After spending but a few moments in the opening gallery of the new exhibition at the Jewish Museum of New York, I was struck by an epiphany of sorts. Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries literally stopped me in my tracks.
Normally, a powerful reaction such as I felt occurs toward the end of surveying an art exhibit. But the effect of viewing the frayed, timeworn pages of ancient religious texts and symbolical illustrations from medieval manuscripts hit me right at the start.
How fragile, how easily consigned to the flames are the precious documents of heavenly wisdom and human philosophy. Yet, how indomitable is the spirit to preserve sacred scripture. How passionate is the universal desire for truth!
To look at one of the treasures on display in this wonderful exhibit, the Kennicott Bible, is to view an example of the shared heritage of Jews, Christians and Muslims. This is the key note of Crossing Borders. The Kennicott Bible and the other stunning, hand-written works on display show the “cross-pollination” of art and ideas among the cultured elites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam during the Middle Ages. More to the point, it is a testament to the shared devotion of these three faiths to the same God.
The Kennicott Bible contains the Hebrew Old Testament and a grammatical treatise, Sefer Mikhlol. It was the joint creation of a master calligrapher, Moses ibn Zabara, with pictures by Joseph ibn Hayyim. There is a veil of mystery surrounding this wondrous Hebrew book. It was commissioned by a local Jewish leader in 1476 at La Corunna, Spain. The date and place are very problematical. The year 1476 occurred in the twilight of the medieval Spanish civilization in which Jews and Muslims had played such a significant role. In less than two decades, the Christian rulers of Spain decreed that both religious groups would have to choose conversion to Christianity or exile.
The place of origin of the Kennicott Bible is also puzzling. La Corunna is in the northwestern part of Spain, overlooking the Atlantic coast. The Christian “Reconquista” of Spain had begun in that region, centuries before. By the end of the 1400’s, most of the remaining Jewish communities were centered in the extreme south, where the last Muslim enclaves held out until the fall of Granada in 1492. How did this impressive Hebrew Bible emerge from such unpromising circumstances?
Finally, there is the mystery of how the Kennicott Bible survived. Between 1476 and 1771, when Benjamin Kennicott, an English clergyman and Hebrew scholar, acquired it for 50 guineas for Oxford University, no record of its provenance exists. For nearly three centuries, the Kennicott Bible simply, and perhaps fortunately, dropped out of sight.
Perhaps it was the very air of impending doom in the years before the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492 that led to the creation of the Kennicott Bible. If so, this profoundly beautiful work is a testament to the civilization which Jews, Muslims and Christians created together in Spain, before religious intolerance brought it to ruin.
If the “backstory” of the Kennicott Bible is remarkable, so too is that of the institution which preserves it. Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries brings over sixty precious medieval illuminated texts from the famed Oxford University archive founded by the Elizabethan scholar and diplomat, Sir Thomas Bodley in 1602. Bodley (1545-1613) was the very model of a Renaissance Man. But he was also a fervent Protestant. Since the Reformation emphasized the primacy of Bible reading over religious ritual, many Protestant scholars like Bodley devoted themselves to studying Hebrew in order to better understand sacred scriptures.
Bodley, who is depicted in one of Nicholas Hilliard’s miniature portraits on display in the exhibit, served as the ambassador of Queen Elizabeth I to the Netherlands from 1588 to 1596. The Dutch were then fighting the mighty Spanish Empire with the support of England. Worn out by this difficult diplomatic post, as well as political infighting at home, Bodley retired in 1597. He looked about for some useful, if less stressful, work. He found it in restoring a library at Oxford University, Duke Humfrey’s Library. Once one of the most prestigious institutions at Oxford, Duke Humfrey’s Library had suffered the loss of its books and furnishings during a wave of Protestant extremism during the 1550’s.
In his original plan to restock the library, Bodley intended to collect only rare scholarly works such as those displayed in the Jewish Museum exhibit. Bodley viewed contemporary English literature with contempt, this in the age of Marlowe, Shakespeare and Donne! But he then changed his mind after realizing the value of works published in his own native tongue.
In two master strokes, Bodley transformed his library renovation project into a major cultural event. First, he appealed for financial help from his network of friends and colleagues at Queen Elizabeth’s court. Aiming to “stirre up other mens benevolence,” Bodley prominently displayed a book recording the names of all the donors, who included Sir Walter Raleigh. This fund-raising technique is still very much in use. Then in 1610, he appealed to the Stationers Company, the government-chartered guild overseeing the publishing industry, to receive one copy of every book published in England. The Bodleian Library became the first deposit library in modern times and a forbearer of the Library of Congress.
