THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

234 posts categorized "Art"

18 February 2021

‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ at the British Library

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On 3 December 2020, the British Library opened its exhibition of Khadija Saye’s last photographic series: ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’.

The opening had been postponed from its original date in May because of the pandemic. With great good fortune, we emerged from the second national lockdown just in time to hold the virtual private view on its rescheduled date. For nearly two weeks thereafter, the nine beautiful, challenging and intricate photographs in the series were open to the public. But then London went into Tier 4, and we had to close again.

Curators seated in front of the Khadija Saye exhibition
Setting up for the virtual private view, 3 December 2020
Photographer: Luisa Elena Mengoni
CC Public Domain Image

The exhibition will reopen at the British Library as soon as possible. It’s free, but because of Covid restrictions advance booking will be necessary. The exhibition run has been extended to 8 August 2021.

Photo of display of four works by Khadija Saye with accompanying text
‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ at the British Library
Photographer: Jean-Philippe Calvin
© British Library corporate events

Khadija Saye (1992–2017), an artist of extraordinary promise, was British-born and of Gambian parentage. She was tragically killed in the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, at the age of just 24. At the time, she was exhibiting works in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and on the cusp of major success. Her mother, Mary Ajaoi Augustus Mendy, also died in the fire.

This blog reproduces all nine of the powerfully evocative self-portraits in this series, along with the captions for each work which we, as curators, researched and wrote as we explored the multi-layered meanings the artist presents.

Into these eloquent photographs, Saye weaves symbols of her Gambian heritage, most with spiritual significance. The nine works form an extended meditation on spirituality, trauma and the body. They reference both The Gambia and religious faith as sources of strength in the face of trauma – which, for Saye, included the experience of racism in Britain. As she wrote: ‘In these questionable times we need positive imagery to push against the vile xenophobia and trash headlines.’ The works also weave connections to indigenous religion, and to her Christian mother and Muslim father and their ancestors.

Photograph developing in chemical bath, held by Khadija Saye
Khadija Saye developing her work
Courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye, London
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The works have a particularly atmospheric quality, created by Khadija Saye’s decision to use the wet collodion photographic process, invented in 1851. This is laborious, involving the use of glass plates and unstable chemicals, and its results are unpredictable.

Saye wrote about this process: ‘…Image-making became a ritual in itself. [In] making wet plate collodion tintypes no image can be replicated and the final outcome is out of the creator’s control. Within this process, you surrender yourself to the unknown, similar to what is required by all spiritual higher powers: surrendering and sacrifice.’

Saye printed these photographs onto metal sheets, producing artworks known as tintypes, which were digitally scanned before the Grenfell fire. The six tintypes on display in Venice survived the fire; others were destroyed in it, along with a suitcase containing some of the objects featured in the artworks. The tintype of ‘Peitaw’ will be on display in our major exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, when it reopens.

In 2017, Khadija Saye worked with master printer Matthew Rich to produce ‘Sothiou’ as a silkscreen print. The remaining prints were made after her death. It is the artist’s proofs of these prints, on loan from the estate of Khadija Saye, that are displayed in the British Library exhibition of the ‘in this space we breathe’ series.

The artworks below are presented with (in slightly edited form) the labels and quotations that accompany them in the exhibition.

Khadija Saye, her back to the camera, regards different-sized sticks in her left hand
Sothiou
(Chewing-sticks/toothbrush)
Khadija Saye (2017)
Printed by Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye photographs herself here with branches of the salvadora persica, the tree from which chewing-sticks, used as toothbrushes, are taken. These signify purification, as well as invocation of the spirits of the ancestors. She was introduced to indigenous ritual practices in The Gambia by her mother.

Sothiou was the first of six works in this series displayed by the artist in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017.

The artist associated the photographic process with the idea of purification, writing that ‘The process of submerging the collodion-covered plate into a tank of silver nitrate ignites memories of baptisms, the idea of purity and how we cleanse in order to be spiritually sound.’

The titles of the works in this series are in Wolof, a language of The Gambia and Senegal.

Khadija Saye with three small light-coloured squares, strung together, across her closed eyes
Tééré
(Amulet)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The string of protective amulets Saye uses in this image belonged to her father. Wearing amulets – words from the Qur’an written onto paper, here sewn into leather packets – is a common Islamic practice in Africa. In this work, Saye openly displays items usually concealed under clothing.

The artist’s pose and expression suggest a moment of prayer. Saye said that she created this series ‘from a personal need for spiritual grounding’.

Khadija Saye holds a pot to her ear
Andichurai
(Incense pot; usually andi churai)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye holds a red clay pot with white decoration, made using techniques specific to the SeneGambia region. Universal in Gambian homes, the andi churai burns incense to drive away evil spirits in order to provide protection. In Gambian culture, the strong scent of the incense is closely associated with women and femininity.

Khadija Saye with several dark and light oval shapes in front of her face
Limoŋ
(Lemon)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

In this surprising and ambiguous image, the artist holds a string of plastic lemons in her mouth. In The Gambia, the lemon is seen as a Western fruit, but it also implies cleansing the body and protection from evil spirits.

Saye may have intended a reference to Beyoncé, one of her role models, and her influential 2016 album Lemonade, with its historical vision of a liberated, Black, matriarchal society.

A person only partially visible places a cow horn on the back of Khadija Saye’s neck
Nak Bejjen
(Cow’s horn)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Gambian healers use cows’ horns in rituals to suck impurities from a person’s body. Cows’ horns are also associated with desolation and famine, when cows cannot survive. This work may speak of both trauma and healing.

The ‘healer’ in this image carries a small bag, perhaps containing medicinal equipment. The illusion of smoke from the horn may be a result of the wet collodion photographic process.

Khadija Saye wrote of the relationship between her art, the body and trauma: ‘We exist in the marriage of physical and spiritual remembrance. It’s in these spaces…[that] we identify with our physical and imagined bodies. Using myself as the subject, I felt it necessary to physically explore how trauma is embodied in the black experience.’

Khadija Saye’s hand, palm outward and with small goat horns on her thumb and fingers, obscures her face
Ragal
(Fear)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye wears goats’ horns on her fingers as she shields her face. These objects are used in divination, the process of discovering the reasons for life’s events and problems, and what can be done to change them. This image may suggest both fear of the future and the possibility of drawing on Gambian knowledge and spirituality to find a way through difficulties.

Throughout this series, the artist wears black – an unusual choice for a young Gambian woman.

Khadija Saye, only her arm and the side of her body visible, holds a long string of beads
Kurus
(Prayer beads)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

These Muslim prayer beads reference spiritual support in a time of difficulty. Prayer beads are also used by Christians. The mingling of Islam, Christianity, Rastafarianism and, in Saye’s words, ‘African spirituality’ is common in The Gambia.

Women are not usually seen in public with Muslim prayer beads in The Gambia. In her work Saye, who ‘thought a lot about the traditional roles African women take within the male-dominated space’, subverts expectations around gender roles.

Khadija Saye, facing the camera, holds a large bunch of cowrie shells in her mouth
Peitaw
(Cowrie shell(s))
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye holds a bunch of cowrie shells, strung together, in her mouth, and wears a cowrie-shell bracelet on her arm. In Gambian culture, her pose, supporting her chin on her hand, suggests unhappiness or discontent.

Used as currency for centuries, cowrie shells represent wealth and fertility and are used in divination as well as jewellery. For Africans in the diaspora, they symbolise connection with the continent.

