Kalila and Dimna, in Arabic, Syria?, 1354. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS. Pococke 400, fol. 75b

NEW YORK, NY.- 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 presents Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries from September 14, 2012 through February 3, 2013. This exhibition features over 60 works – Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin manuscripts – the majority of which have never been seen in the United States. Several paintings and printed books are also be on view.

Included are the splendid Kennicott Bible, the most lavishly illuminated Hebrew Bible to survive from medieval Spain, 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.

In addition to viewing the actual illuminated manuscript, visitors are able to look at digital images of every page of the Kennicott Bible and examine details on touchscreens in the exhibition gallery and on the Museum’s website. Visitors are also able to see images of several additional page openings for seven other manuscripts in Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries.

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, Sepharad and Italy. The first section deals with the interaction of Christians and Jews in the Middle Ages as expressed through the books they produced. Christians began using the codex or book in the late first century while Jews seem to have held fast to the roll format for a longer time. Leaves of the codex could be used on both sides and be made more portable, unlike scrolls, and thereby proved highly effective for spreading Christianity. In Latin texts it replaced the roll by the fourth century. On view is one of the two earliest Latin Gospel Books extant from the British Isles, dating to the late sixth or seventh century, and one of the earliest known Hebrew codices dating to the tenth century.

In the twelfth century Hebrew book production began to flourish in the three main regions of Europe where Jews had long been settled: Italy, Ashkenaz (Germany, parts of France, and England), and Sepharad (Spain and Portugal). The study and copying of Hebrew texts brought Jews and Christians together. Christian Hebraists sought the help of Jewish scholars as they made systematic comparisons of the Vulgate (Latin Bible) with the Hebrew Bible. In turn, Jewish scribes often commissioned Christian artists to illuminate sumptuous Hebrew manuscripts.

A great cross-fertilization between Christians, Muslims and Jews occurred during the late Middle Ages in arts, sciences and the culture at large, which is the focus of the second section. Significant works by Greek, Muslim and Jewish authors were translated from Arabic to Latin, often with the help of Jewish scholars. Writings of famous ancient Greek thinkers like Aristotle, Hippocrates, Euclid and Ptolemy were suddenly available, making a world of ideas accessible to many in Europe for the first time. The most famous work in the show, the magnificent Kennicott Bible, is displayed in this section with its Islamic, Christian and popular motifs merging in one single work. A Jewish scribe and a Jewish artist created this beautifully illuminated manuscript in Corunna, Spain in 1476, almost two decades before the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula.

The final section is devoted to understanding the Bodleian’s Hebraica collection as an important sign of Christian Hebraism’s resurgence in the sixteenth century. Exceptional examples of Hebrew manuscripts, all with stellar provenances, demonstrate the library’s more than four-century-long commitment to Hebraica. Nicholas Hilliard’s exquisite miniature portrait of Sir Thomas Bodley is paired with George Gower’s stunning 1579 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (reigned, 1558–1603) during whose rule the library was established. A great treasure is Queen Elizabeth’s Book of Oxford presented to the Queen in 1566 upon her visit to Oxford. This book opens with a poem on the importance of Hebrew learning encouraging the Queen to continue the work of her father, Henry VIII, in supporting the study of the language at the university. And so it has been for over 450 years through a royally endowed position that ensures the study of Hebrew and Jewish culture and religion to this day.

The cross-cultural approach presented in Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries is very much in the spirit of Thomas Bodley’s founding vision for his library. In his time as today, it transcends ideological and religious boundaries to create a broader framework within which the rich legacy of Christians, Muslims, and Jews can be better understood and appreciated.


Tripartite Mahzor, Germany, early 14th century. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS. Mich. 619, fol. 5b