Crossing Borders displays artifacts related to the birth of the Bodleian Library. But the stars of the exhibit are the illuminated manuscripts which trace the inter-linked revival of learning in the Middle Ages. This occurred long before the traditional fifteenth century date of the Renaissance and the invention of the printing press during the 1450’s. Indeed, an innovation of equal importance to movable type made the medieval quest for knowledge possible. This was the codex, a book with pages, as opposed to the scrolls used in ancient times. By the fourth century, Christian books in Latin were predominantly being created in codex form. According to the exhibition commentary, it took longer for Jewish writers and scribes to adopt the codex, though the few surviving Jewish books from late antiquity and the early Middle Ages make it difficult to say when Jewish codices became common.
One of the first items on display in Crossing Borders is a rare survival, a page from a codex, dating to the third century. It is a fragment with quotations from a biblical commentary by the great Jewish sage, Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus. But Philo wrote in Greek and the papyrus page is from a Christian work also written in Greek.
By the twelfth century, a time of great intellectual ferment in Europe, Jewish codices were certainly in use. Indicative of the manuscripts on display in Crossing Borders is the Michael Mahzor from this time period. Deriving from the Hebrew word mahazor meaning “cycle,” a mahzor was a prayer book devoted to the cycle of religious festivals throughout the Jewish liturgical year. The book of Jewish daily prayers was known as the siddur, so a mahzor was a book for special occasions.
The Michael Mahzor is truly a special book in its own right. A two-volume codex, it was written in 1258 by Judah ben Samuel. Like most mahzorim, the Michael Mahzor was created in the Rhineland area of Germany, where a thriving Jewish community lived during the Middle Ages. The inhabitants of Jewish enclaves in the cities along the Rhine had much to pray for, as they were frequently targeted for vicious attacks by Christians on their way to the Crusades.
The Michael Mahzor is the earliest known and dated mahzor with illustrations and shows the roots of the thriving mahzorim tradition of the thirteen and fourteenth centuries. However, it is the pictures in the Michael Mahzor that account for much of its fame. Most of the book’s illustrations of humans are done in the Jewish tradition with veiled faces. But the elaborate initial-word panel, shown here, was created in the tradition of Christian devotional books. The dramatic hunting scene is shown upside down. Was this the result of contracting the work to a Christian artist ignorant of Hebrew script? That is one interpretation. But other scholars note that the scene illustrates the month of Adar during which the fate of Jews was reversed in ancient Persia, saving them from destruction. If so, this could be a reference to the survival of the Rhineland Jews during the Crusading-era pogroms.
One of the most notable features of these Jewish codices is the way that artistic motifs from the surrounding Islamic or Christian cultures were incorporated into the lavish decoration of the books. Imaginary beasts populated the margins, just as they did in Christian books from the same period. These decorative elements rarely compromised Jewish law set down in the Torah and Talmud.
In the case of the exquisite book of legal instruction, Even ha-Ezer (The Stone of Help), dating to 1438, accommodation with the forms of Christian art was taken to an unprecedented degree. In this depiction of Paradise before the Fall, Adam and Eve are shown with uncovered faces, as well as bodies. Even more striking, God is portrayed in human form. This illustration is thought to be the work of a Christian artist, but the inclusion of such realistic figurative art in a Jewish book is remarkable all the same.
If Crossing Borders shows how artistic motifs from these three faiths were embraced and utilized by the others, it also emphasizes the even more important spread of ideas.
The primary site for this intellectual exchange was Spain. Following the capture of Toledo by the resurgent Christian forces in 1085, this city served as a virtual “think tank” for Western Europe. A Christian cleric, Archbishop Raymond of Toledo, established a library attached to his cathedral and assembled a team of Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars to study its mass of books drawn from all over the Mediterranean world. During the years 1126 to 1151, Raymond’s dynamic leadership sparked an intellectual revolution which many call the “Renaissance of the Twelfth Century.”
Archbishop Raymond sponsored an academy specializing in translating texts from Arabic into Latin, the Escuela de Traductores de Toledo. Most of the translators, at least in the first decades, were Jews who aided Christian scholars like the celebrated Gerard of Cremona, in their pursuit of ancient knowledge. Gerard eventually learned Arabic himself and in 1175 completed the translation of Ptolemy’s treatise on astronomy, the Almagest.
