Saturday, February 12, 2011

New York Library Club's 2011 Winter Event: "Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam"

Over the millennia, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have each created a rich body of founding and interpretive texts that serve as underpinnings for their respective faiths--each of which derives from the teachings of Abraham, an “itinerant herdsman” from the Middle East. On Tuesday, February 8th at 6:00 p.m., the New York Library Club was invited to marvel at some of these magnificent texts, in an exhibit called "Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam" at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The tour was guided by an expert docent.

"Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam" is a stunning exhibition which displays the majestic beauty of rare and precious works from the three great Abrahamic religions. The exhibition sets forth in splendid and historic detail the complementarities, similarities and differences among the three religions, explaining their development, and exploring their lived experience through public and private prayer. (Photo at right: A mahzor, or Jewish prayer book for the High Holy Days, from the Kingdom of Naples in the 15th century.)

“Three Faiths” focuses on “the three Abrahamic religions” — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each faith takes Abraham, who affirmed belief in a single God, as a forebear. Abraham rejected “the religions of antiquity with their plethora of gods, each imbued with a particular attribute, purpose and power,” replacing the many with the one. Each of the Abrahamic religions believes that God has made himself known to his prophets through acts of revelation. And such revelations shape groups of believers by being incorporated in canonical written texts: the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Gospels, the Islamic Koran. These commonalities are traced through the exhibits display of manuscripts and books from the ancient and medieval to modern times.

Conceived in the aftermath of the tragic September 11th attacks of 2001, the exhibit also focuses on the many similarities shared by the three faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. One of the main sponsors of “Three Faiths,” is the Coexist Foundation, whose aim is “to promote better understanding between Jews, Christians and Muslims.”

The NYPL’s exhibition "Three Faiths" grew out of a show mounted in 2007 at the British Library called "Sacred;" but was reconstructed using the New York Public Library’s own collection by H. George Fletcher, the library’s retired director of special collections, and a team of five scholars and advisers. According to a New York Public Library spokesman, the British Library backed out, worried that post-9/11 inspections by the Transportation Security Administration could put its rare manuscripts at risk. (Photo at left: Ibrahim Prepares to Sacrifice His Son, Isma‛il.)

The exhibition includes 200 rare and valuable works created over the past 1,500 years: among them, great works of the miniaturist's art and of calligraphy, drawn from all three faiths. The scrolls, codices, illuminated manuscripts, and printed volumes are complemented selectively, by important bindings, early photographs, prints, maps, and liturgical or ritual objects dating from the fifth century of the Common Era (CE) to the present. In addition, the manuscript materials are accompanied by some of the most significant printed works of the past 550 years.

Materials on display in Gottesman Hall range from a Bible found in a monastery in coastal Brittany that was sacked by the Vikings in the year 917, to a 1904 lithograph showing the original Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue. It encompasses both an elaborately decorated book of 20th-century Coptic Christian readings and a modest 19th-century printing of the Gospels in the African language Grebo. There are Korans, with pages that shimmer with gold leaf and elegant calligraphy, and a 13th-century Pentateuch from Jerusalem, written in script used by Samaritans who traced their origins to the ancient Northern Kingdom of Israel. (Photo at right: 18th-century Ethiopian illustration of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.)

A few of the exhibition's treasures include the New York Public Library’s Gutenberg Bible; the King James translation of the Bible of 1611; the remarkably rendered Scroll of Esther, which illustrates the story of Purim and features cityscapes from the once-vast Persian Empire; a 15th -century book of Islamic Tafsir (commentary on the Koran) from Syria; and a lovely volume of the Psalms from 1516, printed in Genoa, Italy, with the original Hebrew and columns of Septuagint Greek, Arabic, Aramaic and Latin. Moreover, the exhibition’s Christian texts from Czech, Polish, Russian and Lithuanian lands are extraordinary-- growing out of a collection the library purchased from the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union in the 1920s.

One section of the exhibition also surveys the spread of the three religions after their birth in the Middle East through “the growth of the Jewish Diaspora, the evangelical mission of Paul to the Gentiles, and the military conquests of the early Islamic armies.” As the faiths spread, translations of sacred texts were needed; complex “polyglot” editions developed in which translations might appear in columns beside the original text or interwoven between its lines. (Photo at left: Psalterium, Herbraeum, Arabicum, Chaldaeum [The Psalterin Hebrew, Greek Arabic, and Aramaic]. Ed. Agostino Giustiniani, O.P., 1470 -1536.)

The tour began at 6:00 p.m. in order to allow NYLC members sufficient time to visit the miniature exhibition in the Wachenheim Gallery, called the “Scriptorium.” Named after the medieval monastic writing rooms where scribes copied manuscripts and wrote and illuminated books or scrolls, this specially converted interactive center compares and contrasts scribing traditions of

the three faiths, showcasing the natural materials—animal hides and minerals and gems—from which the parchment and ink are derived. Here in the Scriptorium, visitors are free “to explore various physical aspects of the art of the book in its many incarnations.” There are samples of parchment (skins of goats, sheep and deer); several kinds of traditional paper (including ahar — paper coated with alum and egg whites); display cases with the sources of pigments like pomegranate peel or dried insects; and videos on the creation of pens, inks and manuscripts. There is also an activity table where visitors can try their hand at calligraphy. (Photo at right: Russian altar Gospels with gilt binding, circa 1791, from the Reign of Catherine the Great.)

Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam is on view through Feb. 27 at the New York Public Library.

Works Cited:

L. Kroah (personal communication, January 21, 2011)

Rothstein, Edward. (2010). Abraham’s progeny, and their text. [Electronic version]. New York Times, C1.

The New York Public Library. Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. In Classes, programs and exhibitions: Exhibitions. Retrieved February 11, 2011, from

The New York Public Library. Three Faiths online. In Scriptorium. Retrieved February 11, 2011, from

The New York Public Library. Three Faiths online. In Three highlights. Retrieved February 11, 2011, from

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