Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Bodleian's Crossing Borders Exhibit

I finally went to NYC to see Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries at the Jewish Museum. Like several other displays of manuscripts since 9/11, Crossing Borders aims to show the cultural interplay and continuity between Jewish, and Christian and Muslim manuscript cultures in the middle Ages. It does this most successfully by setting side by side copies of Euclid's Geometry in Latin, Hebrew and Arabic, all from the 13th and 14th centuries. The exhibit's centerpiece, the illuminated Kennicott Hebrew bible (late 15th c.), also appears next to the carpet pages of an illuminated Qur'an and a 13th-century Arabic gospel.

The exhibition is less thorough than others have been in carrying through this theme. Its underlying goal shows through of exhibiting the Bodleian's hebraica collection, which has been growing steadily for 400 years. The exhibition hall with elaborate woodworking, dark red walls, and dark interior reinforced the Oxford effect.

The exhibit shows the maturation of using electronic technology to show more  of a book than just the two pages open in the exhibit case. Many of the exhibit cases included built-in tablets that allowed visitors to browse more pages and zoom in on details. The Kennicott Bible was accompanied by five tablets that allowed browsing every single page of this illuminated Bible. Now that people are increasingly familiar with using cell phones and tablets, this is a very user-friendly interface. It is the culmination of a trend that began with the British Library's "turning the pages" displays more than a decade ago.

Most striking to me were the set of folio-sized and illuminated commentaries from the 12th to 15th centuries. They included Herbert of Bosham's glosses on Lombard's commentary on the Psalms (12th c., at left), a Hebrew Bible with Rashi's glosses (13th c.), Nicholas of Lyra's two-volume biblical commentary (14th c.), and Jacob Ben Asher's Evev ha-Ezer (15th c.). They contrasted with the more utilitarian sized and produced works of Maimonides and Richard of St. Victor. The illuminations of the folio volumes (especially Herbert's glosses) rivaled the Bibles and prayer books displayed beside them. Obviously, they must have been produced for wealthy patrons or institutions. Still, it is surprising to see so much wealth invested in scholarly products.

The exhibit remains at the Jewish Museum until February 3rd.

ADDENDUM: Zak Braiterman summarized his reaction to seeing the Kennicott Bible, both on display and online here, in this way: "So what does this Bible look like? Austere and illuminated. Black, gold, red, blue. Carefully tended. Deluxe. I think this says a lot about the Spanish Jewish milieu in which this thing was produced. Does it say anything about the Bible itself? It suggests something about the plastic character of a text, including Holy Writ, something about the shape of its appearance. We’re so used to reading the Bible, to the idea that the Bible is something to be read, that we lose sight of its objecthood and the fact that it is also something to look at. The decorative device frames the physical text and also its “sense.” ... I’m pretty sure that this is not the same Bible that “we” read today. “Our” Bible is more folksy and Ashkenazi. This one is very aristocratic and Sephardic. And private."

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