I don’t often swoon in public, but the Morgan Library’s current exhibition “Marks of Genius: Treasures from the Bodleian Library” left me breathless. It was dizzying, standing before 57 magnificent artifacts representing 2,000 years of intellectual and artistic accomplishment, from cultures, countries and religious traditions that ranged from around the world in place and time. And among them are several of particular Jewish interest.
It’s almost impossible to miss the colorful six-foot long map on parchment of the Holy Land from the late 1300s. It was a time of Crusades and Christian pilgrimage. But how like a modern-day tourist map it appeared, with favored routes outlined in a faded blue-green and numerous illustrations of turreted castles, forts and other sights to see along the way.
I turned to a near-by case and spotted a manuscript autograph draft by Maimonides, in his distinctive Sephardic-style Hebrew script, of his Mishneh Torah (“Repetition of the Law”), dating to around 1180. Barely had I taken that in when I found myself gazing on the journal of Franz Kafka, written in German in the months of May through June, 1912; these pages, the case label explained, contained his original draft of his one of his best known stories, “The Judgment.”
As I surveyed the other cases with materials from Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, how delightful it was to see the gorgeous illuminated Hebrew Bible from Spain circa 1476, known as the Kennicott Bible (named for the 18th-century British Hebraist Benjamin Kennicott). With its exquisite illustrations and decorative motifs crafted by artist Joseph Ibn Yayyim, this was the centerpiece of the Jewish Museum exhibition from a couple of years back: “Crossing Borders: Manuscripts From The Bodleian Libraries”. When you return home, be sure and check out the online link to the exhibition and listen to the wonderful recording of a cantor chanting, in the Sephardic tradition, the opening of Genesis.
I found irresistible the charming watercolor of a lake by moonlight painted in 1845 by composer Felix Mendelssohn (yes, he was a convert to Christianity, but he was nonetheless a grandson of the great Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn) to illustrate and accompany his hand-written copy of one of his songs.
The power of this exhibition is its demonstration of the breadth and reach of genius in all fields among all cultures: from papyrus fragments of the poems of Sappho (2nd century AD) to a handwritten draft of an abandoned novel by Jane Austen (“The Watsons,” 1803), from an early copy of Euclid (dated 888) to a 12th century Islamic “Book of the Constellations of the Fixed Stars.” From the Magna Carta, the original British Bill of Rights, in a published version from 1217 to a 1623 folio by Shakespeare….Oh my, I’m getting breathless just thinking about it. Take a look, and you’ll understand why.
"Marks of Genius: Treasures from the Bodleian Library” is on view at The Morgan Library & Museum. 225 Madison Avenue, New York through September 14, 2014.
Diane Cole, author of the memoir "After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges," writes for The Wall Street Journal and other national publications and is a faculty member of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning.