THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

5 posts from April 2020

27 April 2020

The Buddha and his natural environment in Thai manuscript art

Illustrated Buddhist manuscripts from mainland Southeast Asia are famous for their lavish and often very detailed depictions of scenes from the Life of Buddha and the Buddha’s Birth Tales, known as Jatakas. Although most of these manuscripts date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, their illustrations are based on much older Pali texts originating from Sri Lanka in the first century BCE. The outstanding beauty of these manuscript paintings results from the depiction of the natural environment in which the main character – the historical Buddha – is placed, highlighting the close relationship the Buddha had with nature and all sentient beings.

Scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka illustrated in a paper folding book with extracts from the Pali Tipitaka in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, IO.Pali.207 f.3)
Scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka illustrated in a paper folding book with extracts from the Pali Tipitaka in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, IO.Pali.207 f.3). Public domain

The Buddha’s Birth Tales (Jatakas)

The previous lives of Gotama Buddha - the historical Buddha - are the subject of a collection of Birth Tales (Jatakas). They show how he gradually acquired greater virtues and moral stature from one incarnation to the other. These stories, well-known in all Theravada Buddhist cultures, are attributed to Gotama Buddha himself and are included in the Pali Buddhist canon. He is thought to have narrated them during his ministry to his followers, using each Jataka to teach certain morals and values. There are 547 such stories, but more were created in the region of Northern Thailand and Laos at a later time and are known as Pannasa Jatakas.

The Jatakas are a major subject of Thai manuscript illustration, with the oldest extant manuscripts dating back at least to the 18th century. These stories are meant to teach the values of compassion, loving-kindness, generosity, honesty, perseverance and morality. In his previous lives Gotama Buddha was incarnated in form of human beings, various animals, benevolent spirits, or as deities residing in the heavenly realms of the Buddhist cosmos.

Scenes from the Bhuridatta Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 19th century (British Library, Or.16552 f.16)
Scenes from the Bhuridatta Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 19th century (British Library, Or.16552 f.16). Public domain

The Bhuridatta Jataka is a fine example that describes the moral abilities of sacred or mythical animals as sentient beings. The Buddha-to-be was reborn as a mythical serpent prince (naga), who practiced meditation and aimed to follow the Buddhist precepts. A greedy snake charmer named Alambayana obtained magic spells from a hermit in order to capture Bhuridatta. A hunter who in the past was taken by Bhuridatta to live in splendor in the serpent kingdom (right side) revealed the serpent’s secret meditation place to Alambayana. The snake charmer captured the serpent while he was coiled around an ant hill (left side) and forced him to perform in market places so that he could earn fame and wealth. Bhuridatta repressed his shame and anger in order to follow the Eight Precepts. Eventually, he was freed by his brothers.

In both illustrations great care was taken to paint the serpent in great detail and in bright colours to highlight his sacredness, whereas plants, flowers, fish and different species of birds were added as decorative elements.

Scenes from the Suvannasama Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14068 f.5)
Scenes from the Suvannasama Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14068 f.5) . Public domain

The Suvannasama Jataka tells the story of the Buddha-to-be when he lived as the son of blind hermits. Suvannasama looked after his parents with great devotion until one day he was shot with a poisoned arrow by a king who was out hunting deer (right side). When the king realised his grave mistake, he went to ask the hermits for forgiveness (left side). When the parents heard about their son’s fate, they requested the king to guide them to their beloved son’s body so they could pray for his future rebirth. They appealed and called to witness all deities about their son’s merits as he had always looked after them dearly. When their pledge ended, Suvannasama stood alive and well, and the parents also regained their eyesight. This Jataka symbolises the perfection of devotion.    

These paintings are fine examples of the late Ayutthaya manuscript painting style of the eighteenth century with distinguished landscapes, rocks, foliage, birds and deer. Although the scenes depict a sorrowful event, the atmosphere seems calm and peaceful thanks to warm, pleasant colours, leaving a positive impression on the viewer.

Scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14255 f.2)
Scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14255 f.2). Public domain

The Mahajanaka Jataka symbolizes the virtue of perseverance. Prince Mahajanaka's father was killed in battle by his brother, Mahajanaka’s uncle. When the prince found out about his ancestry he vowed to regain his father’s kingdom. He set out on a seafaring voyage, hoping to build a fortune in a distant land and to set up a powerful army. However, the ship sank and everyone on board drowned or was killed by sea creatures - except the prince. He drifted in the water for seven days, but survived through the sheer strength of his perseverance. A goddess, Manimekhala, rescued him and carried him to his father’s kingdom, which he finally regained after his uncle’s death (funeral carriage, right side). Thereafter, he sought to follow the Noble Eightfold Path and went on to pursue spiritual attainment as an ascetic (left side).

The paintings illustrating the Mahajanaka Jataka are in the style of the late Ayutthaya period and are set before a magnificent natural scenery in bright colours most of which were derived from natural paints. On the left side, the prince is depicted while meditating under a tree, surrounded by rocks and blossoming plants, similar to Prince Siddhattha who eventually became the historical Buddha. On the right side, an exquisitely painted horse is shown pulling the uncle's funeral carriage.

Scenes from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, late 18th century (British Library, Or.14704 f.74)
Scenes from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, late 18th century (British Library, Or.14704 f.74). Public domain

Prince Vessantara was the Buddha’s last incarnation before he was reborn as Prince Siddhattha and eventually attained enlightenment. This last Birth Tale, also called the Great Jataka, is the most popular across Southeast Asia, symbolising the virtues of generosity and compassion. Prince Vessantara gave away his white elephant, bringer of rain, to Brahmins of a drought-stricken land as an act of compassion. He was then exiled from his kingdom because people feared that his generosity may bring poverty to the land. His wife and children followed him and they set up a forest hermitage. A Brahmin, Jujaka, found Prince Vessantara and asked for his children to become servants to the Brahmin’s wife to stop other villagers mocking her (right). Out of compassion for Jujaka’s wife Prince Vessantra agreed to give away his children while his wife was collecting fruit in the forest (left side). The greedy Brahmin later sold the siblings – unwittingly - to Prince Vessantara’s parents. Prince Vessantara and his wife were finally welcomed back to the kingdom and reunited with the children.

The excellent paintings in this Thai folding book depict scenes from the Last Ten Jatakas in the style of the late 18th to early 19th century. Warm colours are used to highlight the beauty of the natural environment and the serenity of the forest hermitage. Although this part of the story is sorrowful, it is one of the most popular scenes from all Jatakas in Thailand, and the painter minimizes the sadness by adding beautiful natural elements like plants and trees with every single leaf painted meticulously.

