosive nature of the iron gall inks and copper-based pigments.

Over 20 years ago, the Haggadah was removed from its covers for deacidification of the textblock and repair of cracks and tears. A more recent examination of the manuscript revealed new cracks and losses in the paper, inks and pigments (media). It was evident that the previous deacidification treatment was unable to completely protect the paper from continued deterioration. Damage caused by the corrosion of copper-based media is a problem in archival collections worldwide. To find a treatment that would protect the Haggadah media from further corrosion, a joint research project between Library and Archives Canada (LAC) and CCI was conducted to test known antioxidants. Due to the water sensitivity of the media in the Haggadah, only solvent-based antioxidants were included in the research project.

Laboratory-prepared inks and pigments similar to that of the Haggadah—iron gall ink, iron-copper ink, atacamite and verdigris pigments—were applied to strips of paper. These samples were then artificially aged to simulate the aged paper and media of the Haggadah. The aged samples were then treated with one of the six treatment combinations used in the study, followed by additional heat aging intended to simulate the effectiveness of the various treatments after many years. Tests conducted on the samples included colour analysis, pH measurements and strength testing of the paper, carried out before and after the treatments and aging.

Colour photograph of laboratory material: four clear glass containers placed side by side with a sheet of paper in each one and bottles of chemicals behind them.

Ink and pigment samples in glass trays are being treated with solvent-based antioxidants.

We will confirm the results of this project with other research studies before selecting a specific antioxidant treatment for the Haggadah. In the meantime, the cracks and losses in the paper were mechanically stabilized using a solvent-remoistenable, ultra-thin transparent paper called Berlin tissue, which had been pre-coated with gelatin. Gelatin is known to prevent the spread of corrosive iron ions further into the surrounding paper.

Close-up images side by side of an old, opaque repair and a new transparent repair which allows the text to be read easily through it.

On the left, a close-up of an old repair, which obscured the text beneath. On the right, a new ultra-thin Berlin tissue repair, which allows the text to be read easily.

To prevent the transfer of inks, pigments or corrosion products onto facing pages, interleaving paper was required. Though the Haggadah was not being treated directly with an antioxidant, we decided to improve the aging properties of the manuscript indirectly by impregnating the interleaving papers with both an alkaline buffer and an antioxidant.

It was not possible to re-use the damaged original cover boards of the binding for various reasons. Instead, possible binding structures were researched and many samples were created and tested. We concluded that a sewn-board binding would meet the requirements for the Haggadah. The binding opens flat and stress-free and will provide optimal support during handling. Using supple boards and very little adhesive, the binding integrates the interleaving tissue, is dimensionally stable, and will be reversible in the future if further treatments of the Haggadah are conducted. The sewn-board binding style is also documented and supported as a conservation binding for 17th to 19th century volumes, so it was an appropriate style for the Haggadah.

On the left, a close-up of a hand holding a page of a book and a needle piercing through the page. On the right, a close-up of the bottom spine of the book laying open on a table.

On the left, a conservator is sewing the interleaving into the textblock. On the right, the sewn-board binding is open showing that the manuscript can be viewed without stress.

To be consistent with the design elements on the covers of the previous binding, the new leather covers were finished with blind tooling, which is the impressing of text or a design on a book cover without the use of colour or gold leaf. Five small fleuron were blind stamped onto the spine to provide a visual clue to the orientation of the book, which opens left to right.

The newly bound Haggadah manuscript is currently stored in a custom clamshell box along with the original covers in a controlled environment of 18°C and 40% RH. Its condition has been greatly improved, and it can now be handled safely while awaiting a future antioxidant treatment.

For more historical information, read the previous blog, “From the Lowy Room: the brightly illuminated manuscript of the Altona Haggadah.”

Links to articles about the conservation of the 1763 Altona Haggadah:

Tse, Season, Maria Trojan-Bedynski and Doris St-Jacques. “Treatment Considerations for the Haggadah Prayer Book: Evaluation of Two Antioxidants for Treatment of Copper-Containing Inks and Colorants.” The Book and Paper Group Annual, American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 31, 2012, pp. 87–97.

St-Jacques, Doris, Maria Bedynski, Lynn Curry, Season Tse. A 1763 Illuminated Haggadah Manuscript: How Ineffective Past Treatments Resulted in an Antioxidant Research Project, Impacting Current Treatment Decisions.” Paper Conservation: Decisions and Compromises, Vienna, 17–19 April 2013, pp. 17–20.

Bedynski, Maria, Doris St-Jacques, Lynn Curry, Season Tse. “The Altonah Haggadah: The History, Conservation and Rebinding of an Eighteenth-Century Illuminated Manuscript.” Care and Conservation of Manuscripts 14: Proceedings of the thirteenth international seminar held at the University of Copenhagen, 17–19 October 2012, Museum Tusculanum Press, edited by M.J. Driscoll pp. 157–176.

“Collaborative Research on Antioxidants and Its Impact on Treatment Decisions for the 1763 Altona Haggadah.” Annual Review 2012–2013, Canadian Conservation Institute, pp. 6–7.

Doris St-Jacques is Paper Conservator in the Preservation Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Lynn Curry is a Book Conservator in the Preservation Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Maria Trojan-Bedynski is a Paper Conservator in the Preservation Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

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