Issue Number: 94
Judaism, Christianity and Islam are known as the religions of the book. As a groundbreaking exhibition displays their rare and precious sacred texts, A.C. Grayling argues that modern-day science is the new religion
Holkham Bible Picture Book. Made for a Dominican Friar, probably in London, during the first half of the fourteenth century.
In April, the British Library mounts an exhibition of the priceless religious texts in its holdings, arguably the most important collection in the world. Rare and beautiful manuscripts and books from the Christian, Islamic and Jewish traditions are displayed thematically alongside each other. This show explores not only the deep and surprising cross-currents of art and calligraphy that they manifest, but also the comparisons and contrasts of outlook that they express.
This last is a bold idea – and a brave one – because the three faiths each claim possession of truth and oceans of blood have been shed in consequence. The exhibition is, however, not designed to provoke, but to stimulate reflection on the importance that members of each of the faiths – and of their sects and denominations – attach to them, as proved by the extraordinary investment of time, effort and wealth that went into the production of these rare and exquisite works.
On view is the Golden Haggadah, a remarkable, illustrated account of the Exodus from Egypt made by Spanish Jews in the fourteenth century; the Holkham Bible Picture Book, an enchanting cartoon version of the Bible made in the same century; an Andalucian Qur’an from the fifteenth century with breathtaking calligraphy; the San’a Pentateuch from the Yemen, exhibiting the influence of Islamic art on the work of Jewish scribes, and such famous items as the Lisbon Hebrew Bible, and the Codex Sinaiticus which, produced around 350AD, is the oldest surviving complete text of the New Testament.
The quality of calligraphy and the intricate skill of illustration devoted to the production of these works is a mark of their immense cultural significance. They immediately prompt one to wonder what in our contemporary world is equivalent to them from the point of view of expense, care and commitment. The answer perhaps, surprisingly, is our major scientific laboratories. Just as science attempts to explain the purpose and function of the universe, in the same way religion represents mankind’s earliest attempt to explain the nature and origin of the world and its workings. Thus the gods made the world as men make their huts; thunder is a god walking on storm clouds, while an earthquake is the anger of chthonic deities.
Early religion shares the aims of technology because it seeks to influence the actions of the gods by sacrifice and prayer, to allay drought and bring on rain, to ensure the flourishing of herds and crops, to cure diseases and smite enemies.
The life-and-death importance of all these things, seemingly safeguarded by religion, explains why communities were prepared to divert so much of their hard-won wealth into religious art and buildings. Just one of the extraordinary Pentateuchs or Qur’ans in the British Library’s possession would have taken an expert scribe at least a year to produce, typically involving the work of illustrators and colourists besides. Consider how much one would now pay to commission a single copy of such a work from highly skilled artists. Hence the comparison with today’s great science laboratories – think of the internationally funded, high-energy particle accelerator at CERN in Switzerland, the space telescopes in orbit around our planet, the human genome research laboratories in the United States and elsewhere.
The commitment to fundamental scientific research involves enormous sums and long periods of planning and building; in these terms, they are our contemporary cathedrals, our illuminated manuscripts and codices, the recipients of major collective resources of wealth, time and ingenuity, expressive of the significance we attach to them.
Drawing this comparison helps one to appreciate the place held by important religious texts in the past. When the Mamluk Sultan Baybars II commissioned a Qur’an in Cairo at the beginning of the fourteenth century, to be written in gold and lavishly illustrated, he initiated a process that took three years to complete and resulted in what is unquestionably the finest of its kind still in existence. It will figure in the exhibition as an example of a major royal ceremonial artefact that reflected glory on its commissioner while, because it is a Qur’an, serving as a holy object in its own right, richly expressing the devotion of its makers.
One might look at a Gothic cathedral and wonder how a community otherwise struggling to survive and living in wattle-and-daub huts could have given centuries and whole treasuries to its construction. The same question – and the same answer – applies to the tiny curlicues, the infinitely painstaking detail, the beauty and skill, in the amazing works that form this exhibition. They were the knowledge and hope of an earlier time, and they were the repository of its dangers, too. Exactly the same is true of science today.
Sacred: World Faiths Brought to Book, British Library, London (020 7412 7111), 27 April–23 Sep