The Life of Gotama Buddha

The historical Buddha, Gotama Buddha, was born in Lumbini (a place in modern-day Nepal) over 2,500 years ago. Throughout his life, he had an intimate connection with the natural world: he was born as Prince Siddhattha under a sal tree whose branches provided support to his mother giving birth, at the first seven steps he walked a lotus flower appeared, he lived in forests and in caves as an ascetic, meditated in the rain while a serpent protected him, gained enlightenment under the bodhi tree, gave his first discourse in a deer park, followed the River Ganges to teach the Dhamma, lived with his disciples in a bamboo grove, taught at forest monasteries, interacted with various real and mythical animals during his long ministry, and at the point of his physical passing he attained pari-nibbana between twin sal trees.

In the Sutta Pitaka part of the Pali canon over 13,000 species of animals and over 18,000 species of plants are mentioned which is evidence of the consciousness of early Buddhists about biodiversity. Manuscript illustrations give insight into how the Buddha and nature were benevolent and supportive to each other, and how the natural world supports and sustains humanity. The Buddhist belief that all sentient beings possess inherent Buddha nature is expressed through spectacular depictions of the natural world surrounding the Buddha.

Scenes of Buddha’s meditation and enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Pali Tipitaka and the legend of Phra Malai in Thai language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 1894 (British Library, Or.16101 f.2)
Scenes of Buddha’s meditation and enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Pali Tipitaka and the legend of Phra Malai in Thai language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 1894 (British Library, Or.16101 f.2). Public domain

The majority of Thai manuscript paintings are dedicated to Buddhist topics. However, instead of Gotama Buddha’s life these illustrations often highlight his former incarnations, particularly the Last Ten Birth Tales.

The manuscript above includes two illustrations of Gotama Buddha which combine Thai and European painting styles. It is a fine example where team-work of at least two artists can be assumed, one specializing in the traditional style of painting Thai figures, and the other experimenting with European landscape painting techniques. The paintings illustrate a central moment in the life of Gotama Buddha – his enlightenment. Once Prince Siddhattha had freed himself from all disturbances and distractions by way of meditation (right side), he was able to attain enlightenment while sitting under a bodhi tree on the full moon day of Visakha (in May). By touching the earth (left side) he called upon the earth goddess Dharani as a witness of his merits in his previous lives. The gods Brahma and Sakka witnessed his attainment of enlightenment and asked the Buddha to share his insights with all sentient beings.

Buddha’s attainment of pari-nibbana, or final liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Paper folding book, 19th century (British Library, Or.14115 f. 95)
Buddha’s attainment of pari-nibbana, or final liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Paper folding book, 19th century (British Library, Or.14115 f. 95). Public domain

The scene above, painted in rich colours, captures details associated with the story of the Buddha’s physical passing. At the age of 80 the Buddha fell ill and passed on at Kushinara, between Pava and Sal Grove. The illustration depicts the Buddha resting on his right side next to a sal tree (left side). A newly ordained monk conveys the message of the Buddha’s passing to his lay followers (right side), whom the Buddha had urged to work towards their own enlightenment with diligence. His body was cremated and the relics were placed in monuments (stupas). The presence of the sal trees in both the Buddha’s birth and death scenes symbolises the cycle of rebirths, samsara, a key concept in Buddhist philosophy.

Further reading

McDaniel, Justin, "The bird in the corner of the painting. Some problems with the use of Buddhist texts to study Buddhist ornamental art in Thailand", Moussons, 23/2014, pp. 21-53.
Igunma, Jana and San San May, "Buddha embracing nature – nature embracing Buddha. The Buddha and his natural environment in Southeast Asian manuscript art",  Arts of Asia, Jan/Feb 2020, pp.114-124.
San San May and Jana Igunma, Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript art from Southeast Asia. London, British Library, 2018.
Shravasti Dhammika, Nature and environment in early Buddhism. Singapore, Buddhist Research Society, 2015.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections
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20 April 2020

Sir William Jones’ manuscript copy of al-Fatawa al-'Alamgiriyyah

Upon disembarking in India in 1783 as a new puisne Judge at the Supreme Court of Judicature in Fort William, now Kolkata, which covered the districts of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, William Jones encountered a problem: how do British judges, relying, as they did, on pandits and maulavis to translate Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit legal texts into English and provide interpretations of the law for the Muslim and Hindu communities, ensure that they are applying the law as it ought to be applied, rather than as desired by the translators and scholars? Jones himself was very conscious of the possibility of corruption; indeed, this distrust of the pandits’ interpretations of the texts were his main motivations to learn Sanskrit (Jones, Letters, 2:666).

Beginning of volume 2 of the Fatawa al-alamgiri
 The opening of volume two of William Jones' copy of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah, with Jones’ signature included in the heading (British Library RSPA 88). Public domain

The problem was not so much one of corruption or misinterpretation of the law, of course. Jones, hailing from one culture of law, was confronted by not one but two new legal systems in India, that of Islamic Law (fiqh) and the legal theory and jurisprudence of the Hindu community, which developed into the term Hindu Law during the British colony. In 1772, Warren Hastings, then governor, enforced that all Indians would be subject to Indian (Islamic and Hindu) law and that the approach to this law would be text-based rather than based on local custom. Medieval Islamic Law varied in theory and practice widely between the four Sunni and two (major) Shia schools and was fundamentally constructed on different principles with different goals from English law. The same is true of what became Hindu law; the administration of this by the Supreme Court was “fraught with difficulty” (Evison, 1998, 126) because of both the difficulty the pandits had working in a system where they were not able to access details of the case at hand, but rather relied on notes from the judge, and also the fact that the methods of interpreting traditional shastric literature were not conceived to provide simple universal answers to the questions posed by the British court system (see Evison, 1998, 126-8).

In this text-based legal culture, Jones aimed to acquire his own manuscript copies of important texts in Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit, in order to ensure he had access to the original material upon which customary law, he assumed, had been based. One of the most important of the texts he acquired was his five-volume copy of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah (MSS RSPA 87, 88, 89, 90 and 91); it was the end result of a long period of legal scholarship undertaken by a wide range of legal scholars and commissioned by the Mughal Emperor ʻĀlamgīr, better known as Aurangzeb (r.1658-1707). The text, recommended to Jones by an acquaintance of his, Mīr Ḥusayn ʻAlī (Jones, Notebook, 7, 13), proved to be one of the cornerstones of the British imperial legal system and one of the most prominent texts through which the colonial authorities administered Muslim law.