Khadija Saye, facing the camera, with the blurry outlines of plastic flowers found her neck
Toor-Toor
(Sprout, grow)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The artist has draped herself in strands of plastic flowers. These are often used to decorate homes in The Gambia, found on shrines, and worn by practitioners of indigenous medicine. The flowers may also link with Saye’s interest in popular culture, particularly her love of RuPaul, who plays with floral drag.

This work experiments with contrast and balance between her life in Britain and The Gambia, and between her personal and professional growth.

In conclusion, we quote Khadija Saye’s own moving words on her legacy: ‘Whether it’s now or ten years down the line, I have this idea of opening doors – like previous artists of colour… I feel I have the potential to do the same.’

Khadija Saye has unwittingly spoken for so many young people struggling to find themselves in the world today. The resounding message of her work is that if she can do it, others can too. Visits with her mother to her Gambian home enabled her to embrace her family and cultural heritage to weave into her art, root herself, make herself stronger and map out where she was going.

For more on Khadija Saye and her art, watch this film.

The British Library’s set of Khadija Saye’s ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’ series (shelfmarks P3394-3402) will be available to researchers in the Print Room of our Asian and African Studies Reading Room when it reopens – appointment necessary (please contact apac-print@bl.uk).

‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ runs at the British Library until August 2021. Find out more.

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa, British Library
Kadija George Sesay, External Curator, Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe
CCBY Image

The British Library would like to thank all those who made the exhibition possible: The Estate of Khadija Saye, The Family of Khadija Saye, David Lammy, Nicola Green, Lucy Cartledge, Ana Freitas, Marloes Janson, Hassum Ceesay, Njok Malik Jeng, Victoria Miro, John Purcell Paper, Erica Bolton, Jealous, Almudena Romero, Christie’s and M.A.R.S.

The Khadija Saye Arts programme at IntoUniversity provides schoolchildren with visual arts experiences and education in her memory.

04 January 2021

Export paintings of Ming and Qing Chinese Interiors and Furnishings

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In 2019, Rita dal Martello undertook a PhD placement at the British Library to research a series of paintings created by Chinese artists held in the Visual Art collections. Whilst the primary focus of her placement was a collection of over 300 botanical paintings, Rita also worked on cataloguing a number of artworks that depicted Chinese interiors and furnishings from the Ming and Qing periods. This blog will explore these art works in more detail.

Consisting of 136 paintings (Add Or 2197-2332), this collection contains paintings depicting the interiors of houses and temples, furnishings, including lanterns and displays, and a variety of processional floats used in Buddhist and Taoist religious ceremonies. The objects and interior scenes depicted in these paintings represent the decorative tastes of the educated and wealthy sections of Chinese society during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

The paintings are opaque watercolours on European paper, including sheets watermarked 1794 and 1805 which have subsequently been bound into a single volume. Whilst the names of the artists remain unknown, it is likely they were the work of painters working in and around Canton (Guangzhou) who were producing works for the export market during the late 18th and early 19th century. The majority of the collection (Add Or 2197-2313 & 2317-2332) were acquired circa 1806 when they are believed to entered the collections of the East India Company Library and Museum, whilst the remaining three paintings (Add Or 2314-2316) were deposited in 1813. Thematically, the paintings can be divided into three groups: Lanterns, Furniture and decorative displays, and ritual furnishings of official residences and temples.

Lanterns

A total of 35 paintings in the collection depict a variety of lantern designs including palace lanterns of square, hexagonal, or octagonal shape; “flower basket” palace lanterns; beaded lanterns and horse lanterns. Most of the paintings show individual lanterns constructed of elaborate wooden frames and panels decorated with landscape or bird and flower paintings, framed by coloured silk, with some having lavish strings of beads or tassels attached. The majority are depicted hanging from a string in the middle of the page.

A Chinese hexagonal palace lantern
A hexagonal palace lantern decorated with blue beads dangling on strings and calligraphic panels on red silk backgrounds, alternating to paintings of bamboo and prunus flowers. The central panel shows Gao Qi (1336-1374) poem "Dweller in the Clouds". Unnamed Chinese artist, c. 1800-1806. British Library, Add Or 2322.

Three paintings bound in this volume are stylistically quite different from the remaining images however (Add Or 2314-2316). In these works the lantern takes up the whole page, and bear front and reverse inscriptions indicating that they were part of a set, possibly coming from the same artist or workshop. This set of paintings were deposited with the East India Company separately from the remainder of the collection and were received as a result of a letter from the East India Company written in March 1812 requesting samples of Chinese lanterns. On 22 February 1813 the Canton Factory replied saying that ‘The Lanterns indented for by the Honourable Court having been reported ready, were this day shipped on the ‘Royal George.’ A description of these Lamps with directions for putting them together drawn up by Mr Bosanquet under whose immediate inspection they were executed will be transmitted, a number in the Packet of that Ships Packet and Captain Gribble has promised that every possible care should be taken of them’ (BL Mss Eur D562/16).

 

Furniture and decorative displays

Furniture and decorative displays are the second most numerous group within the album. 33 paintings depict elaborate wooden furniture of various sizes and shapes elegantly displaying objects typically found in the homes of wealthy and educated Chinese. These objects include archaeological bronze objects, musical instruments, dishes decorated with auspicious symbols such as dragons and phoenix, vessels containing auspicious fruits, such as the Buddha’s hand citron for good fortune, or peaches for longevity, as well as vases with flowers such as lotus for purity or roses to symbolise the seasons.

A further 12 paintings depict speckled bamboo tables, chairs, and stools. These are possibly made of Xiangfei bamboo, which grows in Hunan and Guangxi provinces. According to the legend, the speckled aspect of this bamboo is derived from the tears concubines shed the death of the mythological emperor Shun.

Speckled bamboo Chinese furniture
Depiction of a speckled bamboo table and meiguiyi chair, possibly made of the so-called "Hunanese concubine bamboo". Unnamed Chinese artist, c. 1800-1806. British Library, Add Or 2201.

Whilst a small number of paintings in this group also include decorative screens with landscape paintings or calligraphy scrolls, all of the pieces of furniture are painted in the centre of the page with no surrounding background or further details of the surrounding décor or architecture in which they would have been placed.

 

Ritual furnishings of official residences and temples

A final group of paintings in the album and by far the most numerous, depict a range of ritual furnishings including 3 paintings of government offices furnishings, 35 paintings of processional equipment (Add Or 2236) for both government officials and religious ceremonies, including depiction of processional sedan chairs; 17 paintings illustrating Buddhist and Taoist shrines and sacrificial arrangements and 1 of a liturgical archway celebrating filial piety.

Add Or 2236
Processional model of the Daoist temples of Wudang Mountain, in Hebei province, showing various buildings (pavilions, pagodas, etc) on a miniature mountain. At either side, a pair of matching wooden stands with a lantern and a plaque saying "Spectacular Scenery of Wudang Mountain" (武當勝景). Unnamed Chinese artist, c. 1800-1806. British Library, Add Or 2236.

These paintings once again show the furnishings, shrines and ceremonial emblems in the centre of the page with no background or contextual details. The paintings are not accompanied by descriptive inscriptions or titles and one of the key areas of my work on this collection was to create catalogue records for the individual paintings, researching and describing the subjects of each painting and transcribing any inscriptions found on the objects depicted.

The individual records of these paintings can be found on the British Library's Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue, by searching for the specific references of the collection (Add Or 2187-2332).

