Friday, January 3, 2014

‘Flashback Friday: Holy Texts at NYPL’

You’ve heard of Throwback Thursday? Well, this is Flashback Friday, the inaugural post of a hopefully weekly feature that will discuss topics from the past that I didn’t get around to writing about in a timely manner.

Three years ago, the New York Public Library hosted a magnificent exhibition titled Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, consisting of 200 religious texts. There were Torahs, Tanakhs, and Talmuds; Gospels and Epistles; Korans, Kabbalah, and keys to the unknown. Halahkah and Hadith; Midrash and medieval art; prayer books and legal interpretations; translations and commentaries. Calligraphy and illumination; woodcuts and bejeweling; scrolls of animal skins, and books of paper bound in silver, bound in gold. Possibly every expression of Abrahamic religious thought, from advice to Zohar, was on display, presented not in contrast, but in community. This is why I bring it here, albeit belatedly.

I didn’t even get to see everything, because it took so long to make my way around the Wachenheim Gallery of the Schwarzman Building—trying to take in the sites and sneak all this photography, which the library doesn’t permit—that closing time struck before I completed the circuit. (Although I did score a great parking spot right on 42nd Street, a personal best.)

Sorry for the blurred photographs; nearly everything was protected under glass, and—thanks to the photography ban—I had to be pretty quick. (Sorry NYPL, but there’s really no valid reason to prohibit non-flash photography.)

The captions below each photo contain solid information provided by the curator and, in certain cases, some of my own editorializing. Remember, if you want a closer look, click on the image for a larger portrayal.

Book containing the Gospels, in Armenian and in a silver binding with enameling, dates to 1623. The central panel on the front cover here shows the infant Jesus being presented to the High Priest in the Temple forty days after His birth. The dozen roundels surrounding the scene depict, in pairs, Hebrew prophets, with rays of revelation falling upon them. Enameling in blues and green.

Muslim prayer book from the 19th century Ottoman Empire. Such books often featured images with religious themes. This one caught my eye. The scales here, according to the explanatory card next to the book, serve to remind the faithful of the weighing of souls that will take place at the end of time. I'm no authority on the Koran, but the image also may remind one of Surah 55: "He has set up the Balance in order that ye may not transgress balance, so establish weight with justice and fall not short in the balance." A concept familiar to all.

Torah scroll, 18th-19th century Ottoman Empire. Pentateuch written by hand on specially prepared animal skins by a professional scribe. Moses penned the first Torah scrolls, thirteen in all; a dozen distributed to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, with the remaining scroll placed inside the Ark of the Covenant with the Ten Commandments. Shown here, appropriately, is Exodus 14:28-21:7, including the Decalogue.

Koran, on paper, 11th-12th century. This Koran's paper and penmanship reveal it originated in the region of today's eastern Iran/Afghanistan not long after paper began to replace vellum in Koran publishing. Its use of red dots is to indicate vowels, an archaic feature.

The Babylonian Talmud, printed by Daniel Bomberg, Venice, 1528. Although not Jewish, Daniel Bomberg was the most prominent printer of Hebrew books in the 16th century, and the crowning achievement of his career was his Babylonian Talmud, the first edition of which was published in 1519. The lengthy handwritten note at the bottom of this page was added in 1618 by a grateful scholar in Yemen, expressing his thanks for having this text available.

"That which is hateful to you,
do not do to your fellow;
this is the entire Torah.
The rest is but commentary.
Go and learn it."

Babylonian Talmud,
Tractate Shabbat 31a

Page of the Talmud dating to medieval Europe. Due to the mass killing of Jews and the burning of their holy texts by Christians in medieval Europe, only one complete copy of the Talmud dating to that period and continent is known to exist today. Some vellum leaves escaped the pyres by being reused for other purposes, as is the case with the page shown here, written by a scribe named Judah.

Ahmad al-Nayrizi's calligraphy. There was a famous calligrapher in the 18th century named Ahmad al-Nayrizi whose work was highly prized, but also embellished by owners of later generations. This manuscript had added to it a hadith, a statement attributed to Muhammad, about the revelation of the Koran. A marginal note says this book was endowed to an institution in 1891.

The Zohar. This is the central work of Jewish mysticism, and actually is a body of 20 works of literature grouped under this single title. (My own copy of the Zohar spans 23 volumes, including an index, and resembles a set of encyclopedias. Even the index has an index within it.) Traditionally attributed to Simeon bar Yohai, a cherished sage of the 2nd century, the Zohar is more rationally thought to have been authored by Moses de Leon (1240-1305), a kabbalist in Spain. The Zohar can be called a mystical midrash, an elaboration on the Hebrew Bible meant to impart lessons into God, the universe, and the role of humanity. This specimen dates to 1559.