MS RSPA 87, is, however, very different from the other manuscripts in the collection. This manuscript volume was rebound in the standard India Office half-leather brown-maroon binding with wine-coloured marbled endpapers (like most of the Jones collection). The other volumes are still in their 18th-century brown leather-and-board binding, which has mostly become detached, except for MS RSPA 91, which is also bound in the India Office Library style.

Seal impressions of former owners (RSPA 87  f. 1r)
The initial leaf of volume one of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah with previous owners' seals and inscriptions (British Library RSPA 87, f. 1r). Public domain

The script and paper of the manuscript are also very different from the others, which are all copied in one continuous neat naskh hand on a light-cream, thick, woven paper. The paper of this volume is, however, a worm-eaten and discoloured woven paper, whilst the hand is a thick, rough nastaʿlīq. The volume, then, is clearly from a different text production and would presumably have formed part of a different set of manuscripts, which are not part of the Jones collection. Equally, the same applies to the other set: whatever happened to the first volume?

It might be seem axiomatic that Jones should buy from different manuscript sets of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah. Why should it matter that one manuscript comes from a different place than the others? Perhaps he just bought the volumes which were available at the time and supplemented elsewhere with MS RSPA 87 (or vice-versa) when he could. Looking at any seals might be instructive. Where did they come from? When did they become grouped together into the same collection of manuscripts?

Seal B Seal C Seal D and inscription
Seals B, C and D indicating former owners of RSPA 87. Public domain

MS RSPA 87 has the greatest number of seals and, naturally, being the odd one out of the series, the most distinct lineage. On the first folio, there are four seals. At the top (seals A and B) are two copies of the same seal with the legend, ʻAbd al-Ḥaqq murīd-i pādshāh-i ʻĀlamgīr sanah 36 (1692-93) which translates to “ʻAbd al-Ḥaqq, disciple of the Emperor ʻĀlamgīr in the regnal year 36,” meaning that this ʻAbd al-Ḥaqq owned this manuscript not earlier than 1692. In the accompanying ownership statement, ʻAbd al-Ḥaqq is noted to be the son of ʻAbd al-Wahhāb, a deceased judge. Seal C is a Qur’anic seal quoting verse 45 of surah 19 (Sūrat Maryam) which does not tell us much about the owner. The final seal (D) on this page is that of Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān dated 1153AH (1740-41AD). Alongside this seal, there is a note that states he bought the manuscript in 1162AH (1748-49AD).

Seal of Akram al-Din RSPA90 Seal pf Hafiz Masud RSPA91
Left: seal of Akram al-Dīn (RSPA 90) and right: acquisition note dated 1162 (1748-49) and seal of Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān (RSPA 91). Public domain

The other four volumes in the series have a different origin. The oldest seal on all of these manuscripts is that of Muḥammad Abū al-Fatḥ Akram al-Dīn dated regnal year 39, 1107AH (1695-96AD), again making this set of manuscripts a copy of the text dating from the reign of Emperor ʻĀlamgīr, albeit a younger copy than MS RSPA 87. These manuscripts then all bear the same origin; what becomes interesting is that these manuscripts also all bear the seal of Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān dated 1153AH (1740-1AD). It is possible that Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān bought them from someone else who previously grouped the manuscripts together, especially given that he acquired them all in the same year (1162/1748-49).

Inscription of Muhammad Anwar RSPA87
Note dated Jumāda al-Awwal 1196AH (April-May 1782AD) by Sayyid Muḥammad Anwar (British Library RSPA 87, f. 1r). Public domain

So, we have identified Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān in the year 1162AH as the point at which we can positively assert that the manuscripts were definitely grouped together, with it being possible that they had been previously grouped and sold together to him. What, then, can we say about what happened next? On MS RSPA 87, there is a final acquisition note from a man named Sayyid Muḥammad Anwar ibn Sayyid Muḥammad Ghawth, who apparently acquired the manuscript in Jumāda al-Awwal in the year 1196AH (April-May 1782AD), only a year and a half before Jones acquired them, making Muḥammad Anwar the likely source of these manuscripts for Jones.

Through the seal record, then, we have been able to reconstruct the past history of Jones’s copies of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah and provide the point at which we can definitively say this heterogenous manuscript collection had become grouped together as one text, predating Jones by some thirty years. In his notebooks, Jones lists this text first, before both al-Farāʼiḍ al-Sirājiyyah (MS RSPA 92), which Jones commissioned, and Mukhtaṣar al-Qudūrī, of which he owned two copies (MS RSPA 83 and MS RSPA 84) (see Jones, Notebook, 41); this manuscript text, covered in annotations and notes, which remain in need of extensive study, was therefore an integral cornerstone of his legal practice in India.

Further Reading

Evison, Gillian, “The Sanskrit Manuscripts of Sir William Jones in the Bodleian Library” in Alexander Murray (ed.) Sir William Jones 1746-1794: A Commemoration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Ibetson, David, “Sir William Jones as Comparative Lawyer” in Alexander Murray (ed.) Sir William Jones 1746-1794: A Commemoration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Jones, William, Letters of Sir William Jones (ed. Garland Cannon) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970; in two volumes).
——— Autograph Notebook, ca. 1785. Yale University, Beinecke Library MS. Osborn c400; this notebook is from the first few years of Jones’s life in India and details people, places and the books he acquired.
Stephens, Julia, Governing Islam: law, empire and secularism in South Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Jonathan Lawrence, DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford, doctoral placement at British Library
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13 April 2020

Animal days: three Bugis amulets in British collections

Today's guest blog is by Dr Roger Tol, former Head of the KITLV in Jakarta, and a specialist on Bugis manuscripts.

Mystical diagrams or amulets have always been very popular in Southeast Asia. In almost every local bookstore across Indonesia and Malaysia you can buy cheap publications called primbon which contain a great variety of texts, calendars, and mystical diagrams. By and large they are used to predict the future. Is this a good day for shopping? Or to marry? To harvest, to travel?  These diagrams go back a long time and you can find them in many Indonesian literary traditions. It is little surprise to find that we also come across them in handwritten documents from these traditions.

Still, it was  wonderful to see one such amulet pop up in a Bugis manuscript (Add 12360) from the Crawfurd collection in the British Library, which was recently digitised and made available online.

Bugis amuletic compass diagram Add_ms_12360_f062r-crop
Amuletic diagram in a Bugis manuscript containing treatises on medicine and agriculture, before 1814. British Library, Add 12360, f. 62r 

When I told Annabel Gallop that it was an interesting diagram, she informed me that she had discovered a very similar diagram in another Bugis manuscript, Add. 12372, from the same collection. Even more interesting!