 

Reproduction of these paintings and further information can be found in:

Lo, A., & Wood, Frances. (2011). Da ying tu shu guan te cang zhong guo qing dai wai xiao hua jing hua = Chinese export paintings of the Qing Period in the British Library. Volumes III & IV. Guangzhou: Guangdong People's Publishing House.

Bibliography:

Wood F (2011) 'One appreciates the pearls and jade on their stands; fine smoke rises from the tripod and sacrificial vessels in the hall'- Paintings of furnishings. In Da ying tu shu guan te cang zhong guo qing dai wai xiao hua jing hua = Chinese export paintings of the Qing Period in the British Library; Volume IV. pp 6-7. Guangzhou: Guangdong People's Publishing House.

Wang T-C (2011) 'Moral integrity is demonstrated in incorruptibility; the people hope for just officials'- Paintings of Canton governments offices, furnishing, and official processional equipment. In Da ying tu shu guan te cang zhong guo qing dai wai xiao hua jing hua = Chinese export paintings of the Qing Period in the British Library; Volume III. pp 4-6. Guangzhou: Guangdong People's Publishing House.

Lo A, Wang T-C (2001) 'Serene and solemn mountains surround the precious halls; fragrant sacrificial vessels gather on the altars'- Paintings of religious buildings and sacrificial arrangements. In Da ying tu shu guan te cang zhong guo qing dai wai xiao hua jing hua = Chinese export paintings of the Qing Period in the British Library; Volume III. pp 140-142. Guangzhou: Guangdong People's Publishing House.

By Dr. Rita dal Martello, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Max Planck Institute

 

16 November 2020

Object, Story and Wonder: Museum Collections Revealed with the British Library

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Earlier this summer while in lock down, the Bagri Foundation extended an invitation to curators based in the UK and abroad to collaborate on a new digital series to showcase their collections while museums and libraries were forced to shut down and be closed to the public. For this series, Malini Roy, the Head of Visual Arts (Asia and Africa Collections) at the British Library, talks about natural history drawings produced in South Asia during the early 19th century. The video clip is featured below.

The British Library's collection includes several thousand natural history drawings produced in the subcontinent; only a selection is featured in the YouTube video.  In the late 18th century British and Scottish botanists and surgeons led a movement to document the natural history of the subcontinent. The East India Company, initially established as the British trading company and eventually a major governing power over parts of the subcontinent, recognised the need for this scientific research. Its practice was therefore adopted as official policy and resulted in the collection of rare species of flora and fauna. The specimens were preserved in the newly established Royal Botanic Garden in Calcutta and the Barrackpore Menagerie. As part of the documentation process, Indian artists were hired to illustrate the scientific specimens. Sets of the watercolours and drawings remained in archives in India, while duplicates were sent to the East India Company’s Library in London, and are now held in the British Library.

While not all of our collections are on public display, in recent years a range of natural history drawings have been on display in the Library's Treasures Gallery. More recently, the works by Haludar were featured in the Wallace Collection's exhibition Forgotten Masters that ran until September 2020. You can read more about the South Asian natural history collections in the following blog posts and articles:

Mildred Archer, Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, H.M.S.O., 1962.

Ralf Britz (ed.) Hamilton’s Gangetic Fishes in Colour: A new edition of the 1822 monograph, with reproductions of unpublished coloured and illustrations, London: Natural History Museum and Ray Society, 2019

Malini Roy, Natural History Drawings from South Asia, Asia and Africa Blog, 8 August 2013.

Malini Roy, 'The Bengali Artist Haludar', in W. Dalrymple, Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, Wallace Collection, 2019.

Malini Roy, Moloch Gibbons and Sloth Bears: the work of the Bengali artist Haludar, Asia and Africa Blog, 7 February 2020.

William Dalrymple (ed.), Forgotten Masters: Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, Wallace Collection, 2019.

 

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts

 

 

26 October 2020

Libraries and manuscripts of Laos (1994-2012)

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This blog post is written by guest contributor Prof. Dr. Volker Grabowsky, who has been Professor for the Language and Culture of Thailand at the University of Hamburg since 2009, and advisor to the Buddhist Archive of Photography in Luang Prabang Since 2006.  Grabowsky’s blog looks at the photographs taken by Hans Georg Berger of libraries in Laos, that were acquired by the British Library in August 2020.

 The ancient and exceptional manuscript culture of Laos has survived colonial rule, war and revolution as well as rapid modernization in a globalized world. Unlike in many parts of the world, production of manuscripts did not stop during the 20th century in Laos, where traditional ways of writing have been preserved by monks and lay scribes until present times. The oldest dated manuscript, a mono-lingual Pali palm-leaf manuscript containing parts of the Parivāra of the Vinaya Piṭaka, was made in 1520/21 and is kept at the National Museum of Luang Prabang (formerly the Royal Palace). It is also the first documentary evidence of the Dhamma (Tham) script in the Lao Kingdom of Lan Sang. This sacred script is a special feature of Lao literature. It originated in the neighboring northern Thai kingdom of Lan Na – probably as a derivative of the ancient Mon alphabet of Hariphunchai - in the late fourteenth century and made its way south through the Mekong river basin. As its name indicates, this script was used for the writing of the Buddhist scriptures and other religious texts. Next to this script, the Lao also developed a secular script nowadays called “Old Lao script” (Lao Buhan script).

Cabinet with palm leaf manuscripts
Opening of a cabinet with palm-leaf manuscripts, Manuscript Preservation Project of the National Library of Laos, Vat Muen Na Somphuaram, Luang Prabang, 1996. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994-2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(6). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

Lao manuscripts were mostly inscribed with a stylus on rectangular cut and cured palm-leaf sheets varying in length. Each sheet had two holes; a cotton string was passed through the left one, making it possible to bind several palm-leaf sheets together as one bundle, or fascicle (phuk). Recent research estimates that more than ninety percent of Lao manuscripts are “palm-leaf books” (nangsü bai lan). The number of leaves in a given fascicle depend on the length and/or the number of text pages. All fascicles of palm-leaf manuscripts are fastened by a string (sai sanὸng). Generally, numerous fascicles of palm-leaf manuscripts which contain the same version of a literary text are fastened together in bundles, called sum. Two wooden boards are frequently added to such a bundle for protection. The bundle usually is wrapped in a piece of cloth and tied with a cotton string. It is called mat.

Palm-leaf is not only the most widely used but, in this region’s subtropical climate, also the most durable “soft” writing support of the Lao cultural area. It was mostly used for Buddhist text. The leporello format was used for secular texts such as chronicles, legal texts, medical and astrological treatises, official documents, non-religious literary works, and only occasionally, Buddhist texts. For these leporello manuscripts, a cardboard-like paper made out of the bark of the sa tree (Broussonetia papyrifera L. vent.) was used. The grayish sa paper was inscribed on both sides, often with black ink. Sometimes it was first painted with a layer of lampblack and then written on with yellowish ink, or white chalk. The covers of both phap sa, as such leporello manuscripts are called in Lao, as well as palm-leaf manuscripts, were often decorated with lacquer and gold. The manuscripts were kept in elaborately fashioned wooden boxes. In addition, bound books exist, notably in the Tai Lü areas of northern Laos, such as Müang Sing, where each piece of paper has been folded over once vertically, so that it becomes much longer than it is broad. By folding the paper, both the front and the back page of one sheet can be used for writing. These sheets of paper are sewn together along one of the vertical sides. This kind of manuscript is called phap hua. In the manuscript tradition of the Tai Lü, pap sa manuscripts play a very important role and are even more widespread than palm-leaf manuscripts, the latter being restricted to the writing of religious texts.