And this is a vernacular Zohar. It's hard to believe today, when Kabbalah texts are printed in English and sold on-line, but during the Middle Ages there was potent disagreement over the wisdom of publishing esoteric works like the Zohar. In time, two competing versions would be available: the traditional, as shown in the previous photo, and the vernacular, shown here. Despite the existence of the printing press, the custom of transcribing by hand continued. This book was penned in the 19th century in Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish idiom.

An Orchard of Pomegranates: the Sefirot. In Kabbalah, there are ten divine powers called Sefirot. Scholars have wondered whether they are expressions of the essence of God, or are vessels used to achieve God's earthly purposes. This book is from 1591 Krakow. Moses Cordovero (1522-70) was the scholar credited with reconciling the various beliefs concerning Sefirot.

Kabbalah for the layman — Kabbalah is a Jewish encyclopedia compiling ritual, ethics, and mysticism into a seamless whole. This book, from 1649 Amsterdam, is an example of a “popular” version of Kabbalah, deliberately intended to wrest control of the mystical text from rabbis and scholars. An abridged version published in 1693 put Kabbalah practically into the public domain as it was reprinted fifty times in the coming two centuries. Shown here, on the right page, is a poem in the form of an acrostic using the letters of the authors name, a literary device used frequently by medieval Jewish poets.

Mafatih al-Ghayb (Keys to the Unknown) — Transcribed by Muhammad al-Mawhib in Syria or Egypt, 1364. This volume contains commentary on the seventh through ninth suras of the Koran, cited in short segments, often a verse at a time.

Koran with Persian translation from Iran, 1754. During a period of intense interest in the Koran, many manuscripts were refurbished, having added to them illumination, Persian translations, and marginal notations. This copy shows the religious merits of reciting particular passages of the Koran. Advice is offered about the time and manner such recitations are most appropriate, per the authority of the Imams, such as Ja’far al-Sadiq, who was believed to have had esoteric powers.

"The Iman Ja'far al-Sadiq has said: Whoever recites the Surat al-Rahman in their daily prayers, ... God will honor them ... and say to them: 'Enter Paradise and take your place wherever you like.'"

The Discoverer of the Truth About the Revelation, Vol. 3 (Syria or Egypt, 13th century)  This volume contains comments on suras 13 through 24 of the Koran, and is opened to the commentary on the 19th, titled Sura of Mary, and focuses on the life of the mother of Jesus and her submission to the will of God. Subsequent verses describe the birth of John the Baptist.

The Glossa Interlinearia  Bible, in Latin, from Strasbourg, c. 1480. The Christian standard commentary on the Bible enjoyed a long success throughout the Middle Ages but this, the 'Interlinear Commentary' first written by Anselm of Laon was a further development, and this edition in particular offers color illustrations. Shown on the right page is God as Creator dividing the land from the waters, as related in Genesis.

Christian Hebraism  There is a vast wealth of Christian mystical tradition that ought to occupy the self-described knights and such of chivalric Christian orders, but instead they sometimes seem to prefer tapping into Jewish tradition, thanks, I suppose, to what was called Christian Hebraism. This movement was an offshoot of Renaissance humanism, and was popular among the esotericists of Europe in earlier centuries. It involved the adaptation, often inaccurate, of Jewish texts and scholarship to achieve a better understanding of Christianity and its antecedents. On the plus side, this has led to modern disciplines like comparative religion and Jewish studies. Shown here is a Dutch picture book of the Mishnah, dating to 1698-1703. Willem Surenhuis (1664-1729) worked closely with contemporary Jews who helped him with translation and actually contributed the engravings used to make this book.

Questions and Answers: This is Halakhah, a comprehensive code of rules and regulations based on the 613 commandments in the Torah. Halakhah incorporates the Talmud, and has been the purview of rabbis exclusively because of its massive scope and highly specific commentaries. The questions answered in this volume were submitted from all over the Jewish world to Solomon ibn Adret (1235-1310) in Barcelona. It was published in Rome(!), 1469-72.

And speaking of Mishnah, here is a version with the Commentary of Maimonides from Naples, 1492. This is the first printed edition of the complete Mishnah, the compilation of Oral Law codified in six orders by Judah the Prince, c. 200. Maimonides began writing his Commentary on the Mishnah as a young man, penning for each order an extensive preface and expositions on eschatology, the afterlife, ethics, and Jewish dogma. The illustrations show on these pages depict his understanding of how public and private properties are distinguished, and were the standard concepts for later books of Jewish law.

Luther's New Testament  Translated into German by Martin Luther, Wittenberg, 1522. This is the first edition of Luther's translation, which he based on Erasmus' edition of the Bible in Greek. His translation of the complete Bible appeared in 1534. Shown here is the Gospel of Matthew. The woodblock historiated initial was colored by hand; it depicts St. Matthew and his Evangelist symbol, an angel. The opposite page is a kind of table of contents. Luther, with this translation, accomplished for the German language something akin to what the KJV did for English a century later.

