08 April 2010
Yasmin Khan explores whether public attitudes towards religion can be swayed through an exhibition at the British Library, which closed September 23 2007.
What is sacred to you? This profound line of questioning will be roused in anyone who ventures to visit Sacred, a landmark exhibition recently launched at the British Library.
Sultan Baybars Qur’an. One of the finest of all Qur’an manuscripts, written in gold in seven folio volumes, took three years to produce (1304 – 06) in Cairo for the Mamluk Sultan Baybars II. © British Library
Showcased is an impressive array of the earliest and rarest ancient samples of holy texts from the Abarahamic faiths; Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is the first time that the British public has been given privileged access to such a volume and range of priceless manuscripts at one sitting.
The books are deservedly the stars of the show with multiple debut appearances which feature some of the very first examples of the Torah, the Bible and Quran.
But in our secular British society, is the theme of this exhibition really relevant to our modern lives? Absolutely. At this critical period in which our attitudes towards religious belief will be increasingly tested, a healthy counterbalance to our grim daily news is vital.
|Leipnik Haggadah. King David at prayer. This copy of the Haggadah is named after its scribe and illustrator Joseph Leipnik and was produced at Altona, a suburb of Hamburg in Germany, in 1740. © British Library|
The organizers, perhaps ambitiously, want to improve our understanding of the three faiths in today's troubled world. The curators say the chosen style of exhibition display is an appropriate representation of our modern civilization; that of coexistence and an acknowledgement and appreciation of the interconnectivity that lies within it.
The lavish selection of texts are intentionally juxtaposed side-by-side avoiding categorisation into faith sections which serve as a deliberate metaphor for society: if the most sacred of texts can be placed side by side then surely all people can too?
This may seem a naive or far-fetched tactic but in fact, the mode of line-up is entirely effective in enabling visitors to identify the many similarities that exist between the texts; resemblances which range from subtle to striking.
For example, take the 15th Century Lisbon Hebrew Bible, which is a rich amalgamation of ornamental Hebrew lettering, and decorated with intricate floral arabesque deigns. The same combination is employed even earlier in the book of Psalms featured in the 9th Century First Gaster Bible.
A sample from the 14th Century Palestinian set of Gospels written in Arabic offers further opportunity to enjoy the exquisite adornment of this Christian manuscript brimming with traditional carpet pages heavily influenced by middle eastern culture in its decoration, script and layout.
|Lisbon Hebrew Bible. Frontispiece to the Book of Isaiah. Gold carpet page with illuminated word panel on blue background. This Bible was completed in three volumes in 1482. Lisbon was one of the last great schools of Jewish art on the Iberian peninsula. © British Library|
Such cross-religious influences would have been bound to permeate into other spheres of society, though this is not mentioned in this exhibition. What is made clear however is that the artistic evolution of these texts demonstrates the crucial role that interconnectivity has played between the three main faiths which is a crucial acknowledgement and appreciation of this shared Jewish, Christian and Muslim heritage.
Even more intriguing is the apparent ease and acceptance of this co-operative phenomenon and how such cross-fertilisations were the norm. The puritanical believer might be apprehensive that too much emphasis is placed upon aesthetics rather focusing on the actual substance of the divine words in the text.
One doesn’t need to subscribe to any particular belief in order to appreciate the artistry involved in the production of these sacred texts, but admittedly an admiration of craftsmanship alone will not automatically render a genuine respect for the existence and essence of all faiths. Nevertheless, the rich programme of supporting events taking place at the British Library over the summer period will allow the public to interact and engage fully and reflect on the raison d’etre of the exhibition.
The impetus for the exhibition was initially triggered by a proposal from the Moroccan British Society who are one of the key sponsors along with the Coexist Foundation and Saint Catherine Foundation; donors who are representative of the three faiths.
Royal patrons of the Sacred exhibition consist HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, husband to Queen Elizabeth II, and Mohammed VI, King of Morocco. The original concept took three arduous years to reach fruition as an exhibition and uses some of the Libraries own collections and loans from across the globe.
|Silos Apocalypse. Shows the seven-headed dragon attacked with spears by St Michael and his angels. Late 11th – early 12th Century. © British Library|
However, the exhibition hasn’t resisted paying homage to our material culture; the display includes an extravagant gold shalwar kameez wedding outfit. This traditional garment was worn twelve years ago by Jewish convert to Islam, Jemima Goldsmith at her marriage to the former Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan which recently ended in divorce. Although controversial for some, this symbolic attire is perhaps there to lure the curious folk who would be more tempted by a dash of glitz and glamour.
Since all three holy texts stem from the East, there is little surprise that there is some element of an orientalist slant detected in the English exhibition narrative. However, the curators can be commended for their even-handedness and for not consciously attempting to sanitize or romanticise the representation of texts.
Although comprehensive and plentiful, the exhibition isn’t absolute as there are some significant texts absent - such as the controversial Gospel of Barnabus believed by some to be the only true authentic gospel. It would have been wonderful to have been able to view one of the original versions but visitors can resort to Amazon for now.
Many of the texts have been cleverly positioned to reveal the most flattering or eye-catching image. The Silos Apocalypse is a late 11th / early 12th Century copy of the Book of Revelations named after the place in Spain (Silos) and contains a vivid and dramatic illustration of a great dragon with seven heads and ten horns being fought by St Michael and other angels.
This colourful image has been inventively interpreted by some as a contemporary reference to the spread of Islam. Clearly one cannot escape the political context of the exhibition.
|Old English Hexateuch. The earliest copy in English of the first six books of the Old Testament. This image shows Adam, together with some animals. First half of 11th Century. © British Library|
Sacred certainly goes some way in helping to convey that it is politics rather than religion itself, which leads to conflict and war but it will take more than a single exhibition to transform perceptions. No exhibition could ever possibly help to make rational sense of the motives behind those few seeking to disrupt our contemporary coexistence, which for the most part prospers in our society.
However, the Sacred exhibition by its sheer nature of subject matter, shoulders a grave responsibility (whether intended or not) in facilitating a commitment towards preserving community cohesiveness and unity; a case in point in demonstrating the critical role that cultural institutions have the potential to play.
Sacred is part of the Library’s long-term plans to feature other major world faiths which are represented within its collections. Graham Shaw, Head of Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections at the British Library hopes to eventually see parts of the temporary exhibition tour the US and possibly other parts of the world including the Emirates and the Middle East.
It will take some time to gauge exactly how successful the exhibition has been in terms of impacting on visitors, what is certain is that the issue of what role faith ought to play in our modern society is an enduring theme.
Exhibitions like Sacred could prove pivotal in helping promote an informed dialogue and in mediating a balanced understanding of both historical and current news issues which affect us all. One sole exhibition by itself won’t pave the way to global harmony but it might remind us to want to.
Yasmin Khan currently works in the UK museum sector