Jews, Christians, Muslims and Mormons are all known, and know each other, as people “of the Book”. The holy books to which they subscribe are all loosely traceable to the Mosaic Torah, first written down about 700 BC and equivalent to the first five books of the Christian Old Testament. By displaying a rich selection of texts in this tradition from three of the Abrahamic faiths (Mormonism is ignored), the British Library in London, in this new exhibition entitled Sacred, invites us to come and discover “what we share”.
The “we” may seem a touch invidious in a country where Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion is a bestseller. But never mind. This exhibition is not about tough theologies that believers, from all three faiths, are sometimes prepared to kill and/or die for. An Andy Warhol painting doesn’t tell you how Campbell’s soup tastes and, in the same way, we are here concerned with the packaging, not the contents, of sacred books.
There are a few scrolls and fragments on show, not least the unembellishable Torah scroll (a vital element in Judaic ceremonial) and a scrap from the Dead Sea Scrolls, whose discovery in the last century put a bomb under biblical scholarship. But the majority of texts exhibited are a product of the particular technology and aesthetic of the easiest-to-use reading method ever invented, the codex or bound book. It is in such manuscript codices – of testaments, Torahs and Qur’ans, and all sorts of psalters, prayer books and commentaries – that the British Library collection is rich.
Wherever Jews, Christians and Muslims co-existed, they naturally shared trends and tastes in book design. One element in Hebrew manuscripts is the delightful phenomenon of micrographics – appearing originally in the Near East, later in medieval Europe – where the normally printed scriptures are embellished on the page by notes (or masorah) in minutely written lines that swoop and curl playfully around the central block of text to form frames, cartouches and marginal decorations. These can be geometrical, floral, architectural or even, under the influence of Christian scribal practice, figurative. In the Duke of Sussex’s 14th-century German Pentateuch, the masorah are shaped micrographically into nightmarish grotesques, similar to the bizarre painted marginal inventions in the illuminated Luttrell Psalter, a magnificent Christian book from the same period.
Qur’anic decoration, never of course figurative, has a glorious obsession with lush, highly complex decorative symmetry. This is evident in the textual framing of Islamic manuscripts, but even more in the so-called “carpet pages”, frontispieces in which the designer’s dizzying skills are given full rein. A brilliant one is from Sultan Baybar’s seven-volume Qur’an – a rectangular blaze of coloured inks and burnished gold, emblazoning the useful but hardly sacred information of the volume number. An early 16th-century Coptic Christian psalter closely imitates this style, complete with a geometric carpet-page and textual layout, but with another page going where a Muslim illuminator would not dare – depicting King David, in a style close to Byzantine iconography.
Several more exhibits show these traditions coalescing on practical matters, while profoundly disagreeing on theological ones. But a number of manuscripts shown are must-see treasures in their own right: Henry VIII’s psalter (in which he is portrayed as King David), the fantastic Monte Casino Psalter with its riotous initial letters, the delicate floral framing in a Hebrew/Aramaic dual-language Torah, the phenomenal frontispiece of the printed Great Bible of Miles Coverdale. And lovers of calligraphy should not stay away. From the heavy barge-like words of ninth-century Kufic script to the strong but delicate handwriting of Donald Jackson’s St John’s Bible, a work on parchment still in
progress, this whole exhibition is a calligraphic feast.
‘Sacred: What We Share’, The Brtish Library, London NW1, until September 23, tel +44 (0)20 7412 7332. Sponsored by the Coexist Foundation, the Moroccan British Society and the St Catherine Foundation