Passages: The History of Jewish and Christian Manuscripts

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With artifacts from Africa (Ethiopia and the Northern section), the Middle East, every part of Europe (East, West, North, South), the United Kingdom, the United States, and some parts of Asia (Bits here and there), Passages makes for a fairly comprehensive history lesson.  I came across books I have never even heard about, such as The Imitation of Christ and The Golden Legend.  However, this traveling exhibition left me with mixed feelings.   My positive feelings?  I loved all the manuscripts on display.  Such gorgeous and varied work going from facsimiles of Jewish Scrolls to Johnny Cash’s Bible.

And yes, the exhibition goes somewhat in that order.

The negative feelings?  The show promoted Creationism in both the vendors section and the gift shop.  To make things worse, that gift shop carried a book with a title claiming (and I’m paraphrasing) that if America had a more Christian attitude, it would have less problems.   Admittedly, I did not bother opening it, because the title just disgusted me to no end.  You can rightly criticize me for judging a book by its cover, but I have heard this sentiment by other Christians before, so I mentally recoiled.  Quite classy of them to ostracize other faiths who do promote kindness.  Seeing all of that made me understand how vampires feel after receiving a full blast of sunlight. By the way, if you expect an objective writing style in the text boxes placed near the art that provides historical background, you will only feel disappointment.  Oftentimes effusive and dramatic, the exhibition makes for a stark contrast to the museums I have visited who try to maintain an objective and detached “just the facts” execution.  Especially when one finds the word “silly” used.

ETA:  I would like to modify the last sentence.  I have come across official podcasts that used language that complimented the beauty and power of an artwork.  Contemplating this, I probably have visited museums that used dramatic language.

On the set design, Passages definitely went all out in showing off their manuscripts.  The people who built the exhibition constructed each room and hallway to resemble the era where each artifact originated.  Caves and brick walls built out of plastic and foam concoctions.  In one section, they decorated a room with reproductions of frescoes from the Dura Europos synagogue.  In another, the builders dedicated the space to the Cairo Genizah.  Barring the artifacts, manuscripts, and benches to rest on, most of the rooms maintained a sparse decor.  However, the show did have some furnished rooms.  During the King James Bible era, one room contained wooden tables, fancy chairs, tapestries, portraits, and a fake fireplace (it resembled a fire-place to me) and had another that resembled a tiny church interior.  This exhibition also has robots talking to you.  Robots designed to resemble famous figures such as Anne Boleyn, William Tyndale, Saint Jerome, and his lion.  However, only Jerome will come alive and talk about his Vulgate translation if you touch the screen that controls him.  I did enjoy the interactive element of the show.  For example, Passages gives visitors the opportunity to imitate the calligraphy found in manuscripts.  Also, the workers at Passages let me use their Gutenberg press machine during a demonstration.

When it comes to art, Passages definitely has a love of all things Jewish.  From beginning to the end of the show, Jewish history starts from the caves of Qumran (mostly facsimiles of the Great Isaiah Scroll and the Manual of Discipline)  and ends with Torah scrolls that survived even in Nazi-occupied lands.  To elaborate, the Nazis cut up scrolls and turned them into backpacks and parts of shoes.  Talk about petty.  However, unlike their Christian history section, the Jewish sections sometimes veer in a non-linear timeline.  After looking at rooms filled with the Megillah Scrolls and the Dead Sea Scrolls, the next rooms had artifacts dating between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries.  But what gorgeous work they have.  Oil lamps, scroll jars, spice towers, Esther scrolls, rose-water sprinklers, the Pidyon Haben, and tiny ornate shofars represent only a tiny fraction of what they had on display.  Going back to the shofars, up until visiting Passages, I had never seen such tiny ones.  The first one I ever saw in person came from a History of Judaism professor.  He had one that extended longer than the length of my arm.

Beyond their extensive collection of Jewish artifacts, this exhibition recounts the historical relationship between Bible translations and the Protestant Reformation.  In short, these translations led to schisms from the Catholic Church.  Driving this point home, the show features books by major figures such as Saint Jerome, Hugh Latimer, John Hus, John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, John Knox, King James, and of course, Martin Luther make their appearance.  The exhibition even displayed the Papal Bulls written by the Catholic Church and made against Luther.  I think I enjoyed Tyndale’s books the best.  I love how he designed his texts so they resembled inverted triangles.  The designs gave such a clean and orderly appearance.  I also enjoyed learning about Desiderius Erasmus and his promotion of letting women read.  

For art historians who want to know about any paintings and woodcuts, they have many.  Albrecht Durer and Gustave Dore’s works show up multiple times. While they did not have the real paintings, they had reproductions by people such as Andrey Rublev, Richard Rolle, Hieronymus Bosch, and Caravaggio.  These functioned as decorations and cues to let visitors know what kind of culture they’re coming into.  The collection consisted mostly of portraits such as Hans Holbein’s portrait of Henry the 8th, Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome and Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder.  Sadly, they spelled his name “Crhranach”.   Outside the show, they had Marc Chagall prints of scenes from the Old Testament.  The exhibition even had art by Salvador Dali.  Apparently, the Surrealist designed a cover for Freud’s Moses and Monotheism.  By copying Michelangelo’s Moses statue onto a cover, Dali rendered the leader in front of a large eye.  Obviously meant as an allegory of the Exodus story of Moses escaping Egypt.  While Dali did not design the eye as the Eye of Horus, the connection looks pretty obvious.  Dali continued his interpretation of the Exodus story with three other prints found at the show.  Passages had other exceptionally good print artists such as Antonis Mor, Cornelius Boel, Adriaen van de Venne, and Daniel Bomberg.  I especially enjoyed Jean Luyken’s wonderful engravings that contained so much depth and shadow.

I devote this last paragraph to my miscellaneous observations, so expect the writing to jump from one topic to another.

From beginning to end, this show pays tribute to the endless amounts of creativity combined with available resources to make these exquisite books.  From abstract to lifelike illustrations, they had some seriously lovely manuscripts.  I especially recommend looking out for the Ethiopian and Armenian manuscripts.  On the Ethiopian manuscripts, you could watch the art style evolve from the stylized and surreal to a more naturalistic execution with the use of shading and shadows.  On the Armenian books, I loved the vibrant color found in works such as the Armenian Gospel by Ghazar.   And talk about the variety of sizes the manuscripts came in.  The show had tiny manuscripts such as the Miniature Psalter that can fit in the palm of your hand and will leave you breathless with all the details found in it.  If you have ever wanted to see books with gold lettering in person because reproductions and scanned copies can’t imitate the shine?  They have them, such as a fourteenth century French illuminated Psalter rendered completely fabulous with its many gold letters.  Near the end of the show, I saw a German Calligraphic Psalter from 1592 that had intricate designs made with a grey and gold color scheme.  Another stand out came from a book called Die Bibel.  It had a cover recycled from an old broken cross.   Dated between the 1600s and 1800s, Passages had another a rather novel collection of books with “Fore-Edged paintings”.  Closed books with paintings cityscapes and group portraits on the ends of pages.  How whimsical.  For a more light-hearted look at the history of manuscripts, they had two rooms dedicated to errors found in Bibles.  They did have another bit of (unintentional) humor in another section.  The text box for one manuscript had the sentences “Commissioned by a terrorist” and “gifted by Arafat”.

I do have another complaint about the show.  You know that robot lion I mentioned earlier?  You could hear its roar no matter where you were in the exhibition.

I will expand more upon the exhibition when I review the catalogues.

Update 9-6-17:  Fixed some errors and added some photos as a part of my site wide clean up.

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