Sa-Paper manuscripts
Sa-Paper manuscripts of the Lü of Müang Sing at the collection of Vat Mai Suvannaphumaram, Luang Prabang, 1994. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(12). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

The vast majority of Lao manuscripts are not kept in private households but in monasteries. The most precious manuscripts are stored in small and elegant buildings devoted solely to the conservation of manuscripts. They are called hò tham (“House of the Dhamma”) or hò trai (“House of the three [baskets]) because they are dedicated homes to Buddhist scriptures. These libraries are integrated into the monastic site (vat) of which they embrace the organization and architectural style. According to traditional Buddhist belief, no matter whether they were written carefully or not, manuscripts should not be treated disrespectfully, or kept in a demeaning place. The texts that manuscripts contain, especially the ritual ones, should not have any insertions or other writing added to them. Any person who breaks this rule would lose the respect of devout Buddhists. Traditionally, laywomen were not supposed to touch religious manuscripts directly, even if very often they were the persons who donated them to the monasteries. This tradition came to an end during the country-wide effort of manuscript preservation of the National Library of Laos since the 1990s, where laywomen were prominently involved.

Historic wooden Library of Vat Nong Lam Chan photograph by Hans Georg Berger
The historic wooden library of Vat Nong Lam Chan at Ban Nong Lam Chan, Champhon District, Savannakhet Province, 1999. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(21). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

It is the sponsor or donor, not the scribe, who is called the “maker” (phu sang) of a manuscript. Usually, its “making” is recorded in the colophons following the end of the text. Here, the names of the leading monastic or lay supporter(s) or mūlasaddhā who took the initiative in commissioning the writing of the manuscript is mentioned. This person provides the writing support and pays the scribe, usually a learned monk or ex-monk. The main aim of that pious deed is to help support the Teachings of the Buddha to endure for 5,000 years. As such, it is expected to bring in return to the sponsors, donors, and – in the case of manuscripts – scribes important karmic benefit. Scribes were exclusively male; recent research found that a surprisingly high number of principal donors were women. In the case of Luang Prabang, we noted a substantial number of manuscripts donated by royalty and members of the aristocracy.

Between 1992 and 2002 the Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme, run by the National Library of Laos and supported by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, surveyed the manuscript holdings of 830 monasteries all over Laos and preserved almost 86,000 manuscripts. Of these, around 12,000 manuscripts were selected for microfilm recordings which are now accessible in the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts. More recently, a number of digitization projects supported by the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP)  and the Digital Repository of Endangered and Affected Manuscripts (DREAMSEA) focused on the particularly rich manuscript collections in Luang Prabang’s monasteries, the royal city which since the 14th century has been the centre of Lao Buddhism.

1018-07
A novice reads from a palm-leaf manuscript written in Tham Lao script, Vat Ban Müang Kang, Champasak Province, Southern Laos, 1999. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(19). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

Hans Georg Berger, a photographer and writer born in 1951 in Trier, Germany, surveyed the situation of Lao manuscripts in the context of his photographic documentation of Lao ceremonies, rituals, meditation and everyday life since 1993. From 2006 to 2011 he was grant-holder of three projects of the Endangered Archives Programme which resulted in the digitization, identification and safe storage of more than 33,000 photographs taken and collected by the monks of Luang Prabang for over 120 years.

His collaboration with the Buddhist sangha, the National Library of Laos and the Buddhist Archives of Luang Prabang created a unique corpus and overview on Lao manuscript culture from which 60 photographs, both digital and printed, were acquired for the Library's Visual Arts collections. Hans Georg Berger's work for the Endangered Archives Programme was documented in the short film "Theravada Vision".

 

By Volker Grabowsky

 

Further reading

Berger, Hans Georg: The floating Buddha: the revival of vipassana meditation in Laos. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009, c2006

Berger, Hans Georg. Meditation colors: nine digital color photographs. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009

Berger, Hans Georg. Sacred dust from the Buddha's feet: Theravada Buddhism in Laos. Ulbeek: Salto Ulbeek, 2010

Berger, Hans Georg. My sacred Laos. Chicago: Serindia Contemporary, 2015

Berger, Hans Georg (photographs), Christian Caujolle et al. (texts). Het bun dai bun: Laos - Sacred Rituals of Luang Prabang. London: Westzone, 2000

Berger, Hans Georg, Khamvone Boulyaphone. Treasures from the Buddhist Archive of Photography : historic photographs taken or collected by the monks of Luang Prabang between 1890 and 2007. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2010

Farmer, John Alan. The Self-in-Relation: on Hans Georg Berger's photographs. New York / Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2011

Lingham, Brian (ed). The learning photographer: scholarly texts on Hans Georg Berger's art work in Laos and Iran. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009

Pha One Keo Sitthivong, Khamvone Boulyaphone; foreword by Hans Georg Berger. Great monks of Luang Prabang 1854 to 2007. Luang Prabang: Publications of the Buddhist Archive of Photography; Anantha Publishing, 2011

 

28 September 2020

Tickling the trees, dancing with clouds: Birds in Thai manuscript illustration (2)

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In my previous article on Birds in Thai manuscript illustration I described depictions of natural birds in Thai Buddhist manuscripts. Images of birds can be found in scenes from the last ten Birth Tales of the Buddha, but also in illustrations of the mythical Himavanta forest at the foot of the mythical Mount Meru according to Buddhist cosmology. Such illustrations are used to accompany extracts from the Pali canon (Tipiṭaka), specifically text passages from the Seven Books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka contained in funeral or commemoration volumes.

Detail from a painting depicting a natural scene with a pair of unidentified birds in a Thai folding book containing the Mahābuddhagunā and extracts from the Tipiṭaka. Central Thailand, 18th century
Detail from a painting depicting a natural scene with a pair of unidentified birds in a Thai folding book containing the Mahābuddhagunā and extracts from the Tipiṭaka. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14068 f.52)
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Many birds depicted in manuscript illustrations however cannot be identified as real birds. Some of them may represent real birds that the painter never had seen in nature and only knew from descriptions. From early European depictions of life in Thailand dating back to the time before the invention of photography, for example, we know that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for an artist to create a realistic impression of something from just a verbal description.

Scene from the Bhuridatta Jātaka depicting the serpent Bhuridatta coiled around an ant hill next to a pair of birds which could represent Red-headed Trogons (Harpactes erythrocephalus, นกขุนแผนหัวแดง). Central Thailand, 18th century.  British Library, Or 14068 f.7
Scene from the Bhuridatta Jātaka depicting the serpent Bhuridatta coiled around an ant hill next to a pair of birds which could represent Red-headed Trogons (Harpactes erythrocephalus, นกขุนแผนหัวแดง). Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14068 f.7)
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The birds in the illustration above from the Bhuridatta Jātaka - a Birth Tale in which the Buddha in a previous life was a serpent (nāga) who followed the Buddhist precepts - have a mainly red coloured head and body with a white chest, black wings and long, black tail feathers. The description, to some extent, matches that of the Red-headed Trogon (Harpactes erythrocephalus, นกขุนแผนหัวแดง). This bird, described by John Gould in 1834, is found in all countries of Southeast Asia as well as Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. It has variations in coloration throughout its range, but always follows the same general color scheme: the male has a dark red head and belly, a white patch on the chest, a brown back, and barred black-and-white wings. The female has a more faded-red belly and a brown head. This is a typically stationary bird and difficult to see, and often one can only hear its high-pitched gulping hoots.

