Since 1602, the Bodleian Library at Oxford University has been an international center for book culture. Some of its greatest treasures are currently on display (until February 3) at the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue (at 92nd Street) in New York City.
The exhibit is titled “Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries,” and its organizing theme is the crosscultural influences that were at play between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in the mediaeval and early-modern periods. There is, for example, a 1354 manuscript of the Arabic-language Kalila wa Dimna (itself a translation of the Indian collection of fables called the Panchatantra), right next to a 15th-century Hebrew translation of the Kalila wa Dimna made from the Arabic, which is right next to a late-15th-century Latin translation of that work from the Hebrew. Similarly, the exhibit features copies of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, in Arabic (1238), Latin (13th century), and Hebrew (1374–75); and 15th-century Jewish and Christian illuminated manuscripts using the visual motif of the virgin and the unicorn.
This theme of cultural interactions and borrowings is a helpful one, especially at a time when many are tempted to focus on clashes (sometimes violent) between civilizations. But the items in this exhibit are simply too beautiful to be reduced to a single, common moral theme, beyond the one that asserts that beauty is an end in itself. Take, for example, this page from the Arabic copy of Euclid’s Elements:
This is a manifestation of pure intellect — and a work of art as well. I am a mathematical abecedarian, and thus would probably not be able to understand this page even if it were translated into the plainest English. But it makes me envy everyone I know who has a mathematical cast of mind; it shows to the initiated, and hints to the rest of us, the power of the human mind, and reminds us that the truth is the same, no matter what language is used to communicate it.
Among the other highlights are an autograph draft of part of the Mishneh Torah, the Jewish civil-law book, written by Moses Maimonides in his own hand, circa 1180:
Maimonides is the most important Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages, the Jewish counterpart to Thomas Aquinas in Christianity; indeed, Aquinas cited him in his writings (referring to him as “Rabbi Moses”).
One item in the exhibit demonstrates the progress of our knowledge about antiquity: a tenth-century Hebrew fragment from the Book of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus). Until this fragment was found in Cairo in the 19th century, we had no knowledge of a Hebrew version of this book; it existed solely in Greek. (It is excluded from the Jewish canon of the Hebrew Scriptures and most Protestant copies of the Old Testament, but is considered Sacred Scripture by Catholics.)
The centerpiece of the exhibit is the Kennicott Bible, an imposing illuminated manuscript created in Spain in 1476. It fell into unknown hands sometime around the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and found its way into the hands of a prominent Oxford librarian, Benjamin Kennicott, in the 18th century. The book is open to this page:
The curators have found a solution to the No. 1 downside of exhibiting books: If you let people leaf through a rare book, you risk damaging it — so you put the book under glass and have it open to only one place for weeks on end. At the Bodleian exhibit, there are iPad-like tablets that allow you to look at images of the Kennicott Bible page by page and thereby get a sense of the work as a whole. (You can page through it here as well, on the Jewish Museum’s website.)
If you’re in New York, take the time to explore these remarkable artifacts. The exhibit is just nine blocks north of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and well worth your time.
— Michael Potemra is literary editor of National Review.