Rare manuscripts chart centuries of interfaith work

  • (Updated )

Moses b Maimon (Maimonides), Mishneh Torah, Italy, 15th C. Credit: Vatican Apostolic Library

Moses b Maimon (Maimonides), Mishneh Torah, Italy, 15th C. Credit: Vatican Apostolic Library

The Jewish Museum London is launching its first major temporary exhibition since its reopening in March with an exhibition of Hebrew treasures from the Vatican and major British collections.

The exhibition will bring together a collection of 27 rare manuscripts, many exquisitely illuminated, including three from the Vatican Library, eight from the British Library, three from Lambeth Palace Library and eleven from the Bodleian Library which reveal a story of cultural exchange, practical cooperation and religious tolerance between Jews and non-Jews in the Muslim and Christian worlds during the Middle Ages and beyond.

Highlights include:

- A richly illuminated 15th century version of the Mishneh Torah, an important work of Jewish law and considered to be a Renaissance
masterpiece, written in the 12th century by Maimonides, the greatest medieval rabbinical figure (on loan from the Vatican Library)

- A 9th century midrash (commentary) on the book of Leviticus, thought to be the earliest Hebrew document in codex (book) form (also from the Vatican Library)

- The original petition of the Dutch rabbi, Menasseh ben Israel, to Oliver Cromwell (London, 1655), requesting permission for the Jews to settle in England following their expulsion in 1290 (on loan from the British Library)

- The intricately illuminated Kennicott Bible (Spain, 1476) on loan from the Bodleian Library, is the most exquisite of all Hebrew bibles and its illumination is unmistakably influenced by the stylistic traditions of Islam. The bible is named after Benjamin Kennicott, the English Hebraist (1718 - 1783) who continued the English tradition of studying the Hebrew bible

- Various extraordinary and beautifully illuminated documents including Hovat ha Levavot, a 15th century work produced in Italy with an interesting multi-faith aspect - the document records the first Jewish system of ethics, it is written in Arabic and illustrated most probably by a Christian.

Throughout history, many Hebrew manuscripts have been destroyed because they were considered heretical and dangerous. At other times, these manuscripts were collected, treasured and adorned by fervent bibliophiles.

These collectors and scholars included non-Jewish students of the Hebrew Bible who had learnt Hebrew and Aramaic for the purpose of exploring the deeper meaning of the scriptures. The Vatican Library acquired an extensive collection of Hebrew manuscripts for its own internal study and scholarship, but the documents were not displayed publicly.

The manuscripts and printed books in this exhibition date from the 9th to the 17th century and many are beautifully illuminated and decorated. The Jews who commissioned manuscripts frequently turned to highly skilled Christian artists for the illustration of the text, and the decorative styles of the works exhibited reflect local cultures and design, whether in the Moorish style of medieval Spain, the Italianate style, or the Gothic style of Northern Europe. The works attest to a shared culture and display coexistence and social interaction between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbours, as well as enhancing our understanding of the intellectual exchange and transmission of knowledge between Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Rickie Burman, Director of the Jewish Museum, said: "Having recently opened our landmark museum celebrating Jewish life and cultural diversity, we are now looking forward to this unique and fascinating exhibition which will inaugurate our new Changing Exhibitions gallery. At a time when religious issues are often portrayed as creating division and unrest around the world, this exhibition demonstrates how positive connections can be made between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is a reminder that in many cases our shared experience is stronger than our differences."

Tony Blair, former Prime Minister and Founder of the Faith Foundation said: "What a wonderful idea to bring this material together on this occasion. I do hope it is the successful occasion it deserves to be and another small building block in strengthening Jewish-Catholic relations in this country".

For more information see: www.jewishmuseum.org.uk

ILLUMINATION : Hebrew Treasures from the Vatican and Major British Collections runs from 25 June - 10 October 2010.

Tags: Manuscripts, Jewish Museum, Torah

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