Detail of an illustration of the Himavanta forest with a pair of ducks, possibly Mandarin Ducks (Aix galericulata, เป็ดแมนดาริน). Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or.14068 f.34
Detail of an illustration of the Himavanta forest with a pair of ducks, possibly Mandarin Ducks (Aix galericulata, เป็ดแมนดาริน). Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14068 f.34)
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Some of the bird illustrations in this manuscript are particularly colourful, which makes it even more difficult to establish whether they are real or imagined birds. One example is found in an illustration of the Himavanta forest accompanying text passages of the Mahābuddhagunā: two birds are depicted with long slender necks and pointed tails in yellow, brown, red, green, blue and white colours. Remarkable are the long red bills with red crests. Judging from their shape these birds are clearly ducks and the colours match to some extent those of the male Mandarin Duck, although in nature these ducks do not have long slender necks. In this case the painter may again have worked from a verbal description without seeing a Mandarin Duck in nature. However, it is possible that the painting had been inspired by Chinese representations of Mandarin Ducks on porcelain or textiles

The Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata, เป็ดแมนดาริน), described by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758, is a medium-sized perching duck originally found in East Asia, but nowadays with large populations in Europe and North America as well. The appearance of the adult male is striking: it has a red bill, a large white crescent above the eye and a reddish face. The breast is purple with two vertical white bars, and the flanks ruddy, with two orange tips at the back. The female is of a mainly brownish colour with some white. Both the males and females have crests, but the crest is more pronounced on the male. In Chinese culture Mandarin Ducks are regarded as a symbol of conjugal affection and fidelity, and are frequently featured in Chinese art.

Detail of an illustration of the Himavanta forest with a pair of birds which may represent Mrs. Hume's Pheasants (Syrmaticus humiae, ไก่ฟ้าหางลายขวาง). Central Thailand, 18th century.  British Library, Or.14068 f.33
Detail of an illustration of the Himavanta forest with a pair of birds which may represent Mrs. Hume's Pheasants (Syrmaticus humiae, ไก่ฟ้าหางลายขวาง). Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14068 f.33)
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One last example of outstanding painting quality in this manuscript is a pair of colourful birds appearing in another illustration of a scene in the Himavanta forest, in which the birds are placed above a pair of mythical lions (Rajasiha, ราชสีห์). These bird illustrations stand out for the detail of the long and pointy wing and tail feathers in red, brown and green colours. The chest is white and the upper part is dominated by red and orange tones with darker spots on the back. The colour of the head, or crest, matches the green in the wings and tail. The long, pointed wing and tail feathers may be a hint that the painter tried to depict Mrs. Hume's Pheasants (Syrmaticus humiae, ไก่ฟ้าหางลายขวาง) , a species of a rare pheasant found throughout forested habitats in southwestern China, northeastern India, Burma and Thailand. Allan O. Hume described the bird in 1881 as a large, bar-tailed forest pheasant with a greyish brown head, bare red facial skin, chestnut brown plumage, yellowish bill, brownish orange iris, white wingbars and metallic blue neck feathers. The male has a long greyish white, barred black and brown tail whereas the female is a chestnut brown bird with whitish throat, buff color belly and white-tipped tail.

It is quite remarkable that the painter of this manuscript tried to include some real birds in the illustrations which depict scenes from the last ten Birth Tales of the Buddha and of the Himavanta forest. Although these birds are purely decorative elements, they give viewers some sense of reality and connection with their own lives. They also show that there was good knowledge of certain species of birds, whereas others may have been rarely seen and painters had to work with verbal descriptions of very rare birds.

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

16 September 2020

Unsōdō and the evolution of design book publishing in Japan

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The Japanese Collection of the British Library includes around 50 Japanese pattern and design books.  Thanks to a grant from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, the Library is digitising many of these and making them available online.  This series of blog posts features some of the items in the collection, the artists who created them and the publishers who produced them.  In this post Teruko Hayamitsu, Curator at the fine art publisher Unsōdō, explains the company’s origins and its significance in the development of Japanese design.

Unsōdō is a Japanese publishing company, specialising in art books, which was founded in Kyoto in 1891 and is still in operation today.  Established in the late Meiji Period (1868-1912) when Japan was rapidly modernising, Unsōdō sought through its publication of art books to educate Japanese society on design in the new age, and to highlight the direction of art publishing and the modernisation of the textile industry.

Unsodo store front

Unsōdō’s premises in Teramachi, Kyoto c. 1929. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

Unsōdō was able to develop against a backdrop of change in Japanese society.  Key contributory factors were the rise of the textile industry, modernisation of crafts, establishment of department stores, systematisation of the art world.  The emergence of a middle class with an interest in culture and a willingness to buy created a growing market for Unsōdō’s publications. In this article I would like to give a brief outline of the history of Unsōdō, the changes in Japanese society, arts and crafts in Kyoto, and the expansion of Unsōdō’s achievements.

First, let us look at the history of Unsōdō. The firm was founded in 1891 in the Teramachi Nijō district of Kyoto by Yamada Naosaburō 山田直三郎 (1866-1932). He gained his knowledge of the workings of the book trade from Tanaka Jihei 田中治兵衛, proprietor of the Kyoto bookshop Bunkyūdō 文求堂, before setting up his own independent store specialising in art books. He asked the literati painter Tomioka Tessai 富岡鐡斎 to create a name for the new enterprise. The name he chose, Unsōdō 芸艸堂, was inspired by ‘unsō’ 芸艸, a Japanese name for the herb rue (Latin: Ruta graveolens). This strong-smelling plant, traditionally believed to be an effective insect repellant, was used to make bookmarks and was thus a fitting name for a bookshop.


Usondo founder
Yamada Naosaburō (1866-1932), founder of Unsōdō. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

 

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Unsōdō’s store of over 10,000 original woodblocks, still used to produce reprints. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD.

Yamada Naosaburō was born into the Honda family, proprietors of a book-binding business. Alongside book-binding, the eldest son Honda Ichijirō 本田市次郎 (1863-1944) and third son Honda Kinnosuke 本田金之助 (1868-1930), began to publish kimono pattern books which were very much in vogue at the time. From around 1889 the company was known as Honda Unkindō本田雲錦堂. Large numbers of kimono-related books were being published in Kyoto at that time and there was intense competition between Unsōdō and Unkindō, a rivalry which stimulated the creation of a great many design books. However, as they were brothers first and foremost, Naosaburŏ, Ichijirō and Kinnosuke eventually merged the two companies in 1906 under the name Unsōdō. From then on, all three brothers worked together in the publishing business. They focussed on works for the kimono industry, producing lavish publications which used not only traditional colour woodblock printing but also cutting-edge technology of the day such as collotype-printed photographic plates and heliotype colour plates. These luxurious books were expensive but proved profitable and were published in rapid succession. This momentum continued and in 1918 Unsōdō opened a branch in Yushima in Tokyo. 

woodblock for printing Kairo (One hundred patterns of waves) by Kamisaka Sekka.1902  Kairo (One hundred patterns of waves) by Kamisaka Sekka.1902
Two woodblocks for printing Kairo (One hundred patterns of waves) by Kamisaka Sekka.1902. Left: Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD. Right: equivalent page from the British Library copy of Kairo ORB.40/838

Unsōdō also managed to acquire woodblocks for art books from other publishers in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo and to republish the works as Unsōdō imprints.

