England's Bodleian Library at Oxford University, established by Sir Thomas Bodley in 1602 and now the largest of the University's group of 'Bodleian Libraries', is renowned for its great treasures. Among them is one of the most important collections of medieval Hebrew illuminated manuscripts in the world. The Jewish Museum will present Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries from September 14, 2012 through February 3, 2013. This exhibition will feature over 60 works - Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin manuscripts - the majority of which have never been seen in the United States.
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.
Scholar and diplomat Sir Thomas Bodley began establishing the Bodleian Library in 1598 after retiring as ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I and devoted the rest of his life to building its collection. Bodley in fact reopened the library room at Oxford that had been completed in 1488 to house a collection of manuscripts given by Duke Humfrey of Gloucester (1390-1447). But in 1550 during the Reformation, it was stripped and left abandoned. A staunch Protestant, whose family had fled England during Queen Mary's Catholic reign, Bodley was also a humanist and Christian Hebraist who viewed the creation of a Hebraica collection as integral to his vision for the new library. It would be housed in a masterpiece of English Gothic and Jacobean architecture, and is today one of the oldest libraries in Europe.
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.