One of the most important Muslim sages whose works were translated into Latin during this period was Ibn Sina, or Avicenna (981-1037) as he became known in the West. One of the great medical minds in world history, Avicenna compiled much of Greek and Arab science into an encyclopedic work, along with his own original research. Known as the Qanun or Canon of Medicine, it was translated during the thirteenth century by another scholar named Gerard (de Sabloneta) who worked in the glittering, cosmopolitan court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Fredrick II.
The Crossing Borders exhibition has a copy of Avicenna’s Canon from Egypt, dating to the 1400s. The title page bears notations from five owners in Arabic and one in Hebrew, signed by “Abraham ben Samuel of priestly descent.” It is a telling indication of how greatly this work was valued during the late Middle Ages.
Crossing Borders also exhibits a delightful example of popular literature which was translated from Arabic into Hebrew and then passed onto the West. This was a collection of animal fables, originally from India, known as Kalila and Dimna. These were the names of the two jackals who figure in many of the stories.
Beautifully illustrated manuscripts like the Kennicott Bible and Kalila and Dimna are bound to be crowd pleasers among the visitors to Crossing Borders. This is especially true for those works that are complemented by digital touch screens that enable “turning” the pages to view major portions of the book, not just the pages that are opened in the display case.
But some of the less eye-catching works on display are equally compelling. Chief among these are works believed to be hand-written by the greatest of Jewish medieval philosophers, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1135–1204), better known as Maimonides. The author of a vast body of work, spanning religion, philosophy and medical science, Maimonides is chiefly remembered for his book The Guide for the Perplexed which is still widely read today. One of the texts on display in Crossing Borders is almost certainly to have been personally written by Maimonides. This is a draft of part of his epochal commentary on the Jewish scriptures, the Mishneh Torah. It was discovered in the Cairo Genizah, a synagogue storeroom where old manuscripts and documents were stored. Jewish law forbade any texts, even a legal deed, to be destroyed if the name of God was invoked on them. To burn or discard them was considered sacrilegious.
Two enterprising Scottish women, the twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson went to Egypt in 1896 and heard about the Genizah. It was located in the Fustat section of Cairo where Maimonides lived. The Genizah archive contained a staggering total of 210,000 texts, documents or fragments, opening up a window on the Middle Ages and Jewish life which has never been equaled. The two sisters brought some of the Genizah documents back to the noted Hebrew scholar Solomon Schechter, at Cambridge University in England. Schechter’s path-breaking study of this priceless depository has enabled historians to understand the vanished world where Jews played a central role, along with Christian and Muslim scholars, in the great intellectual revolution of the Late Middle Ages.
We may have documents written by Maimonides’ own hand but we do not know what he looked like. Of course, the wondrous texts from the Bodleian speak for scholars like Maimonides. But the exhibit concludes with a portrait of David ben Abraham Oppenheimer, the Chief Rabbi of the city of Prague during the early 1700’s. A siddur, or book of Jewish daily prayers, owned by Oppenheimer, is displayed also. It was part of his magnificent personal library of 780 manuscripts and 4,200 printed books which the Bodleian purchased in 1829.
Oppenheimer’s portrait and his prayer book give a personal dimension to Crossing Borders – and a tragic note. For much of his life, Oppenheimer did not have ready access to his books. Facing censorship in Prague, he had to store them in the home of his father-in-law in Germany.
This is not just a footnote to history but reminds us that these intellectual masterpieces had to survive ages of persecution. Their presence in this magnificent exhibition was made possible by untold dedication and courage.
Maimonides wrote in The Guide for the Perplexed that the great secrets of life are not completely known even to wise men and sages. But there are times, Maimonides affirms, when “truth flashes out to us so that we think that it is day, and then matter and habit in their various forms conceal it so that we find ourselves again in an obscure night, almost as we were at first. We are like someone in a very dark night over whom lightning flashes time and time again.”
There have been many dark nights of the mind and soul since Maimonides wrote those words. But thanks to him and the other authors, scribes and artists of the beautiful books on display at the Jewish Museum, the lighting flashes of truth have always outlasted the blackness.
Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries appears at The Jewish Museum, 1109 5th Ave at 92nd St, New York NY (September 14, 2011 – February 3, 2013