The Holy Bible, Conteyning the Old Testament, and the New  What can you say? The King James Bible and the First Folio of Shakespeare's collected works are the foundations of modern English. The KJV was first published in London in 1611. It is the fruit of the labors of some fifty scholarly Anglicans, sometimes called 'God's secretaries,' who attempted to create a single authoritative English translation of the Scriptures. Here it is opened to Psalm 23.

New Testament in Middle English  Published in England at the end of the 14th century by John Wyclif, this is a vernacular translation, and after it gained some popularity it was suppressed by church and royal authorities opposed to vernacular Bibles. Wyclif (1330-84) was an Oxford scholar, diplomat, and reformer.

Judaism in the New World  This is a prayer book for the Sabbath, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, published in New York by John Holt in 1766, based on a translation by Isaac Pinto. While London in 1766 was home to the largest English-speaking Jewish community, this first English translation of the Hebrew prayer book was printed in British Colonial New York City. Translator Isaac Pinto writes: 'It has been necessary to translate our Prayers, in the Language of the Country wherein it hath pleased the divine Providence to appoint our Lot. In Europe, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews have a Translation in Spanish, which as they generally understand, may be sufficient, but that not being the Case in the British Dominions in America, has induced me to attempt a Translation in English.'

A Bible for Native Americans  Published in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1663, this Bible was intended for the conversion to Puritan Christianity of the native people near the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Algonquin Indians. It also served the purpose of showing the authorities back home in England how their funds were being used.

The Koran in Federal America  You may have noticed I have chosen to spell Koran thusly. It's just a preference for simplicity. In Federal America (c. 1790-1830) the standard English spelling was Alcoran. This book was published in Massachusetts in 1806, and is based on the London version of 1649. Shown here is Sura 22, concerning the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Illustrated Guide  To explain Jewish ceremonies of the Temple period to Christians, woodcuts were made, such as these depicting the Altar of Burnt Offerings and the High Priest in full ceremonial vestments. These pages are within the first Calvinist vernacular Bible printed in Poland, 1563. This particular copy was owned by Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (1773-1843), son of George III of England.

The Apocalypse of Saint John, from either Germany or the Netherlands, c.1465. Published for the illiterate, this book combines color pictures with text to allow a literate reader familiar with Revelation to share the story with those who could not read. The technology, frankly remarkable for the mid 15th century, is called blockbook. It derived from textile printing, and was used even after the invention of movable type. Words and pictures are transferred by manual pressure on the blank reverse of each page, the face of the page having been placed on an inked woodblock or woodblocks.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse  One of 15 woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer, Nuremberg, 1522. The individual import of each horseman—War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death—is debated even today, but this is the image of them that permanently impressed itself upon the public imagination.

The Gutenberg Bible. Again, what can you say? The appearance of the Christian Bible in print marked the great achievement of the second millennium of the Common Era. The mechanical reproduction of St. Jerome's translation into the Latin Vulgate, the standard text in the language universally accessible to the literate of the period, heralded a new age and the wide dissemination of this version, from which so many others would flow.

Tetro Evangelie (Moscow, 1606) is a printed edition of the four Gospels in Church Slavic. Lavishly illuminated by hand in gold and colors, it reflects the "Orientalism" of 17th century Muscuvite design. This illustration, enlarged below, depicts St. John, inspired by divine revelation, dictating his Gospel to Saint Prochoros.

A wonderfully preserved copy of the Bay Psalm Book, Massachusetts, 1640. Named for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, it is the first book printed in English in America. To say its style is plain would be an understatement; in keeping with the monochromatic lives of its Puritan creators, the book uses types brought from England, but does so without any discernible order. However, it is the first to employ Hebrew type in America, denoting a scholarly motivation among the Puritans.

The Good News in Africa 
Published by American missionaries in west-central Africa in 1879, this St. John's Gospel is printed in the Dikele language of the Bakele people. A Reverend Preston, in a letter dated January 1865, revealed how he had translated John's Gospel into Dikele years previously, but it is not known if this is a product of his work.

Title page of a small Jewish prayer book named Small Offering. The title alludes both to the book's own diminutive size and to its popularity as a parting gift to travelers. The text went through several print runs during the mid 19th century in America, as tens of thousands of Jews fled central Europe. This copy is dated 1860.

Found in translation: The word targum means translation in Aramaic, and usually is used to refer to the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, known as Targum Onkelos. This small Pentateuch was designed specifically to allow for the fulfillment of the Talmudic dictum that each individual read the weekly Torah portion twice in the original Hebrew, and once in Aramaic.