Bugis amuletic compass diagram Add_ms_12372_f066r-crop
Amuletic diagram in another Bugis manuscript also containing treatises and notes on medical and agricultural matters, before 1814. British Library, Add 12372, f. 66r  

In both manuscripts we see a circular diagram like a wheel, divided into eight sections, with a flower in the middle resembling a rose window. Each section is numbered and has a few words in Bugis script. How do we read it? Where do we begin? Are there any reference sources? Yes, there are. We have good old Matthes’ publication on Bugis and Makassar amulets or kotika (1868) and two books on Malay magic which provide clues. It was Skeat who laid the groundwork in his Malay Magic of 1900. This is still a great read. More than a century later we also have the superb study on magical illustrations in Malay manuscripts which was published by Farouk Yayha in 2016, and this is an even greater read.

These books tell us how to read the diagrams and provide context, and Farouk in particular discusses animal days. Yes, animal days: each part of the diagram deals with a particular animal, except for number one, which is a wood day. So we have the following eight parts in our diagrams: wood day, tiger day, crocodile day, deer day, bird day, pig day, fish day, and dog day. The numbers (Arabic in Add 12360 and Latin in Add 12372) indicate the sequence of the days. We start with wood day, followed by tiger day, crocodile day, and so on. Their order is not accidental; at the very least there is an evident relation between animals on the opposite sides of the diagram: the crocodile versus the fish, the deer versus the dog, and the pig versus the tiger, while the bird relaxes in the tree.

How do you know what kind of animal belongs to a particular day? First you establish the date of the (Islamic) month, let’s say 18 Muharram. Then you start counting, beginning with the wood day and continue counting counter-clockwise until you arrive at 18, which turns out to be a tiger day.

Farouk shows us a few intriguing circular diagrams with actual drawings of the animals. A Malay one in particular is fascinating because it has the same shape as our diagrams and depicts the same animals save for one (Farouk 2016: 132).

EAP153-3-15 compass diagram with animals
A compass diagram of eight animals (cat, tiger, dog, bird, mouse, deer, crocodile, fish), in Kitab azimat dan rajah, a Malay manuscript on divination and spells,  Palembang, c. 1890.  Aswandi  Syahri Collection, British Library EAP153/3/15 image 21; rotated 180 degrees to match the orientation of the Bugis diagrams.

Back to our two Bugis manuscripts. They not only contain the same amulets, but also a complete and remarkable text preceding them, concerning divination corresponding to 30 surahs in the Qur’an (nos 2-31). However, a striking difference between the manuscripts is that Add 12372 also has an explanatory text following the amulet (ff. 66v-67v), shown below, which is lacking in Add 12360.

Add_ms_12372_f066v-67r Bugis explanation of divination diagram
Bugis explanation of the amuletic diagram. Briitish Library, Add 12372, ff. 66v-67r 

When we look at the two amulets themselves we see that both are well-drawn and have clear, neat Bugis writing. There are differences though. A major one is in the layout of the amulets with a bold and large central ‘flower’ in Add 12360 and a much smaller (and multi-coloured) one in the other manuscript, Add 12372. Also the amulet in Add 12372 has more informative text in the ring next to the green line: there it adds in each section the words ‘one night’, ‘two nights,’ up to  ‘eight nights’. The texts in the amulets are otherwise identical, though in different positions within the amulets. Interestingly in both amulets the sections are numbered, but in different ways and positions. Whereas in Add 12372 the numerals are written in the modern ‘Western’ way and placed inside the amulet, Add 12360 writes them as ‘Arab’ Arabic numerals in the outer sections.

So far so good, but what is the practical meaning of these diagrams? What do they tell us? To answer this question, we can turn to the explanation in Add 12372. This is what it says on f. 66v about the first two days, a wood day and a tiger day, in a free translation:

Greetings. We take a wheel with eight sections.
A wood day is a good day to weave cloth and also good to buy cloth. It is bad to go far away, but good to wage war. Bad to set sail because the rudder will shake. It is also bad to claim debts since these will not be paid soon. It is also a bad day for lending because you’ll never get it back. It is a good day to buy for relatives. Also good to buy animals. Bad to have a cockfight. End.
A tiger day is a very good day to marry a woman when she is a relative.It is also good for love. Not good for buying things since they will be eaten by fire or stolen. Also a good day to plant rice or other crop. End.

And then, surprise, surprise, and of very great interest, an ink drawing of a very similar kotika turned up in the Library of the Wellcome Collection in London.

Bugis amuletic compass diagram Wellcome Library no. 570977i
Bugis amuletic diagram. Wellcome Library no. 570977i 

There is no doubt that there is a clear relation between these three diagrams. But what kind of a relationship? This is all food for some guesswork.

The date of the Wellcome Library diagram is not certain. The approximate date in the online catalogue is given as “1850-1910”, but an earlier date might be possible, as suggested in an email from Wellcome’s research team. That is because a possibly related drawing in the same folder is dated “Jan 05” which probably indicates 1905, but might also refer to 1805.

For our two diagrams from the Crawfurd collection we have a clear terminus ante quem – they were drawn before 1814, the year they were looted from the Boné palace. We see that both manuscripts are closely related and present very similar, although not identical, amulets and contextual information. The most striking differences between the two are firstly that Add 12360 does not contain the explanation of the amulet, and secondly that Add 12360 uses Arabic numbers in the diagrams whereas Add 12372 uses Latin numbers. Does this mean Add 12360 is the “original” and Add 12372 its copy? Not necessarily. There is also the possibility both manuscripts were not direct copies from each other, but were copied from another manuscript. That could explain easily the differences between the texts, and therefore I have a preference for this option.

Considering the layout and use of Arabic numbering, the Wellcome kotika is apparently a direct copy from Add 12360. Yet there are some differences between the two. The most important is the quality of the Bugis script which in the Wellcome amulet is noticeably inferior to the script in Add 12360. It seems the copyist was not familiar with this script. Another difference is right in the middle, in the ‘heart’ of the flower. Whereas the petals in the ‘original’ are less well matched, those in the Wellcome copy are neat and symmetrical. The flower ‘handgrip’ denoting the wood day is also different and shows a combination of the differences mentioned above: the lines are both straighter and simpler.

Summarizing, it seems likely there was an “original” Bugis diagram drawn in the 18th century, which was copied in two manuscripts and kept in Boné’s royal library until 1814 when they were taken by the British. Then, at some stage, maybe even after the arrival of the Crawfurd manuscripts in the British Library in 1842, a copy of the diagram in Add 12360 was made which ultimately found its way in the Wellcome Library.

