Illuminating Manuscripts

‘Three Faiths’ at New York’s Public Library

Taking their inspiration from the Qur’an, Muslims refer to Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and a harder-to-define faith community, the Sabians, as “People of the Book.” These monotheistic neighbors of Muhammad (c. 570–632) and the first Muslims struck pagan Arabs of the period as distinct not simply because of their monotheism, so sharply different from the polytheism of pre-Islamic Arabs, but because of their religious literacy.

That literacy took concrete form in Jewish synagogue liturgy and in the monastic office (qeryana) practiced by Syrian Christians that included reading and reciting “psalms, hymns, and inspired canticles” (Colossians 3:16). Muhammad received from God something like a monastic office that Arabs could read and recite in their own language, “a missive sent down from the One Filled with Mercy, the Ever Merciful, / detailed verses for a Recital in Arabic that people can understand” (Qur’an 41:2–3). This Quranic revelation put Arab Muslims on an equal liturgical footing with their monotheistic neighbors, especially Jews and Christians.

While Jews prefer to identify themselves as People of the Covenant struck between God and Abraham, and Christians embrace their self-definition as those baptized into the dying and rising of Jesus, Muslims think of themselves as people to whom God has spoken in the Qur’an, first disclosed to Muhammad. No matter how Torah-centered a Jew or Bible-believing a Christian, a Muslim’s regard for the Qur’an proves even more central to his or her life.       

Insight into the ways Jews, Christians, and Muslims all revere their sacred texts can be gained from the New York Public Library’s stunning exhibit, “Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.” Viewable until February 27, 2011, both in the landmark main branch of the Library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and (partially) online (http://exhibitions.nypl.org/threefaiths), the exhibit includes more than two hundred of the Library’s most treasured Jewish, Christian, and Muslim books, manuscripts, and religious objects. And in conjunction with the exhibit, the library is hosting a series of programs for children, teens, and adults at its various branch libraries. These include workshops in calligraphy and the art of making books, lectures, and performances of Sufi and Sephardic music and even salsa, pointing out its Christian influences.

The exhibit was planned long before the recent rise of interreligious tension in New York City and its suburbs in response to the proposed Islamic Cultural Center at 51 Park Place. Providentially, the exhibit answers to the contrived religious hysteria surrounding that project. The result is a splendid experience for those who have a chance to visit the library in person or online.

The exhibit is organized around common themes in these three monotheistic faith traditions: revelation beginning with Abraham, the creation of Scriptures, commentary on those Scriptures, the spread of the scriptural message across broad geographic and language barriers, private prayer based on those Scriptures, and public worship that enshrines those prayers. Artfully arranged in the Beaux-Arts-style Gottesman Exhibition Hall, the number, variety, and beauty of the books and manuscripts captivate visitors. In the nearby Wachenheim Gallery (and online) visitors can see demonstrations of the art of calligraphy as well as the techniques involved in creating ancient manuscript materials. The final part of the exhibit takes the visitor visually to three sacred places in the city of Jerusalem. Each is thronged with the faithful: the Western (or Wailing) Wall, the remainder of Herod’s Temple where devout Jews pray daily; the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the eve of Greek Orthodox Easter; and the Noble Sanctuary, a collection of Muslim holy places on the Temple Mount that includes the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, seen at the hour of Friday congregational worship. 

In April 2010, I was invited to join seven other guest curators to choose objects from the Library’s rich collections for the display. Some of the curators, and especially our chief, H. George Fletcher, have worked on the exhibit for two full years. Although “Three Faiths” was inspired by a similar exhibit held in 2007 at the British Library called “Sacred,” problems posed by international security in transporting the British Library holdings to New York eventually persuaded the NYPL organizers to go it alone. Everything on display in New York belongs to the Library’s permanent collection.  

Three items may be taken to suggest the scope and richness of the exhibit. They interest me not only as a student of the comparative history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but also as someone who has lived in Africa for more than twenty-five years.

 

The Whole Megillah

The most beautiful Jewish text in the exhibit, and there are many, is a ten-foot-long scroll (megillah) of the Book of Esther. It dates to late-seventeenth-century Amsterdam and is the work of a Sephardic Jewish scribe, Raphael Montalto. Unrolled completely for the exhibit, this Esther scroll (unlike Torah scrolls) is richly illustrated with images depicting the book’s main characters and cities from the vast Persian Empire. The entire scroll of Esther is read on the feast of Purim (usually in February or March), and its length gave birth to the term “the whole megillah,” now designating any long, drawn-out story.

Why did the usual Jewish prohibition against imagery in a sacred context not apply in this case? In the Hebrew Book of Esther, considerably shorter and more secular in its tone than the Greek version, the name of God is never mentioned. It tells the story of Esther, a somewhat nonobservant Jewish member of the harem of a Persian king, Ahasuerus, often identified as Xerxes I (c. 486–465 BCE) or his son Artaxerxes I (465–424 BCE). Esther’s Jewish guardian, Mordecai, prevails on his ward to use her influence in court to save the Jews in Persia from the machinations of the Jew-hating imperial counselor, Haman, who is intent on exterminating them.