Reprint of Hokusai manga from original blocks acquired by Unsōdō.
Reprint of Hokusai manga from original blocks acquired by Unsōdō. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

Despite the occasional periods of economic depression, Japanese society continued to develop, thanks to official campaigns to encourage new industries and also to the special demands of times of war. The textile industry was one of the first to attract the attention of business entrepreneurs. Modern textile factories were set up across Japan, long-established kimono dealers became department stores, textile wholesalers and brokerage businesses were established and a skilled workforce developed. Traditional local textiles came to be distributed through kimono dealers and department stores. The successful, affluent classes became art collectors and ordinary people were able to see works of art in museums or the art galleries of department stores. 


Modern edition of Kairo from original woodblocks
Modern edition of Kairo from original woodblocks. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

Kyoto’s replacement by Tokyo as the national capital in 1869 and the resultant departure of the Emperor, Imperial Family and upper aristocracy, led to a period of uncertainty for the city. Yet this sense of crisis acted as a catalyst to the modernisation of the arts and crafts industry, taking advantage of a local population with a deep connection to traditional culture and the existence of large numbers of artisans skilled in various crafts. Descendants of court painters set up painting academies, and art schools were founded to promote the modernisation of art education. Cooperative associations were established for many industries including lacquer manufacturing, ceramics, dyeing and weaving. These organisations worked to improve standards and modernise designs in their respective industries, to stabilise distribution networks throughout Japan and to use the high levels of expertise developed over centuries to produce art objects for export. This was an important means of acquiring foreign currency for Japan at that time and was actively supported by the government.

Key reasons for the expansion of Unsōdō’s business were the appearance of “art books born from social change” and the increase in the number of “people who need art books”. An example of the former would be catalogues for displays of new works that were held in kimono dealers and department stores, or for exhibitions in the painting academies. “People who need art books” included those involved in the creation of art and craft objects as well as those selling them – artists, designers, craftspeople and teachers, and also merchants. Painting manuals, pattern books and picture albums had existed in the Edo Period (1600-1868), but in the later 19th century new publications were needed that took into account new tastes and Western influences. Art schools and industrial technology institutes across Japan needed textbooks and reference works. Then, as now, art books tended to be large format and require elaborate binding and printing techniques, resulting in higher prices. The reason these books ‘flew off the shelves’ was that they were not only bought for personal interest and pleasure but were used for work and were provided in the work place.

Orb_40!1080_hollyhock_576pxls  Orb_40!1080_wistaria_576pxls
‘Yellow hollyhock’ and ‘Wisteria’ from Jakuchu gafu, a collection of designs by Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800), published by Unsōdō in 1908. British Library ORB.40/1080

In other words, art books were an inseparable part of industrial development. As a Kyoto publisher, Unsōdō, played its part in disseminating the essence of Japanese history – the aristocratic culture with the emperor at its summit, the millennium of craftsmanship that produced ‘guides to traditional customs’ (yūsoku kojitsu), patterns and designs, cultural properties, handicrafts, collectables, and even the foreign art works and designs that were incorporated over the centuries.

In recent years, woodblock-printed design books of the late Meiji Period have been attracting growing attention. It was a time when Kyoto, the centre of Japan’s publishing culture since the Middle Ages, was full of skilled craftspeople. Although in terms of cost, print run and finish, woodblock printing was the only practical method of colour printing available, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries woodblock printing technology developed markedly. It is characterised by what can be called ‘high quality art printing’ and its ‘human touch’. Moreover, we still marvel at the creativity of the designers of the time. As well as the professional designers, artists who specialised in Japanese and Western-style painting also created designs as a side-line to their main careers. Today we cannot easily tell how many people were involved in the world of design at the time. This is because the modernisation of Japanese art has brought a division into ‘artists’, who created fine art, and ‘craftspeople’, who created practical wares. Designers themselves have not yet been appraised, and often artists’ design work has not been considered in an assessment of their careers.

Teruko Hayamitsu, Curator, UNSODO CO., LTD

(translation: Hamish Todd, Head of East Asian Collection, British Library)

 

Further reading

Hillier, Jack, The Art of the Japanese Book. London: Sotheby’s, 1987.

Johnson, Scott, “New Colours, a New Profession & a New Idea: Zuan Enrich Kyoto Design”. Andon 97, 2014.

Johnson, Scott, “Zuan Pattern Books: The Glory Years”. Andon 100, 2015.

Yokoya, Ken’ichiro, Fischbach, Becky (ed.), Zuancho in Kyoto: Textile Design Books for the Kimono Trade. Stanford: Stanford University, 2007 (exhibition catalogue)

07 September 2020

Tickling the trees, dancing with clouds: Birds in Thai manuscript illustration (1)

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In my previous article on The Buddha and his natural environment in Thai manuscript art I discussed artistic depictions of the natural environment in which the historical Buddha is placed, highlighting the close relationship he had with the natural world and all sentient beings. Besides trees, flowers, rocks and water one can almost always find representations of animals in Thai Buddhist manuscript illustrations. Sometimes these are related to the text or to references within the text to certain Buddhist scriptures, for example depictions of elephants, horses, wild cats and deer in the context of the Buddha's Birth Tales (Jātaka). But very often depictions of animals like rabbits, squirrels, fish, lobsters and birds have no connection with the text at all - they are added as decorative elements to highlight the beauty of the natural world that humans often are unable to appreciate in their busy daily lives.

Spotted Doves (Spilopelia chinensis, นกเขาใหญ่) depicted with a greedy Brahmin, Jujaka, in an illustration from the Vessantara Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068 f.13
Spotted Doves (Spilopelia chinensis, นกเขาใหญ่) depicted with a greedy Brahmin, Jujaka, in an illustration from the Vessantara Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14068 f.13)
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Although there are Thai animal treatises specially dedicated to the study of certain animals, like elephants or cats, in Thai Buddhist manuscript illustration the most frequently appearing animals are birds. Judging from the paintings, the purpose of adding images of birds is to enhance the serenity and auspiciousness of a scene. Often representations of birds can be found in scenes from the last ten Birth Tales of the Buddha, but also in illustrations of the mythical Himavanta forest at the foot of Mount Meru according to Buddhist cosmology. Such illustrations are used to accompany extracts from the Pali canon (Tipiṭaka), specifically text passages from the Seven Books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka that can be found in funeral or commemoration volumes.  

As regards the depiction of birds, one manuscript in the Library's Thai collections stands out: Or.14068, an eighteenth-century folding book (samut khoi) with 53 folios containing a collection of Pali Buddhist texts in Khmer script, including the Pārājika (Four Disrobing Offences), the Brahmajālasutta (the first of the Buddha's Long Discourses), passages from the Seven Books of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, Sahassanaya (a text on meditation), and as the main text the Mahābuddhagunā (the Great Perfections of the Buddha). Added to the texts are thirteen paired illustrations showing scenes from the last ten Birth Tales and the Himavanta forest, and one illustration of the Buddha in the earth-touching gesture (bhumisparsha mudra).