References
Farouk Yahya (2016). Magic and divination in Malay illustrated manuscripts. Leiden: Brill.
Farouk Yahya (2017).  The wheel diagram in the Malay divinatory technique of the Faal Qur'an. Indonesia and the Malay world, 45(132): 200-225.
Matthes, B.F. (1868). De Makassaarsche en Boeginesche kotika's. [Makassar: Sutherland]
Skeat, W.W. (1900). Malay magic being an introduction to the folklore and popular religion of the Malay Peninsula. London [etc.]: Macmillan.

Roger Tol, Leiden

Related blogs:

The Royal Library of Bone: Bugis and Makassar manuscripts in the British Library (6 January 2020).

Digital access to Bugis and Makassar manuscripts

08 April 2020

Mah Nishtanah? Why is Tonight different from all other nights? In celebration of Passover

Passover is a major Jewish Spring festival that has been celebrated annually since ancient times. It typically falls between late March and late April, and marks the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian bondage through divine intervention, as told in the biblical Book of Exodus. The highlight of the Passover celebration is the reading of the hagadah. 

The hagadah (plural hagadot), which literally means ‘narration’ or ‘telling’, is the ritual book used in Jewish households on Passover Eve, at a festive ceremony and meal known as the Seder (order).  In the Jewish Diaspora the Seder is conducted on two consecutive nights.  

 

Seder table from Hispano-Moresque Jewish manuscript Seder table from Catalan Jewish manuscript
Seder table. (Hispano-Moresque Hagadah.  Castile, Spain, 1275-1324. Or 2737, f. 91r)

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Seder table. (Sister Hagadah. Catalonia, Spain1325-1374.  Or 2884, f.18r)

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This is a book of remembrance and redemption, aiming primarily to teach the young about the continuity of the Jewish people, and their unswerving faith in God:  “And you shall explain to your son on that day: It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).  

Written chiefly in Hebrew with Aramaic additions, the hagadah is a mosaic of biblical extracts, rabbinical discussions, legends, symbolic foods, prayers, Psalms and songs that were probably assembled as early as the 2nd century CE, evolving gradually into the set pattern of fifteen steps that is known today.

 

Seder table from the Ashkenazi Hagadah

Seder table. (The Ashkenzi Hagadah.  Ulm (?), Germany, 1430-1470.  Add MS 14762, f. 6r)

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Its enthralling contents and the fact that it is used at a domestic ceremony attended also by young children have been a fertile ground for artistic creativity and expression since medieval times.  Over the centuries, the hagadah has thus become one of the most endearing texts to Jews everywhere, and equally one of the most frequently decorated texts used in Jewish practise. The earliest extant illustration in a hagadah appears in an 11th-century manuscript fragment found in the Cairo Genizah.[1]  The illustration[2] depicts the maror (bitter herbs) a mandatory food eaten at the Seder.

 

Illustration of the maror from a Cairene fragment
Drawing of maror (bitter herbs) in a hagadah fragment from the Cairo Genizah (La Haggada enluminée. 1., Etude iconographique et stilistique des manuscrits enluminés et decorés de la Haggada du XIII. au XVI. siècle / Mendel Metzger. Leiden: Brill, 1973. (pp. 285-287)). (Image is not Creative Commons)

 

Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, richly illuminated manuscripts of the Passover narrative were produced in limited numbers in various European centres.   Of the surviving hagadah manuscripts the finest and most luxurious specimens were created in Spain, particularly in Catalonia, in the 14th century.  The Brother and the Sister hagadot in the British Library’s Hebrew collection are a good case in point. 

The images seen here originate from these two splendid artefacts.  They contain the hymn Dayenu (It would have been enough), a Passover thanksgiving hymn that extols God’s magnanimity towards the Israelites. Its decoration is often encountered in other medieval Spanish Passover ritual books. The text is flanked by ornate vertical bands created by the repeated words ilu (if) and ve-lo (and if not) placed on filigree grounds.

 

Illuminated Dayenu hymn from the Brother Hagadah Illuminated Dayenu hymn from the Sister Hagadah

Embellished Dayenu hymn (It would have been enough). (Brother Hagadah. Catalonia, Spain, 1350-1374. Or 1404, f. 15v)

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Decorated Dayenu hymn (It would have been enough). (Sister Hagadah. Catalonia, Spain, 1325-1374. Or 2884, f. 48v)

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The exact figure of extant illuminated hagadah manuscripts is difficult to determine, nonetheless, it can be stated with some degree of certainty that a small number date from the Middle Ages, whilst the majority are 18th century artefacts.

 

The 18th century witnessed a revival of Hebrew manuscript art, which has been linked to the emergence of a wealthy class of central and northern European Jews. Influenced by trends prevailing in their Christian milieu, these well-to-do patrons began to commission illuminated Hebrew manuscripts for everyday use and special occasions, hagadot being particularly popular.  This phenomenon, which some scholars have named the ”Jewish Renaissance,” was made possible by the formation of a school of professional scribe-artists, chiefly from Bohemia and Moravia, who travelled around Europe in search of commissions. 

The four sons illustration from German Jewish manuscript

The Four Sons. (The Sloane Hagadah, Hamburg-Altona, 1740. Sloane MS 3173, f. 6v)

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One of the most prominent Moravian scribe-artists of that period was Joseph ben David Leipnik, active in Hamburg and Altona.  Between 1731 and 1740 he created some thirteen hagadot. Featured here are miniatures from a beautifully wrought specimen Leipnik completed in 1740, now kept in the British Library’s Hebrew collection. The manuscript is called the Sloane Hagadah after its former owner, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), founder of the British Museum.  Like other 18th century Passover ritual books, the illuminations in this one were modelled on the copper engravings in the 1695 and 1712 printed editions of the Amsterdam hagadah.

Finding Baby Moses from Germany Jewish manuscriptMoses receiving the law from German Jewish manuscript
Finding of baby Moses. (The Sloane Hagadah., Hamburg-Altona, 1740. Sloane MS 3173, f. 12v)
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Moses receiving the Law on Mount Sinai. (The Sloane Hagadah., Hamburg-Altona, 1740. Sloane MS 3173, f. 17v)
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The Passover ceremony is a major festive celebration for Jews everywhere. Families and guests gather round the beautifully set Seder table, to recite the hagadah, sing hymns and consume the traditional symbolic foodstuff arranged on special Seder plates.  

