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G111 Exhibitions
Art Rental Service
School of Art
University of Manitoba

 

Bibles

Prayer Books & Choir Books

Histories

Paper & Parchment

 

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May 29 - June 27, 2004

Curated by Paul Dyck (Assistant Professor, English, Canadian Mennonite University) and Dietrich Bartel (Associate Professor, Music, Canadian Mennonite University) with Shelley Sweeney (Head, Archives & Special Collections, University of Manitoba)

Introduction

"Thy word is a lantern unto my feet, and a light unto my path"
(Ps 119:105, Coverdale's Translation)

From its beginnings as an offshoot of Judaism, Christianity has been a profoundly text-centered movement. And from the first centuries of Christianity, there has been a strong connection between the sacred text and the technology of the book, or as its early form is known, the codex.

Jewish sacred texts have traditionally been (and still are) communicated through and carried by the technology of the scroll. Christianity is deeply indebted to both these Jewish texts and to the way they were transmitted. The first Christians, like their Jewish counterparts, read the scriptures as a collection of scrolls, and the individual "books" of the Christian New Testament most likely started off as scrolls. The word "Bible" itself refers to the scroll. It comes from the Greek translation of Daniel 9:2, in which Daniel looks "in the books," or en tois bibliois, literally meaning 'the scrolls.' Bible, then, ultimately refers back to a collection of scrolls.

When you pick up a Bible, you are holding something that could not physically have existed prior to the invention of the codex and of paper (or parchment). That is, you are holding all of the Jewish and Christian canonical texts bound into one physical object. A single scroll could hold, at maximum, one of the longer New Testament books, such as Matthew. The technology of the codex allows a relatively vast amount of text to be gathered together, and the Bible probably contributed centrally to the acceptance of the codex as a central technology of Western culture.

We might think of the codex as involving two related inventions. The first of these is the page, a piece of paper, papyrus, or parchment, and consequently the text that is on it, as a relatively free-standing instance of reading material. The second is the gathering; that is, the collecting of sheets of paper into groups (such as a modern magazine does) which are then bound together to make a codex. These together make it possible to quickly access various parts of a long text. If you have ever used a concordance at the end of a Bible (or the index of any book), you will likely have kept one finger in an opening at the back of the book while you flipped through and found other texts on other pages. When you have done so, you have participated in one of the most striking and influential aspects of the technology of the codex: its encouragement of multiple accessing and searching of great amounts of text.

The books in this exhibit illustrate the complex interaction between Christianity and the book. The book is far more than a carrier of sacred text. Its strengths encourage particular ways of reading, such as cross-referencing. At the same time, particular needs of Christianity at particular times have greatly effected the kinds of books Christians have produced. We have so far been talking about the book as a technology, but we must as well talk about it as an art. These books reflect an intense concern for beauty, whether in the illuminations and letter forms of the manuscripts, or in the illustrations and type design of the printed books. Not as readily apparent to untrained eye is the craft that has gone into the preparation of parchment and paper, the layout of text and illustration on the page, and the binding of the gatherings into covers, themselves often considerable artistic achievements. We might even think of each page (or opening of two facing pages) as a textual and artistic event, an instance of human communication that appeals to both discursive and sensory human needs. When you look at an illuminated or illustrated page, think about how you are engaged in two activities: reading and viewing. Each involves physical, mental, and emotional actions. Your responses to the meaning of the text and to the appearance of the page play off of each other, each informing the other in a kind of conversation between word and image.

We tend to assume that technologies progress forward smoothly with new ones replacing old ones. A closer look, though, reveals that older technologies are not so much replaced by new ones as complicated by them. Going back to the beginning of the history of writing itself, one will note that the spoken word did not become obsolete once writing was invented (and there still is knowledge that circulates primarily orally rather than in writing: consider jokes for instance). Likewise, using one's hand to write (manu + script) still happens today, though generally not as a means of duplication. In the centuries following the invention of the printing press, manuscripts continued to be the preferred medium for certain kinds of texts and certain kinds of audiences. Whereas the Bible was mass-produced by both reformers and governments for a broad audience, a choir book would only be wanted or needed in particular instances. Everyone, if you agree with Wycliffe or Tyndale, should have access to a Bible; few, however, will need to lead a choir. A book as big as the Spanish Antiphonary (Loewen 5) and designed for such a particular use may well have been much more economical to produce as a manuscript than as print.