The first Bible printed in Spanish, 1553. The Ferrara Bible was based on the Ladino version of the Tanakh used by Sephardic Jews at a time when Jews were not permitted to live as Jews in Spain. Their choices were conversion to Christianity or expulsion from the land. Many opted to keep their faith to themselves while living outwardly as Christians; one version of the Ferrara was printed for Christian readers.

A Hebrew-Yiddish glossary from 1604, titled A Good Lesson. It is arranged in order of the sequence of Biblical texts. Shown here on the left are terms from the opening of Proverbs; on the right is a polemical work by David Kimhi (c.1160-1235) refuting Christian interpretations of the Hebrew Bible.

The Bible in Japanese, published in 1955. Bibles in Japan and the rest of Asia were nothing new by the mid 20th century, although in Japan, toleration of Christianity varied between persecution and some acceptance between the 16th and 19th centuries. After the Second World War, with a national constitution penned by the American-occupation government, Christianity gained actual popularity.

Epithets of God — From 18th century Iran, this selection of texts was compiled for the use of religious students more comfortable with Persian than with Arabic. The traditional epithets of God, recited as a devotional exercise, are given in both languages, and also are rendered numerically.

More from al-Nayrizi 
The calligrapher of this book of prayers also was Ahmad al-Nayrizi. The book, from mid 18th century Iran, contains prayers for every day of the week, and is open here to Friday and Saturday.

Anthology of Suras and Prayers from Iran, 1732. The work of Ahmad al-Nayrizi again. Features prayers in Arabic partially translated into Persian. This duality offers the user prayers appropriate to a wide variety of personal circumstances.

Epithets of the Prophet, Medina, Arabia, 1847. Manuscripts devoted to praises of the Prophet were created for personal use in many parts of the Ottoman Empire. This copy of Dala'il al-Khayrat is a handsome example of such. It is open to a list of names by which the Prophet may be addressed, which often is recited as a litany.

Manual of Divination, from North Africa, 17th century. This contains two medieval Hebrew treatises on the geomantic arts. Geomancy is the practice of divination by means of interpreting a series of dots or points. In standard geomantic practice, 16 different configurations are arrived at by the construction of four horizontal rows, with each element consisting of one or two dots, based on the outcome of a particular chance procedure. The patterns are analyzed, often in conjunction with astrological charts, to allow the practitioner to ascertain the answer to a yes or no question, or to decide between alternatives. (The Biblical prohibition against divination is circumvented by the addition of a layer of mathematical calculation in determining the outcomes.)

Ashkenazic Mahzor — The spread of Judaism around the world results in different prayer rites for different Jewish communities. Ethiopia, China, India, Brooklyn. Though they share the same essential contours, the rites reflect local customs and traditions. Developed in France and Germany, the Ashkenazic rite spread across central and eastern Europe. The architectural gateway shown here frames the text "Who opens the Gates of Mercy," an especially resonant theme during the period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

And an Italian Mahzor, from the late 15th century. Jews lived in Italy since at least the 2nd century BCE. Due to its geographic centrality, Italy served as a point of intellectual contact between Jewish communities as far east as Babylon and as far west as the Iberian Peninsula. Italian Jewry had the Roman rite, which combined several distinct modes of prayer, including the Ashkenazic rite, the Sephardic rite, and that of Greek-speaking Jews. The tree depicted here represents the bitter herbs of the Passover Seder liturgy, and is the only known use of a tree to depict the maror.

Altar Gospels, with gilt binding, from the reign of Catherine the Great. The binding is the work of French-influenced Muscovite craftsmen in 1795. It intentionally draws attention to the Word of God and signals the importance of the Gospels. This text would be placed on the church altar during divine liturgy, and would have been held aloft for the congregation to see prior to that day's Gospel reading, ergo its alternate name: Elevation Gospels. The magnificent binding is heavily gilded silver, with five enameled miniatures in surrounds of green semiprecious stones. Christ, at center, is depicted as a Russian bishop, and the four Evangelists occupy the corners. Not seen here are the clasps, which represent Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

Phoenix and Sun: Beneath a crest evoking the phoenix and sun imagery associated with the Amsterdam Sephardic community is the signature of the artist: "Rephael Montalto created this in 1686." The emblem is supported by two mythical female creatures comprising a hybrid of human and plant forms similar to those depicted along the borders of the scroll. They also hold a fleur-de-lis, closely associated in the public consciousness with France, in recognition of Rephael's grandfather, Elijah Montalto, who served as physician and advisor to Marie de Medici, Queen of France.

I shot more than 150 photographs, but you get the idea. This was a once-in-a-lifetime (at best) opportunity to enjoy centuries worth of treasures. I hope you enjoyed this too brief pictorial.

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