Two of the obligatory foods eaten on Passover eve are matsah (unleavened bread; knows also as ‘poor man’s bread’) and maror (bitter herbs). The former symbolises freedom. It is the unbaked bread dough the Israelites took with them when leaving Egypt hastily. The latter represents the harshness of the Israelites’ slavery endured under Pharaoh.  The matsah we partake from nowadays is a flat, cracker-like bread. Vegetables used most commonly as bitter herbs are horseradish and romaine lettuce.

Illustration of matsah from Catalan Jewish manuscriptIllustration of maror from Catalan Jewish manuscript
Miniature of the matsah (unleavened bread). (Brother Hagadah. Catalonia, Spain, 1350-1374. Or 1404, f. 17v)

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Miniature of the maror (bitter herbs). (Brother Hagadah. Catalonia, Spain, 1350-1374. Or 1404, f. 18r)
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Another essential food consumed at the Seder ceremony is haroset (sweetmeats) which is symbolic of the mortar and bricks the Israelite slaves used to build Pharaoh’s cities. Traditionally this is a sweet relish made of fruit, chopped or ground nuts and sweet red wine. Over the centuries, Jewish communities from around the world have developed their own versions of haroset.  Countless recipes exist using a variety of local ingredients, but many still are closely guarded secrets.

 

Distribution of matsah and haroset from Catalan golden hagadah Distribution of haroset from Hispano-Moresque hagadah

Distributing matsah and haroset  to children. (The Golden Hagadah, Catalonia, Spain, 1320-1330. Add MS 27210, f. 15r (detail))

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Distributing haroset. (Hispano-Moresque Hagadah.  Castile, Spain, 1275-1324. (Or 2737, f. 89r)

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A while ago, I discovered an interesting recipe for making haroset in an 18th century manuscript held in our collection. I found it rather intriguing that a manuscript of liturgical poems for circumcision contained instructions and ingredients for making Passover sweet relish. If a concealed connection does exist, it has yet to be unveiled. In the meantime, I am delighted to share this recipe with you.

Written in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) in Latin characters, I presume it was most probably used yearly by the previous anonymous owner/s of the manuscript, and must have been passed down by relatives or friends with Sephardi roots (from Spain or Portugal). The ingredients used in it point strongly to the rich culinary tradition of Spanish Jews.

 

Latin-script Judeo-Spanish recipe for haroset
Recipe for making haroset.  (Place of production unknown, 18th century. Or 10452, f. 33v)

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My translation is only partial.  Since some of the ingredients and instructions were hard to make out, they have been omitted and replaced by dots.

Instructions for making haroset.

The haroset is made from:

black figs (higos negros)

sultanas (pasas del sol)

almonds (almendras) 

chickpeas (garvansos) 

walnuts (nuesis de Espania)

These are all toasted (toztado) and crushed (majado), then mixed well together with apples (mansanas), pomegranates (granadas) and orange rind (cascaron de naranjas)… 

To  this mixture add spices (especias)…… ginger (Xinjibre), cinnamon (Canelon de Brazil), nutmeg (Nuez moscada)……..  If preferred, the composition can be blended with kosher honey (miel) melted (deretida) with sugar and a bit of wine (un poco de vino).  The mixture is shaped into small round pellets/balls (balitas) that have been rolled in powdered cinnamon……The pellets can be made in advance and kept.   

Happy festival! (Buena vestas)!  

 

Our readers and followers would be pleased to know, that all the manuscripts featured in this blog have been fully digitised as part of the major Hebrew Manuscripts Digitsation Project undertaken by the British Library, 2013-2020. They are freely accessible on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

The Sloane Hagadah is one of the star objects in the Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word exhibition.  Due to the current global pandemic, the opening of the exhibition scheduled for March 2020 has been deferred until further notice.    

 

Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies

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Further readings:

The Ashkenazi Haggadah: a Hebrew Manuscript of the Mid-15th Century From the Collections of the British Library, notes on the illuminations, transcription and English translation by David Goldstein (London: Thames and Hudson, 1985) [facsimile].

Evelyn M. Cohen, Joel ben Simeon Revisited: Reflections of the Scribe’s Artistic Repertoire in a Cinquecento Haggadah, in A Crown for a King; Studies in Jewish Art, History and Archaeology in Memory of Stephen S. Kayser, ed. by Shalom Sabar, Steven Fine, and William M. Kramer (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2000), pp. 59-71.

Evelyn C. Cohen, 'The "Sister Haggadah" and Its "Poor Relation"', Proceedings of the Eleventh Journal of World Congress of Jewish Studies, D2 (1994), 17-24.

Marc Michael Epstein, Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997)

Marc Michael Epstein, The Medieval Haggadah. Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2011)

Katrin Kogman-Appel, Illuminated Haggadot from Medieval Spain. Biblical Imagery and the Passover Holiday (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), pp. 47-88.

Katrin Kogman-Appel, ‘The Sephardic Picture Cycles and the Rabbinic Tradition: Continuity and Innovation in Jewish Iconography’, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 60 (1997), 451-82.

Katrin Kogman-Appel, ‘The Picture Cycles of the Rylands Haggadah and the so-called Brother Haggadah and Their Relation to the Western Tradition of Old Testament Illustration’ Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library, 79, 2 (1997), 3-20.

Yael Zirlin, 'Joel Meets Johannes: a Fifteenth-century Jewish-Christian Collaboration in Manuscript Illumination', Viator, 26 (1995), 265-82.


[1] A storeroom of discarded religious and secular Jewish documents that had been preserved in the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (old Cairo) for nearly one thousand years.  The exact whereabouts of this particular fragment are currently unknown. The fragment might have been owned by David Kaufmann a famous 19th century Jewish scholar who held the chair of philosophy and religion at the Rabbinical Seminary in Budapest. 

[2] This Genizah fragment was published by David Kaufmann, “Notes to the Egyptian Fragments of the Haggadah,” Jewish Quarterly Review, X (1898).  The fragment and illustration were also published in: 

La Haggada enluminée. 1., Etude iconographique et stilistique des manuscrits enluminés et decorés de la Haggada du XIII. au XVI. siècle / Mendel Metzger. Leiden: Brill, 1973. (pp. 285-287).  

