This singular display of manuscripts and books “sacred” to the three major monotheistic traditions of the West is subtitled The World’s Greatest Collection of Jewish, Christian and Muslim Holy Books. According to all reports, Sacred doesn’t disappoint. This exhibition may break new ground with the educational opportunities afforded both by its vast program of associated events and lectures, and its interactive website. The otherwise “transitory” nature of any special exhibition of works of art—significant but ephemeral for those who saw it, only imagined but not memorable for those who didn’t—may be re-formed by the special website organized for Sacred. For after all is said and seen, what endures is not simply the memory of seeing an exhibition or participating in the special programs but the formal record of that exhibition. For earlier generations that formal record was in the form of an exhibition catalogue, press reviews, and installation photographs; today that formal record has been expanded to include internet resources and the exhibition website.
While it is not normal practice to discuss an exhibition without actually seeing it, I believe this present exhibition with its ancillary elements warrants comment especially in light of other recent exhibitions including the Getty’s Holy Image*Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai and the Musée du Louvre’s Armenia sacra—both of which I did see and commented upon in earlier “Opinion Pieces” on this website. All three exhibitions perhaps unwittingly displayed manuscripts and illuminated books which attest both to the historical and theological diversities within Christianity, especially within Early Christianity and then later between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity, and to the aesthetic interconnections between Christianity and Islam, particularly in the Byzantine and Medieval periods.
This current display of 152 sacred texts has been highly praised in both the secular and religious press. While scriptural specialists of each of the three traditions may find historical mis-readings or theological anomalies in either the exhibition didactics, catalogue texts, or guest speakers, the significance of Sacred remains undampened. As the first in a series of British Library exhibitions dedicated to the theme of the religious diversity in Britain, Sacred provides an initiation into new ways of thinking about religious and cultural commonalities in a time when we seem to best emphasize cultural distinctions and religious differences. As with the Getty and Louvre exhibitions, Sacred brings to life for those of us living in the secular age the reality of “lived religion” and of the connections between image and text in daily religious experience.
As if to emphasize that this lived experience of religion is not simply part of the historical past but possible in the present day, the organizers of Sacred have implemented an extraordinary series of public events from lectures by leading scholars of religion and daily gallery talks to a 3-day conference on the significance of reading to performance events of music, dance, and theater, and children’s programs. These events are as culturally diverse and spiritually vibrant as the displayed manuscripts and books. Consider for example that the exhibition of the Qur’an includes one from 11th-century Persia, 13th-century Spain, 14th-century Egypt, 16th-century India, 17th-century China, and 19th-century Java; while the Christian texts include the Gospel of Thomas, the Codex Sinaiticus, the Silos Apocalypse, the Arabic Gospels, an Armenian prayer scroll, and a King James Bible. A similar display of Jewish books from a Babylonian Talmud to the Barcelona Haggadah present the importance of “sacred texts” as the centering point as a religious tradition transfers itself from one geographic region and culture to another.
While I will miss the opportunity to see Sacred at first hand in its exhibition period at The British Library, I have experienced this extraordinary presentation of holy texts—illuminated pages, papyrus fragments, and inscribed books—through an easy-to-navigate website which I hope will remain as a more permanent record of this exhibition along with the exhibition catalogue.
Sacred: Discover What We Share. The World’s Greatest Collection of Jewish, Christian and Muslim Holy Books is on view at The British Museum through 23 September 2007. The exhibition's interactive website can be accessed here.
Dr. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona is a former Adjunct Professor at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. She currently is a Visiting Professor in the Catholic Studies Program.