The Jewish Museum's 'Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries' Exhibition Begins 9/14

The Jewish Museum's 'Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries' Exhibition Begins 9/14

England's Bodleian Library at Oxford University, established by Sir Thomas Bodley in 1602 and now the largest of the University's group of 'Bodleian Libraries', is renowned for its great treasures. Among them is one of the most important collections of medieval Hebrew illuminated manuscripts in the world. The Jewish Museum will present Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries from September 14, 2012 through February 3, 2013. This exhibition will feature over 60 works - Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin manuscripts - the majority of which have never been seen in the United States.

Included will be the splendid Kennicott Bible as well as two works in the hand of Maimonides, one of the most prominent Jewish philosophers and rabbinic authorities. This presentation showcases a selection from the Bodleian's superb holdings within the larger context of the history of medieval Christian Hebraism - the study by Christian scholars of the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic sources, which first received full expression in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. As Protestantism took hold in the sixteenth century, Hebraist trends resurged, sparking interest in the collecting of Hebrew books, and propelling the formation of the Bodleian's outstanding Hebraica collection.

This exhibition is based on Crossing Borders: Hebrew Manuscripts as a Meeting-place of Cultures co-curated by Piet van Boxel and Sabine Arndt for The Bodleian Library . The New York City presentation has been organized by The Jewish Museum's Curator Claudia Nahson.

Scholar and diplomat Sir Thomas Bodley began establishing the Bodleian Library in 1598 after retiring as ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I and devoted the rest of his life to building its collection. Bodley in fact reopened the library room at Oxford that had been completed in 1488 to house a collection of manuscripts given by Duke Humfrey of Gloucester (1390-1447). But in 1550 during the Reformation, it was stripped and left abandoned. A staunch Protestant, whose family had fled England during Queen Mary's Catholic reign, Bodley was also a humanist and Christian Hebraist who viewed the creation of a Hebraica collection as integral to his vision for the new library. It would be housed in a masterpiece of English Gothic and Jacobean architecture, and is today one of the oldest libraries in Europe.

Composed of three thematic sections, the exhibition opens with three exquisitely illuminated Hebrew manuscripts representing the main European centers of medieval production-Ashkenaz (Franco-German origin), Sepharad (Spanish or Portuguese origin) and Italian. The first section covers the early dissociation between Christianity and Judaism to later medieval Christian attempts at finding common ground with Judaism. Reinforcing the early separation between the two faiths, Christians began using the codex or book while Jews held fast to the roll format. Leaves of the codex could be used on both sides and be made more portable, unlike scrolls, and thereby accelerated the propagation of Christianity. On view is one of the two earliest Latin Gospel Books extant from the British Isles, dating to the late 6th or 7th century, and one of the earliest known Hebrew codices. By the middle of the 12th century, Christian scholars began seeking out learned Jews to explain readings of the Hebrew Bible and, by the 13th century, actively studied the language, consulting original Hebrew texts in an effort to better understand the Scriptures.

A great cross-fertilization between Christians, Muslims and Jews occurred during the late Middle Ages in arts, sciences and the culture at large, which is the focus of the second section. Significant works by Greek, Muslim and Jewish authors were translated from Arabic to Latin, often with the help of Jewish scholars. Writings of famous ancient Greek thinkers like Aristotle, Hippocrates, Euclid and Ptolemy were suddenly available, making a world of ideas accessible to many in Europe for the first time. The most famous work in the show, the magnificent Kennicott Bible, is displayed in this section with its Islamic, Christian and popular motifs merging in one single work. A Jewish scribe and a Jewish artist created this beautifully illuminated manuscript in Corunna, Spain in 1476, almost two decades before the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula.

The final section is devoted to understanding the Bodleian's Hebraica collection as an important sign of Christian Hebraism's resurgence in the 16th century. Some of the most exceptional examples of Hebrew manuscripts anywhere, all with stellar provenances, demonstrate the library's more than four-century-long commitment to Hebraica. Nicholas Hilliard's exquisite miniature portrait of Sir Thomas Bodley is paired with George Gower's stunning 1579 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (reigned, 1558-1603) during whose rule the library was established. A great treasure is Queen Elizabeth's Book of Oxford presented to the Queen in 1566 upon her visit to Oxford. This book opens with a poem on the importance of Hebrew learning encouraging the Queen to continue the work of her father, Henry VIII, in supporting the study of the language at the university. And so it has been for over 450 years through a royally endowed position that ensures the study of Hebrew and Jewish culture and religion to this day.

The cross-cultural approach presented in Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries is very much in the spirit of Thomas Bodley's founding vision for his library. In his time as today, it transcends ideological and religious boundaries to create a broader framework within which the rich legacy of Christians, Muslims, and Jews can be better understood.
This exhibition is based on Crossing Borders: Hebrew Manuscripts as a Meeting-place of Cultures, co-curated by Piet van Boxel and Sabine Arndt for The Bodleian Library, Oxford, United Kingdom, in 2009. The Jewish Museum presentation has been organized by Claudia Nahson, Curator.

Leadership support for Crossing Borders: Medieval Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries is provided by the David Berg Foundation. Generous support is provided by The Achelis Foundation and the Joseph Alexander Foundation, with additional in-kind support from George S. Blumenthal. This presentation is made possible with endowment support from The Jewish Museum Centennial Exhibition Fund and the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Exhibition Fund.

 

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