In the age of the Kindle, it’s hard to imagine that not so long ago few people could read and that books were rare and expensive objects that only the rich could afford. Before Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized book production in the early 1450s by printing the Bible—the first major book produced in the West with movable type—each volume had to be copied by hand. Even after Gutenberg’s breakthrough, scribes still bent over their labors, and to this day Jews produce Torah scrolls and other sacred texts by hand.
But there was a boon to the hand-copied texts: Those created for the very wealthy were decorated with exquisite floral and geometric ornamentation and figurative miniatures. The ones that have survived are among our civilization’s greatest treasures, and some are preserved in the great libraries and museums. Often they are shown only to a handful of scholars; only occasionally are they displayed to the public.
Now the New York Public Library is showing rare manuscripts from its collection in an exhibition titled Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. The idea for this exhibition, running through February 27, 2011, at the library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, grew out of a 2007 show at the British Museum, called Sacred, which I had a chance to see during a stopover on my way home from Boston.
I love old manuscripts. They make me feel as if I am directly in touch with the past. But in London, as I gazed at the beautiful illuminations I felt as if I had touched the divine—the highest expression of the creative spark in humankind.
The theme of the sacred texts of the three monotheistic religions is clearly in fashion; it was also the subject of an exhibition titled East-West: The Spiritual Roots of Europe, that ran through April 2010 at the Martin Bodmer Foundation Library and Museum, in Geneva. The museum is a repository of exquisite rare texts and works of art with a literary connection, beautifully displayed. A visit to the museum was the highlight of my working visit to Geneva.
One of the first things I learned about illuminated manuscripts as an undergraduate was that the third commandment’s prohibition against graven images was often disregarded, even in Judaism and Islam. In Jewish art, a famous instance in which human faces were avoided was the Birds’ Head Haggadah, created in Germany around 1300, but in many other Jewish texts, such as the Sarajevo Haggadah, human faces appear.
While visiting Sarajevo in 2006 to research a story, I had a chance to see that 14th-century haggadah, which is the city’s most famous Jewish treasure. In one of its 34 brilliantly colored, full-page illuminations, Potiphar’s wife grasps Joseph’s red cloak as she attempts to seduce him.
Created in Spain, this is perhaps the best-known and most valuable illuminated Jewish manuscript. It was rediscovered in 1894, when a child whose father had died, leaving the family destitute, brought it to school to try to sell it. It eventually passed into the possession of the Sarajevo Museum, where it was hidden from the Nazis during World War II and was hidden again during the last war. Today it is displayed along with other priceless illuminated manuscripts in a high-security room in the Land Museum (as the Sarajevo Museum is called today) and may be viewed only by advance arrangement.
It is ironic that St. Petersburg, a city in which all things Jewish were banned by the Soviets, is the home of the earliest known complete Hebrew Bible, written in Egypt in 1008 to 1010 and known as the Leningrad Codex. It is in the State Library, which has one of the world’s largest collections of Jewish manuscripts. Even as a journalist I needed connections to enter the early manuscripts department, which is closed to the general public. And though I got in, I was shown only a facsimile of the famous codex. Still, it sent a thrill up my spine. And I did see the original of a partial Torah manuscript with gold illuminations, dating to 929.
When the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, reopened in July 2010 after a three-year expansion and redesign, one of its new sections, in the Jewish art and life wing, was a gallery exhibiting Hebrew illuminated manuscripts. Among them is Maimonides’ Mishne Torah, created in the 15th century with illuminations by one of the finest workshops of miniature painting in northern Italy. The illumination on display depicts the high priests of the Temple, in Renaissance dress, carrying out the sacrifices.
Another illuminated manuscript is Musa Nama (the book of Moses), a poetical compilation of biblical books in Judeo-Persian. Created in Tibriz, Persia, in 1686, it has miniatures that reflect Muslim influence and reveal the clothing and customs of the period.
The Kindle doesn’t hold a candle to these treasures. But luckily for armchair travelers, more and more libraries and museums have technology that allows visitors to their Web sites to view some of their most beautiful manuscripts.
Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author. Image (c) British Library Board.