Suzanne Fields

There's legal commentary in Arabic with Hebrew letters from the 12th century, written by the Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides. There's a beautifully decorated Quran from the 16th century, as well. The whimsical unicorn of folk art appears in different manuscripts as a transformative religious symbol for suffering and redemption. Moral fables, biblical stories, prayer books, filled with abstract art and illustrations of Adam and Eve and the Virgin Mary demonstrate "fertile exchanges among Christians, Muslims and Jews in the fields of religion, art, science and literature."

Though they often speak in different languages -- Hebrew, Arabic and Latin -- the manuscripts show that cultural exchanges and practical cooperation sometimes occurred between Jews and Gentiles in both Muslim and Christian communities. They drew on each other's skills and contributions, brilliantly expressing artistic minds from overlapping faiths.

Although computer technology had not entered the fantastic imaginations of even the most brilliant artists and inventors, the museum curators have scanned and put online the entire text of the jewel of this exhibition, the 922-page Kennicott Bible -- described as "the most lavishly illuminated Hebrew Bible to survive from medieval Spain."

Its scribe and artist were Jews who drew on Christian, Islamic and popular motifs. A Jewish observer will inevitably note that it was completed in 1476, only 16 years before Jews were expelled from Spain. The copying and illustrating of Hebrew texts brought Jews and Christians together, but could not keep them together.

All of the works in the exhibition come from the Bodleian Library at Oxford, England, founded by Sir Thomas Bodley in 1598 after he retired as a foreign diplomat for Queen Elizabeth I. Although he was a Protestant, whose father took his family into exile during the Catholic reign of Queen Mary, the son's vision was to include works transcending the boundaries of ideology and theology.

A large online section encourages teachers to inspire their students with the accounts of how manuscripts were taken from scrolls that read from top to bottom, like today's tablets to the codex. These first books were printed on parchment inscribed with text on both sides.

Some things, however, don't change. In three separate manuscripts, Euclid's "Elements" appears in Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew. With a computer search engine we find it in English, too. Illumination thus comes to those who seek it.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

Be the first to read Suzanne Fields' column. Sign up today and receive delivered each morning to your inbox.

©Creators Syndicate