Some of the fierceness of the Book of Esther emerges in a passage near the end of the scroll (9:7–10) in which the ten sons of Haman, executed after their father’s hanging, are enumerated. Their names are spelled out in larger print in the Montalto scroll and arranged like arithmetical columns. Rabbi David Wachtel, a curator of Jewish books and manuscripts for the exhibit, explains that in the traditional Purim recitation of the Book of Esther, the reciter tries to read all ten names of Haman’s sons in one breath. The only book of the Hebrew Bible not found among the manuscripts discovered at Wadi Qumran near the Dead Sea over six decades ago, the Book of Esther has taken on increasing relevance in modern times. It speaks particularly to the concerns of secularized Jews in the aftermath of the Shoah, reminding them—as Mordecai did Esther—of the irreducibility of their Jewishness.

 

Hands & Eyes

Many marvelous Christian books and manuscripts can be found on display in “Three Faiths.” Unlike the British Library’s “Sacred,” the New York exhibit is replete with images and texts from Byzantine and other Eastern Christian sources. Edward Kasinec, one of the curators, has drawn attention to the library’s rich collection of Eastern Christian artifacts. But I was especially fascinated by the African holdings, including nineteenth-century translations of the New Testament into languages like Grebo (spoken in Liberia) and Mpongwe (spoken in Gabon). The plainness of these printed Bibles contrasts vividly with the richly illuminated New Testament manuscripts on view from Christian Ethiopia.

One of my favorites is an image from an eighteenth-century copy of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. Jesus sits and delivers the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1), except that he is sitting below a hill on a level place, as in Luke 6:17. The smaller and larger trees on the hill above the six disciples on the viewer’s right mimic the relationship between Master and disciples. The hands of the disciples on the viewer’s left, who sit behind Jesus, are not visible, with one exception—a disciple who seems to be raising his hand toward his chin, as if to puzzle out the words he has heard. Of the six disciples on the viewer’s right, three display one hand each. The disciple nearest Jesus extends his left hand to receive the teaching. Apparently in eighteenth-century Ethiopia there was no taboo on receiving something with the left hand, as there is in so much of Africa today. The disciple next to him is taking the words of Jesus into his heart with his right hand. The disciple furthest to the right seems to be about to raise an objection. Might this be Judas?

The two hands of Jesus are visible, the left resting majestically on his left knee, the right raised to teach the disciples. His two raised fingers suggest the Lord’s divine-human nature (one nature for Monophysite Ethiopians). The other three fingers (only two are visible) are turned toward the palm of his right hand, symbolizing the mystery of the Trinity. As in so much Ethiopian art—and many other African art traditions—the eyes of the principal figures, here Jesus and the disciples, are disproportionately large. These are aware eyes, contemplative eyes, eyes ever open to engage with the eyes of the devotee.

 

The Veiled Prophet

The faith of Islam is at least as averse to human or animal imagery in a sacred context as is Judaism, perhaps more so. Yet ornate miniatures with such representations abound in fifteenth-century and later Persian, Ottoman, and Mughal manuscripts, especially royal chronicles. Qur’ans and mosques were for the most part decorated with calligraphy only or images of flowers. But in the Ottoman era some artists dared to illustrate events from the life of the prophet Muhammad. In a late-sixteenth-century edition of an earlier life of Muhammad, illustrated for the Sultan Murad III, the Prophet appears with veiled face, leading a congregation of both angels and humans. The veiling of Muhammad’s face serves as a notice to any beholder that nothing resembling the Christian devotion to the face of Jesus is allowed in the case of Muhammad. 

This image of the veiled Prophet leading worshipers derives ultimately from the extra-quranic elaboration of one verse in the Qur’an: “Glory be to the One Who transported His servant by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Furthest Mosque: We have blessed its environs that We might make him see some of Our signs” (Qur’an 17:1).

This single verse, possibly referring to a visionary experience of Muhammad, has fostered a whole literature of Muslim mystical piety centered on his night journey (isrà) from Mecca to Jerusalem, followed by his ascension (mi‘r¯aj) into the seven heavens. In the interval between these two journeys, Muhammad leads in worship (sala¯t) in Jerusalem not only other prophets and messengers who have gone before him, but also angels.

What is the significance of this angelic motif? For Muslims, Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets, the last and most comprehensive and successful in his delivery of the divine message. Muslims maintain that the divine message was always the same and that any differences between the Qur’an and either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament result from human distortion of these texts. As such, Muhammad, the deliverer of the final message, takes precedence over all the prophets who came before him. He even inherits from Adam superiority over angels, a human superiority that provoked in Iblis, the Islamic Lucifer, his angelic rebellion and fall (Qur’an 7:10–19). In the Ottoman illustration, the prophets and angels lined up behind the veiled Muhammad seem content to follow his lead.  

The exquisite manuscripts and books on display in “Three Faiths” vividly demonstrate the humanism of each of these monotheistic faith traditions, but also the gaping chasm that distances all of them from the thin-aired universe of philosophical deism. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim children all grew up loving story books with pictures, even before they learned to read. It is no wonder that Jews, Christians, and Muslims will all find in this exhibit, whether at the New York Public Library itself or on the Internet, new ways to contemplate the words and images that convey some of our deepest, most treasured instincts of faith.

Published in the 2011-01-14 issue: 

Patrick J. Ryan, SJ, is the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University.

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