 

06 April 2020

Qom mashiho! : Easter in the British Library's Syriac Manuscripts

The Last Supper as imagined by a northern Syrian painter
The Last Supper as imagined by a 13th-century Syriac artist. (Syriac Lectionary. Northern Syria, 1216-1240. Add MS 7170)
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As a commemoration, Easter encapsulates the central miracle of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The focal point of all four Gospels is the story of Jesus’ execution by Roman soldiers, followed by His return to life. For millions of Christians around the world, the narrative of Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem, betrayal by Judas Iscariot, march through the streets of the city, and eventual crucifixion on Golgotha provide the framework for a week of prayer, meditation, fasting, and celebration. Key aspects of this saga have so permeated the cultures and traditions of predominantly Christian communities as to become cliché, handy for the description of the mundane and outlandish alike. To call someone a Judas is to highlight their propensity to betray friends; even Lady Gaga included this reference in her 2011 song of the same name. Judas’ thirty pieces of silver are a trope for the wages of treachery. Golgotha has been recycled by demagogues and ideologues of all stripes to designate the site of crushing defeats suffered by supposedly anointed nations and clans. And, of course, the Last Supper, Jesus’ final repast, has been used in countless iterations, stretching from the sombre to the satirical.

Such key events in the final days of Christ and His resurrection are also mirrored in artwork throughout the Christian world. For Western audiences, Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (L’Ultima Cena) is perhaps the most iconic rendering of these paschal scenes, but it is by no means the only one. Indeed, the story of Jesus’ persecution, execution and resurrection have long been favourite topics for Syriac painters, especially those tasked with the illumination and illustration of liturgical and theological texts. The British Library, which has one of the largest collections of Syriac manuscripts in the world, is fortunate enough to be the custodian of several volumes featuring exquisite illustrations of the Easter story. From December 2019 until March 2020, I benefitted from the opportunity of cataloguing a number of these, in preparation for their digitisation and publication on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts page. While this project is now delayed due to the COVID-19 shutdown, I feel it apt to provide a sneak preview of some of these fantastic works just in time for the celebration of Easter (April 12 according to the Gregorian calendar; April 19 on the Julian one).

Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem from Syriac manuscript
Jesus' entry to Jerusalem from a 13th-century Syriac Lectionary. (Syriac Lectionary. Northern Syria, 1216-1240. Add MS 7170)
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The four Gospels of the New Testament relate a host of encounters between Jesus and various historical figures. All of these provide the opportunity to demonstrate Jesus’ miraculous powers, as well as the wisdom embodied in both his earthly and divine beings. It is his entry into Jerusalem (commemorated on Palm Sunday), however, that marks the start of the Passion, the drama of Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection. Two manuscripts within the British Library collections contain wonderful renderings of Jesus’ arrival to the spiritual centre of Judea. The first, Add MS 7170, is a 13th-century lectionary, possibly from northern Syria. The image is a spectacular one, and if it looks familiar to you, it might be because it was featured as part of a 2016 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, entitled Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven. It’s not just the quantity of gold used by the illustrator that draws in the reader: the diversity of expression, ethnicity, and attire of the various individuals pictured, as well as the detail of the flora, fauna, and buildings make this image a true feast for the eye. It also betrays a certain level of Byzantine influence (according to Leroy) or possibly Armenian influence (in the estimation of Raby and Brock), marking the many different realms whose cultural sway impacted the development of art and literature among Syriac speakers. Further discussion of these influences, as well as the role of Islamic art in the evolution of Syriac iconography, can be found in this scholarly article by Bas Snelders.

Jesus' entry into Jerusalem from 10th century Syriac manuscript
Jesus and his Disciples enter Jerusalem, from a 13th-century manuscript. (Púrāš qeryānā d-ṭeṭrā ᵓewangelion qadišā. Turabdin?, 11-13th century?. Or. 3372)
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Compare this to the second image of Christ’s entry into the holy city, taken from Or. 3372. Originally thought to be a 12th- or 13th-century manuscript, Julian Raby and Sebastian Brock have argued that this Harklean gospel lectionary is actually from several centuries earlier. Copied in Turabdin (near Mardin, Turkey), its image of Jesus entering Jerusalem is remarkably different, but no less complex, than the one found in Add MS 7170. Despite the damage to the pigment and the fading of colours, it is easy to see a greater attention to depth, whether in the branches and leaves of the trees, or in the swirling and pleating of the holy men’s cloaks. The differences in architecture, too, beg the question of illustrators’ reliance on the dominant styles of buildings in their respective periods and places, and how much such visual cues seeped into their imagining of Roman Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Image of the Last Supper from 12th century Syriac manuscript
The Last Supper, and the unmasking of Judas, according to an enigmatic 12th-century artist. (Púrāš qeryānā d-ṭeṭrā ᵓewangelion qadišā. Turabdin?, 12th century. Add MS 7169)
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From the entry into Jerusalem, our next stop is the Last Supper, as popular among Syriac artists as it was with European painters and sculptors. The first manuscript illustration comes from Add MS 7169, a 12th-century Syriac lectionary. We are immediately faced with another style of representation, one that is flatter and more schematic than the images found in Or. 3372 or Add MS 7170. Discussed briefly in the Raby and Brock article (as well as in Jules Leroy’s 1964 monograph and a piece by Meyer Schapiro in The Art Bulletin behind JSTOR’s paywall), these two authors refer to the item as “problematic” and “enigmatic”. They speculate that it too might come from Turabdin, and cautiously reiterate Leroy’s hypothesis that it bears traces of very early Christian iconography, possibly even being part of the Melitene grouping of artworks. Whatever its origins and connections, Add MS 7169 bird’s-eye view of the table is beautiful. Jesus is standing in the bottom-left corner of the work, while His Disciples are seated around the table in a scene reminiscent more of a Chinese restaurant than Leonardo’s masterpiece. This is the big reveal: Jesus’ admission that he knows he has been betrayed; thrown under the bus, to use the modern parlance, by the man seated to his left, Judas Iscariot. Compare this to the far more detailed example from Add MS 7170 (at the start of the blog), in which Jesus’ likeness has now been defaced. Here, we are treated to an engrossing cross-section of the table with the diners all seated in a semicircle in what looks to be a well-appointed establishment, a lone cock parading before them.

