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Art

A Confluence of Cross Cultural Exchanges between the Muslims, Christians, and Jews from the 3rd Century to the early 17th Century

“Crossing Borders,” the current exhibition at the Jewish Museum, showcases an impressive selection from the Bodleian Library’s important collection of Hebrew manuscripts, established by Sir Thomas Bodley in 1602. Another title for the show might have been “A Confluence of Cross Cultural Exchanges between the Muslims, Christians, and Jews from the 3rd Century to the early 17th Century,” as the absence of cultural demarcation is so poignantly depicted.

The fifty-two or so Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic texts and early printed books include an ancient papyrus as well as gorgeous illuminated manuscripts, most of which discuss science, art, and religion, all focusing on European Medieval Jewish culture and the rich exchange of ideas during those centuries.

And, rich it was. It truly seems that these artists and theologians and scientists were more centered on intellectual discourse as elements of exchange and addition, rather than as treatises on ideas which separated their cultures. Their intent took a higher path, which the diverse illuminating texts display. In effect, these Christian Hebraist tomes conversed with one another in a language that transcended either individual religions or cultures. A codex of one century fluently exchanges thoughts with a manuscript of another as though time were simply of temporal concern.

ENTER INTO DIALOGUE WITH EACH OTHER

Though mostly composed of Hebrew manuscripts, the exhibition displays a codex of the Four Gospels written in Aramaic, a 10th Century Hebrew scroll, a 16th Century Koran, a legal text written in Arabic by Maimonides, an 11th century Hebrew text annotated in Latin, and a Hebrew poem written for Elizabeth I pleading financial assistance for a Hebrew scholarship for theUniversity of Oxford. The major work in the exhibition is the Bodleian “Kennicott Bible, a highly decorated and illuminated Jewish tome dating from 1476, a mere 25 years or so after the invention of printing. As the epitome of this stunning cultural confluence, the Kennicott expresses Christian, Hebrew and Islamic motifs in one. Each page of the Kennicott is magnificently displayed under protected light and casing. It is as though the observer were in some Medieval monastery scribing these texts for yet another iteration in our own century.

How did these cross-cultural exchanges occur? It is suggested that “as exiled Jews established communities in vastly different cultures, their manuscripts both reflected the world around them and influenced it in unusual ways. Even when the texts themselves were relatively unchanging, their script and illumination testified to a dynamic shifting relationship to the dominant cultures and religions of Christianity and Islam.” Thus, the Jews numerous settlements became depositories of knowledge and culture which evolved into communities of rich cultural and intellectual exchange.

IDEAS THAT TRANSCEND

Perhaps, the texts I believe best exemplify this fluidity of ideas are those displayed by the three examples of Euclid’s “Elements.” All open to the same page with illustrations demonstrating the exact same principles, the individual texts – a 13th century Arabic, a 13th C Latin, and a 14C Hebrew – enter into dialogue with each other, each demonstrating and voicing their interest in the “Elements.”

“Crossing Borders” is a beautiful collection of tomes reflecting through their decoration and discourse ideas that transcend, indeed cross, any boundaries, religious or temporal.