Depiction of two Mountain Imperial Pigeons (Ducula badia, นกมูม) in an illustration of the Nārada Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068 f.9
Depiction of two Mountain Imperial Pigeons (Ducula badia, นกมูม) in an illustration of the Nārada Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14068 f.9)
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Looking at the illustrations, some of which depict real animals such as deer and squirrels, whereas others show mythical animals such as the King of Lions (Rajasiha, ราชสีห์) and serpents (nāga, นาค), I was wondering if the birds in the paintings could be identified as real birds or if they were mythical birds, or simply the results of artistic imagination.

The illustration above shows a detail from a scene in the Nārada Jātaka which tells of a king who indulges in worldly pleasures instead of following the Buddhist precepts until his devoted daughter asks the Great Brahma God Nārada, a former incarnation of the Buddha, for help. Seen on the trees behind the roof of the king's palace are two birds which could be artistic representations of Mountain Imperial Pigeons (Ducula badia, นกมูม), described by Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1822. This bird in the pigeon and dove family, common across Southeast Asia, is the largest pigeon species with a fairly long tail and broad, rounded wings. The head, neck and underparts are vinous-grey with a contrasting white throat and greyish-brown or dull maroon upperparts and wings. Its natural habitats are subtropical or tropical moist lowland and mountain forests of up to 2500 m height.

A pair of Spotted Doves (Spilopelia chinensis, นกเขาใหญ่) in an illustration from the Temiya Jātaka, here seen next to Prince Temiya. Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068 f.1
A pair of Spotted Doves (Spilopelia chinensis, นกเขาใหญ่) in an illustration from the Temiya Jātaka, here seen next to Prince Temiya. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14068 f.1)
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Another bird in the pigeon and dove family that appears several times in this manuscript can be safely identified as the Spotted Dove (Spilopelia chinensis, นกเขาใหญ่). The illustration above is part of a scene in the Temiya Jātaka which tells of the young Prince Temiya, a former incarnation of the Buddha, who did not wish to become king and pretended to be mute. When a charioteer was commanded to bury the prince alive, he revealed the truth to the charioteer who set him free. Temiya then became an ascetic and followed the Buddhist precepts. The pair of Spotted Doves, one resting on a rock, the other on a tree branch next to Prince Temiya, play no role whatsoever in the story and clearly were only added for decorative purposes in this illustration.

The Spotted Dove, described by Giovanni Antonio Scopoli in 1768, is a small and relatively long-tailed pigeon with a heavily spotted neck patch and scaly-patterned upperparts. It is a common open-country pigeon on the Indian Subcontinent and in Southeast Asia. This bird is found across a range of habitats including woodland, scrub, farmland and human habitation.

A bird that appears very similar to the Spotted Dove in these manuscript illustrations is shown in the picture below. However, instead of the spotted neck patch it has a red collar which suggests that this is may be an artist's interpretation of a Burmese Collared Dove although the collar in the natural bird is black.

In this illustration belonging to a scene from the Suvannasāma Jātaka, a pair of what may be Burmese Collared Doves (Streptopelia decaocto xanthocycla, นกเขาแขก) are sitting on tree branches behind the roof of a forest hermitage. In this hermitage live the blind parents of Suvannasāma, a previous incarnation of the Buddha, who with great devotion cares for his parents. One day he is shot by a hunter with a poisined arrow, but thanks to Suvannasāma's accumulated merit and the pleadings of his parents he comes back to life and recovers fully.

Two birds, possibly representing Burmese Collared Doves (Streptopelia decaocto xanthocycla, นกเขาแขก) in an illustration from the Suvannasāma Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or.14068 f.5
Two birds, possibly representing Burmese Collared Doves (Streptopelia decaocto xanthocycla, นกเขาแขก) in an illustration from the Suvannasāma Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14068 f.5)
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The Burmese Collared Dove, described by Oliver M. G. Newman in 1906, is a sub-species of the Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto decaocto, นกเขาแขก). This medium sized bird is grey-buff to pinkish-grey overall, a little darker above than below, with a black half-collar across the base of its hindneck. Its habitat stretches from central Myanmar across the Shan State and Yunnan to eastern China. The bird's habitat may explain why the doves in this manuscript from central Thailand were painted with red collars: the painter may only have known them from hear-say, but never seen them in nature.

Red Turtle Doves (Streptopelia tranquebarica, นกเขาไฟ) on a possibly imaginary tree with colourful leaves in another illustration from the Suvannasāma Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068 f.5
Red Turtle Doves (Streptopelia tranquebarica, นกเขาไฟ) on a possibly imaginary tree with colourful leaves in another illustration from the Suvannasāma Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14068 f.5)
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Related to the same story in this manuscript, the Suvannasāma Jātaka, is a second illustration depicting Suvannasāma with an arrow in his chest, lying on the ground next to a tree with colourful leaves. On the tree one can see a pair of birds (shown above) which may represent Red Turtle Doves (Streptopelia tranquebarica, นกเขาไฟ). The Red Turtle Dove, described by Johann Hermann in 1804, is in its appearance quite similar to the Burmese Collared Dove. It is also known as Red Collared Dove. The smaller size and reddish plummage differentiate this species from its relatives. It has a narrow black collar at the base of the hindneck and plain reddish (male) to dull brown upperparts (female). This dove is essentially a plains species with its habitat extending from the Indian Sub-continent across mainland Southeast Asia to Taiwan and the Philippines.

An illustration of a natural scene with artistic interpretation of a pair of Ospreys (Or14068)
An illustration of a natural scene with artistic interpretation of a pair of Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus, เหยี่ยวออสเปร). Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14968 f.52)
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A rather unusual bird to be depicted in a Thai manuscript can be seen in the illustration above which accompanies the last text passage of the Mahābuddhagunā (Great Perfections of the Buddha). This may be an artistic interpretation of a pair of Ospreys, set in a rocky landscape, although the colours do not exactly match those of the natural bird. This is a detail of two illustrations on the same folio which also depict other unidentified birds and small mammals.

The Osprey (Pandion haliaetus, เหยี่ยวออสเปร), described by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758, is a fish-eating bird of prey. The upperparts of this larger bird are glossy brown, while the breast is white and sometimes streaked with brown, and the underparts are pure white. The head is white with a darker mask across the eyes, reaching to the sides of the neck. The Osprey has a worldwide distribution and is found in temperate and tropical regions of all continents except Antarctica. During winters it visits all parts of South Asia and Southeast Asia from Myanmar through to Vietnam and southern China, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

In my next post I'll write about some of the unidentified birds illustrated in Thai manuscript art.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections
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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.

15 June 2020

The First Gaster Bible: a fine Hebrew manuscript from a Muslim land

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The Hebrew Bible, known in Christianity as The Old Testament, and as TaNaKh in Judaism, comprises the sacred texts of the Jewish people. It is a profuse and unique compilation of laws and commandments, ritual directives and precepts, genealogical records, prophecies, poetry, royal chronicles, decrees, tales and much more. Its content and structure evolved over a lengthy period extending from the Babylonian exile of the Jewish population in Judea in the 6th century BCE, until about the 2nd century CE.

The word TaNaKh is an acronym based on the first consonantal letters representing its three principal divisions, namely: Torah known as the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses, Nevi’im denoting Prophets, and Ketuvim or Writings. The TaNaKh consists of 24 books in all.

