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Sacred exhibition

by: Michael Leapman - Last updated: 2007-05-01

Golden Haggadah

Golden Haggadah

At a time when great religions are in conflict, both with each other and among themselves, it is an act of faith - in more than one sense - for the British Library to highlight what unites three of them. Its major summer exhibition,"Sacred", examines ancient texts and artefacts from Judaism, Islam and Christianity: known as the Abrahamic faiths because of the part played by Abraham in all their scriptures.

The exhibition sets out its multi-faith stall as soon as you enter. You are confronted by a superbly illuminated Hebrew bible, published in Lisbon in 1492, displayed alongside a 10th-century version of the New Testament in Greek and a 14th-century Qur’an (Koran) from Iraq, written in spectacular gilded lettering. Nearby are models of a typical synagogue, church and mosque, with labels showing how the interior design springs from the practices of each religion.

A case displaying the paraphernalia of Jewish worship is dominated by an ornate 18th-century Sabbath lamp loaned by the Jewish Museum. In adjoining cases are Islamic and Christian artefacts, including a travelling Qur’an in a saddlebag and a portable altar.

The intriguing section on life ceremonies - birth, marriage and death - is dominated by a modern Jewish bridal canopy suspended from the ceiling. A stylised Christmas tree formed of blue lights is at the centre of a display illustrating the festivals of the three faiths, where a silver Passover table set is flanked by two ancient Hebrew books of services for Passover Eve.

It is the texts that take centre stage, from lavishly produced bibles, scrolls and prayer books to small fragments of ancient manuscripts, nearly all from the Library‘s own extensive collections. One of the most beautiful is the so-called Golden Haggadah, the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt under Moses and their freedom from slavery. Produced in Spain in about 1320, its exquisite miniature paintings have backgrounds of gold leaf. Among the oldest Hebrew manuscripts on show is a 10th-century Torah, known as the Codex London.

The British Library is publishing several books to coincide with the exhibition. One of them is Hebrew Manuscripts by Ilana Tahan, its Hebraica Curator and head of the Hebrew Section. She examines how medieval Jewish scribes were influenced by the artistic traditions of the countries where they lived, resulting in two distinct styles of Hebrew illumination - one with affinities to Christian art and the other to Islamic.

Ms. Tahan will be giving gallery talks about Jewish aspects of the exhibition at 6pm on four Tuesday evenings: 8 May, 15 May, 5 June and 19 June. And as part of a programme of accompanying lectures the novelist Howard Jacobson will discuss his relationship with Judaism at 6.30pm on 4 July. For booking information call 01937 546546.

"Sacred" is at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, from 27 April to 23 September. Admission free.