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‘Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries’ comes to New York this fall

The Jewish Museum in New York will be featuring over 60 medieval Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin manuscripts this fall as it presents a new exhibition based on works found in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries will be running from September 14, 2012 through February 3, 2013.

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.

In an interview with Reuters, Nahson says that the exhibit “highlights the role of the Hebrew book as the meeting place of cultures in the Middle Ages, mostly in Europe. Jews were living amid Christians and Muslims and transmitted culture through translations of work.”

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.

Click here to visit the Jewish Museum website

Click here to read more about Crossing Borders: Hebrew Manuscripts as a Meeting-place of Cultures exhibition that was held in 2009

Sources: Jewish Museum, Reuters

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