In antiquity, the ancient text of the Hebrew Bible was copied on scrolls made either of strips of parchment or papyrus. Codices (singular: codex) i.e. bound books with pages, emerged in Judaism around the 8th century CE, although they may have been in use before then. The 10th century in particular witnessed an upsurge in the production of TaNaKh codices, and some, similar to the First Gaster Bible, have survived to this day.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
Psalms (64:1- ). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 14v))
CC Public Domain Image

Named after its distinguished last owner Dr Moses Gaster (1856–1939), the spiritual leader of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation in London, the manuscript was most probably created in Egypt. The colophon – a statement at the end of a manuscript giving details about its production – is missing, and so, nothing is known about the original commission. Its estimated date and place of production have thus been determined by comparing it with extant Hebrew Bibles copied about the 10th century in Egypt and the Middle East.

The First Gaster Bible shows unmissable signs of wear and tear. Its thousand-year old parchment folios displaying fine calligraphy, masoretic rubrics and gilded embellishments, testify nonetheless to its former glory. What originally may have been a complete manuscript of Ketuvim (Writings), has survived in a fragmentary state comprising just portions from the Books of Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and Daniel.

 

Detail of illuminated page with Hebrew text
Detail of illuminated page with Hebrew text
(Top) Ruth (3:15- ). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. Or 9879, f. 31r (detail)
CC Public Domain Image

(Bottom) . Ecclesiastes (beginning of ch.3). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 32v (detail)))
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When leafing through the manuscript, one notices right away the small script annotations that surround the scriptural text. These are collectively termed as masorah from the Hebrew consonantal root ‘ msr’ meaning to hand down. The masorah is fundamentally a corpus of rules on the pronunciation, reading, spelling and cantillation of the biblical text that safeguarded the correct transmission of the Hebrew Bible over the centuries. It was developed by Jewish scholars known as Masoretes (conveyors of tradition) who were active in Tiberias, in the Holy Land, between the 7th and 10th centuries CE. The Masoretes’ greatest contribution was the compilation of a system of signs and vowels that set up in writing the accurate way of reading the consonantal Hebrew script, which had been previously filled with ambiguities and uncertainties.

There are two main types of masoretic notation, both visible in the First Gaster Bible. The large masorah (masora magna) copied usually at the top and foot of pages, and the small masorah ( masora parva) penned between the columns of text or in the margins. The former is keyed to the words in the text and contains old traditional readings and grammatical notes. It serves as a quality control system and protects the scriptural text from alterations. The latter is more copious and includes lists of whole sections from the biblical text distinguished by typical orthographic variants or other characteristics.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
End of Esther, beginning of Daniel. (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 40r))
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It is very likely that the First Gaster Bible was commissioned by a wealthy patron for a synagogue rather than for personal use. The manuscript provides a very good example of manuscript illumination from the Islamic East, i.e. Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, Syria and the Holy Land. Islam’s aniconic approach had a profound and lasting impact on Hebrew manuscripts created in Muslim lands. The decorations found in extant Hebrew Bibles produced in these areas strongly suggest that Jewish scribes and artists would have had access to decorated Islamic handwritten books which influenced their art.

Like Qur’ans, early Hebrew Bibles are devoid of human and animal imagery and their ornamentation is essentially functional. Carpet pages with geometric and arabesque designs, micrography (patterned minute lettering) and divisional motifs adapted from Islamic art typify their decoration. In the First Gaster Bible there is an abundance of gilded decorative elements executed in Islamic style. These include golden chains, foliage, interwoven buds, palmettes and undulating scrolls and spirals.

Illuminated page with Hebrew textIlluminated page with Hebrew text
(Left) Psalms (69:4 - ). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 16r))
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(Right) Psalms (71:1- ). (The First Gaster Bible Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 17r))
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It is interesting to point out that, with very few exceptions, most of the surviving Hebrew Bibles dating from the 9th – 11th centuries are incomplete. One such exception is the Leningrad Codex, preserved in the Russian National Library (Saltykov-Schendrin Public Library), St Petersburg. Copied most probably in Egypt around 1008 or 1009 CE, it is the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible.

Among the extant fragmentary specimens, the Aleppo Codex kept in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, qualifies as the oldest and most authoritative Hebrew Bible. It was copied c. 930 CE in Tiberias, the Holy Land, and has apparently lost 196 of its 491 original pages.

Apart from the First Gaster Bible, the British Library holds a few other very early, incomplete Hebrew biblical codices. The most prestigious is the London Codex, a Pentateuch with masorah that was created probably in Egypt or the Holy Land, 920-950 CE. The scribe’s name - Nissi ben Daniel ha-Kohen who, in all likelihood was also the masorete and vocaliser of the manuscript, is hidden within the masoretic notes on folios, 40r, 113v and 139r.

Or 4445  f.40r Illuminated page with Hebrew text
(Left) Pentateuch. (London Codex, Egypt or the Holy Land, 920-950 CE. (Or 4445, f. 38v))
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(Right) Pentateuch; Scribe’s acrostic in masoretic notes, left margin. (London Codex, Egypt or the Holy Land, 920-959 CE. (Or 4445, f. 40r))
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The Second Gaster Bible comes also from Dr Moses Gaster’s former library. Furnished with masorah and delicate ornamentation, it was probably crafted in Egypt towards the last quarter of the 11th century CE. Despite its poor condition, it is evidently a beautiful example of Islamic influence on Jewish manuscript decoration.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
Pentateuch; Deuteronomy (19:6- ). (The Second Gaster Bible, Egypt, 11th -12th century CE. (Or 9880, f. 34r))
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Lastly, I would like to draw attention to a particularly interesting Hebrew Pentateuch of Persian origin that lacks entirely the Books of Genesis and Exodus. This early codex is provided with masoretic rubrics, the Aramaic translation, and vowel points placed above the consonantal text. This vocalisation system was developed in Babylonia during the 6th and 7th centuries CE and was eventually superseded by the sublinear pointing developed and perfected by the Tiberian Masoretes.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
Numbers (7:87- ). (Pentateuch, Iran, 10th -11th century CE. (Or 1467, f. 44r)).
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The First Gaster Bible is a highly significant codex included in the Hebrew Manuscripts Exhibition whose opening has been deferred until further notice.

The British Library’s Hebrew manuscripts described in this blog have been digitised cover to cover as part of the major Hebrew Manuscripts Digitsation Project undertaken by the Library, 2013-2020. They are discoverable on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies
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Further readings

Dotan, Aron . Reflection towards a Critical Edition of Pentateuch Codex Or. 4445'. In.Estudios masoreticos (X Congreso de la IOMS). Dedicados a Harry M. Orlinsky (Textos y estudios 'Cardenal Cisneros' 55) (Madrid: Instituto de Filología CSIC, Departamento de Filología Bíblica y de Oriente Antiguo, 1993). pp. 39-51.

Friedman, Matti. The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible . Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2012

Gaster, Moses. Hebrew Illuminated Bibles of the IXth and Xth Centuries (Codices Or. Gaster, No. 150 and 151)……… Reprinted from the “Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archæology,” June, 1900. .London: Harrison & Sons, 1901.

Narkiss, Bezalel. Kitve-Yad ʿIvriyim Metsuyarim ; mavo me-et Sesil Rot ; [ʿIvrit, Daliyah Shaḥaḳ ; ʿarikhah, Daliyah Ṭesler].'Mahad. ʿIvrit ḥadashah u-Metuḳenet. Jerusalem: Keter, 1984. (in Hebrew)

Ortega-Monasterio, Maria-Teresa. Some Masoretic Notes of Mss. L and Or 4445 Compared with the Spanish Tradition'. Sefarad 57, no. 1 (1997), pp. 127-133.