Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Back to the holy books

Never mind shopping days to Christmas, there are only a couple of weeks left to see the British Library's Sacred exhibition on the holy books of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, with such wonders as a fragment of the Dead Sea scrolls, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Luttrell Psalter, one of the only three Tyndale bibles to survive (except that its text does largely survive in the King James Bible), Sultan Baybar's Qu'ran, amazing examples of miniature travelling copies of the Qu'ran, illustrated Armenian and Coptic Christian texts and Hebrew texts from all across the Middle East and the diaspora (including China and India). Some of these works are of an amazing age: not just the Dead Sea scrolls but also the Codex Sinaiticus and a gospel found in the coffin of St Cuthbert, still in its original binding.

Having only given it a preliminary glance when I came across it by accident a couple of weeks ago, I went back to day.

The exhibition is all set within a framework of explanation of various aspects of belief and worship in all three religions, with the laudable aim of common understanding. It makes clear what aspects they share, and how visual presentation of texts in the different religions influenced each other. It also points out the processes of determining what texts were part of the sacred canon, and the fate of representations that were disapproved of, some lucky examples of which are here.

There are beautiful things to wonder at in this exhibition: but as far as its primary aim goes, I have to say - as a person of no faith at all - that I came away with a sense that faith itself is as much as an act of human will as the dedication with which it was expressed with such skill and craft in these works.

Or in other words, my basic convictions were reinforced. Would anyone committed to any of these faiths come away feeling any different? Is it not, well.... preaching to the converted?

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