Jesus on the Cross from a 10th century manuscript The Crucifixion from a 12th century manuscript
(Left) Jesus' crucifixion between two thieves. (Púrāš qeryānā d-ṭeṭrā ᵓewangelion qadišā. Turabdin?, 12th century. Add MS 7169)
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(Right) The Crucifixion, combined with various allegorical and didactic cues. (Syriac Lectionary. Northern Syria, 1216-1240. Add MS 7170)
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From the Last Supper, we pass over Jesus’ procession through the streets of Jerusalem (captured today in the Via Dolorosa), right to the nadir of His time on Earth: the Crucifixion. The two images above of the Son of God nailed to the Cross come from Add MS 7169 and Add MS 7170 respectively, demonstrating, once again, the artists’ differing views on both representation and content. This episode is both a reflection of humanity’s failings and a confirmation of Christ’s sacrifice. After having been betrayed by His Disciple Judas and condemned by His community and the authorities alike, the Son dies for humanity’s sins. It is the ultimate means of redemption and salvation, cementing two core themes of Christian faith. In Add MS 7169, we see two scenes: first Jesus’ seizure by the Romans, and then His execution. The latter incorporates the two thieves between which Christ was crucified, as well as two soldiers stabbing him, while two angels fly overhead. This is a more literal take on Christ’s death, a bluntness of approach that is reflected in the bold lines and flat plane of the image. Contrast it to the painting found in Add MS 7170, where delicate lines and complex patterns hold sway. The image is much more didactic in nature, replacing the two thieves with the likenesses of various supporting characters who appear throughout the Passion. Part of the image is also allegorical. In addition to the angels watching the Crucifixion, Add MS 7170 has two other sets of winged creatures. Those to the right of Jesus, flying away from Him, are identified as “the congregation who hated Him” (ܟܢܘܫܬܐ ܕܣܢܬܗ) while those on His left, looking at Him and collecting His blood in a cup, are labeled as “the church that received Him” (ܥܕܬܐ ܕܩܒܠܬܗ). In this case, the artist was especially keen on showing the direct descent of the church – probably his Church – from the blood and sanctity of Christ. Interesting too is the fact that, although both images contain text, they do not have the words uttered by Jesus himself while on the Cross: Eli, eli, lama sabachthani? (Lord, Lord, why have you forsaken me?; ܐܝܠ ܐܝܠ ܠܡܢܐ ܫܒܩܬܢܝ in Syriac).

 Mary Magdalene discovers Jesus' empty tomb
The discovery of the empty tomb in Syriac Gospels from the region of Mosul, Iraq. (Iwangiliún. Mosul, Iraq, 1499 CE. Add MS 7174)
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The same day of Jesus’ death, He was taken down and buried, as befits Jewish custom, by a Jew identified as Joseph of Arimathea in the Gospel of Mark. This is marked on Good Friday, three days before Easter Sunday, the day of the Resurrection. While the Syriac manuscripts in the British Library’s holdings do not show Jesus in his tomb, they do show the revelation of His resurrection through imagery relating to the discovery of an empty burial chamber. In Add MS 7174, a Gospel copied in 1499 CE near Mosul, Iraq, Saint Mary Magdalene is portrayed as finding the empty tomb accompanied by Jesus Christ (who is partially effaced), two angels, and six “sinful Jews who gathered(?)” (ܝܗܘܕܝܐ ܚܛܝܐ ܩܒܘܐ). Among the most remarkable aspects of this particular illustration is the variation in attire between it and the miniatures found in the other manuscripts. Here, all the men are wearing turbans and something more akin to a cloak worn by a local cleric than the flowing robes found in the other texts.

Jesus' empty tomb from a 10th century manuscript
Mary Magdalene and another holy woman discovers the empty tomb, with Jesus to the right. (Púrāš qeryānā d-ṭeṭrā ᵓewangelion qadišā. Turabdin?, 12th century. Add MS 7169)
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The flattened plane in Add MS 7174 is also a noteworthy characteristic, one at odds with the imagery in Add MS 7169. Here, we have a frontal view of two women meeting the risen Christ, as well as cowering guards. The tomb is far more elaborate a structure, and if you look at the top of its arch, you can might spot a cross in the decoration; perhaps identifying it as a sacred space for contemporary Christians.

The Resurrection of Jesus from a 12th century manuscript
Jesus' resurrection from a 13th-century manuscript, including a detailed depiction of his burial shroud. (Syriac Lectionary. Northern Syria, 1216-1240. Add MS 7170)
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The most complex of the Resurrections, however, is the one found in Add MS 7170. Here, it is three women who find the empty tomb, this time with a clear image of Christ’s shroud inside the structure. Jesus and the holy women are also accompanied by an unidentified angel. The intricate detail on the various trees, and the embellishment on the tomb and in the border, are matched by the depth of emotion shown in the two weeping guards in the bottom left-hand corner of the painting. This image of the discovery of Christ’s empty tomb is also featured on the British Library’s Discovering Sacred Texts portal; an excellent tool for learning about religion and its influence on textual cultures the world over.

Multicolour and bejewelled mosaic cross from a 10th century manuscriptMulticolour mosaic cross from a Psalter
(Left) A multicoloured mosaic cross from an early 13th-century Psalter copied in Turabdin. (Ktābā Dawíd. Salah, Turabdin, 1203 CE. Add MS 7154)
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(Right) A rare multicoloured and bejewelled cross from a 12th-century lectionary. (Púrāš qeryānā d-ṭeṭrā ᵓewangelion qadišā. Turabdin?, 12th century. Add MS 7169)
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The final element of the Easter story that has produced a wide swathe of beautiful images in Syriac manuscripts is the Cross. With the spread and development of Christianity, the means of Jesus’ execution, the crucifix, become the most common and recognizable symbol of the faith. Many manuscripts from Christian cultures feature this visual cue. Syriac manuscripts occasionally have crosses embossed in their leather bindings or painted on the folios at the start or end of the text. Those that are illustrated in pigment are often composed of a mosaic of multicoloured squares. Add MS 7154, a Psalter copied in 1203 CE at Salah (also known as Barıştepe) near Turabdin, holds a faded but beautiful example, inked in six colours of the rainbow. Another cross is found at the end of Add MS 7169, one that includes a wider range of colours, as extra shades of pinks and white are also employed in the decoration of the crucifix. The border of dark red and blue swirling bands is a bold addition, but not bold enough to distract the viewer’s eye from the pencil lines indicating the artist’s process. Ewa Balicka-Witakowska has written about the methods of creating such works of art, but it was Raby and Brock who identified this particular example, as well as one from Or. 3372, as being unique for their inclusion of jewelled elements, visible here on the ends of the object.

The British Library’s holdings of Syriac manuscripts point to the rich and complex artistry of bookmaking among Syriac-speaking communities, as well as their traditions around the story of Easter. The items shown here, a small fraction of the Library’s collections, will soon be digitized and available for all to enjoy and study. Until then, we will have to be satisfied with the depiction of the Passion of Christ in this select group, and the simple Syriac greeting used at churches around the world on Easter Sunday: Qom mašiḥo! Šariro'ith qom! Christ is risen! Truly, he is risen!

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Collections Curator, British Library
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