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In the beginning was the Word: Chester Beatty Library

30 November, 1999

Mark Harkin takes a look at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin’s famous repository of the rare and wonderful. Those with an eye to the Christian past will not be disappointed with the fascinating Sacred Traditions permanent exhibition.

The Chester Beatty Library in Dublin Castle is a treasure-trove of historical artefacts and manuscripts from all over the world. Organised around exhibition galleries and reading rooms, this collection of rare and valuable items was amassed by the founder of the library, American mining engineer, Alfred Chester Beatty (1875 – 1968). Of English, Irish and Scottish ancestry, Mr Beatty moved to Dublin in 1950 and presented ninety-three paintings to the Irish nation. The Chester Beatty Library was opened to the public in 1954 at a location in Ballsbridge, and moved to its current home in 1994.

The second floor of the library houses the Sacred Traditions Exhibition, a display of especial importance to anyone interested in the development of religion. The visitor steps from the light of day on the landing into a darkened atmosphere wherein lies the story of faith. The dim lighting is employed to protect sensitive documents, but also imbues the viewer with a reverence for the artefacts on show.

The section devoted to Christianity is particularly fascinating, a journey back in time to its early years, through Roman persecution, to the splendours of the medieval manuscript and the pioneering efforts of Jesuit missionaries. Altogether, this exhibition presents a coherent, illustrated narrative.

The early texts
The story begins with Greek texts on papyrus from the second and third centuries, including a fragment of the Book of Deuteronomy, which until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 1940s, was the earliest extant manuscript of the Bible.

However, the main section here is given over to the display of the Pauline Letters, which were copied between 180 and 200 AD. Saint Paul is regarded as the first great Christian missionary, as he established Christian communities in modern-day Turkey and Greece. He kept in touch with the early Christian communities through his letters, which contained instruction and encouragement. In the Chester Beatty exhibition, there are fragments from Paul’s Letters to the Romans, Hebrews, Corinthians, Galatians and Colossians. Paul was martyred in Rome in 67 AD so to contemplate the contents of these cabinets is to stand in close proximity to the birth of the Christian world.

Of course, after Paul, many others were martyred for their faith by Rome, particularly in the reign of the emperor Diocletian (245 – 316 AD). This heroic episode in history, in which Christians faced death rather than conform to Roman pagan belief, is brought alive by the inclusion of such documents as Death of a Martyr: The Acts of Phileas, Bishop of Thmuis. Phileas was a Churchman in the Nile Delta who was killed in 307, and this papyrus contains an account of his trial before the Roman prefect. Phileas was called on to make sacrifices before the gods, to which he replied: “He who sacrifices to any other god except the Lord God alone shall be destroyed.”

The Four Gospels occupy a central portion of the Christian part of the Sacred Traditions Exhibition. The lives of the Evangelists and the different purposes of their writings are explained to visitors. Papyrus fragments from all four Gospels are displayed here, including an excerpt from John, containing part of the account of the Crucifixion (chapter 19, verses 25 to 28) where Jesus tells John to take care of his mother. Reckoned to have been copied between 150 and 200 AD, it comes from a much larger papyrus codex, preserved in the Bodmer Library in Geneva. It is among the oldest Gospel texts in the world.

The Middle Ages
The simplicity and fragility of the papyri – they look like scraps of paper miraculously delivered to us by history – contrasts with the richness of the medieval Gospel-Books also on show in this part of the exhibition. Among the treasures here are the Stavelot Gospel-Book from 1000 AD, comprised of Latin text on vellum with Flemish illustrations. The Benedictine abbey of Stavelot was one of several monasteries in the Meuse (Maas) region. In this instance, the quality of the vellum, the extent of the decoration, the abundant use of gold and the purple-stained vellum, all point to an association with the court of the German Emperor Otto III. Ultimately, what such manuscripts demonstrate is the importance of the message contained in the papyri; the lavishness of style and materials are the hallmarks of reverence.

There are numerous impressive texts on display, which show how Christianity became interwoven with the history of Europe. The Walsingham Bible, from an Augustinian priory in Norfolk (Latin text on parchment, circa 1153) is a huge, rich tome, bearing witness to the vicissitudes of liturgical use – wine stains from chalices, burn holes from candles, etc. A Gospel-Book from pre-Muslim Bosnia (Cyrillac script on vellum, mid 14th century) depicts St John as an eagle; the Bogomil heresy forbade the images of saints, and it flourished in this medieval state, prior to the Ottoman conquest and the arrival of Islam. A Gospel-Book from Russia, opened at the Gospel of Luke, was a present from Michael, the first Romanov Tsar, to the Church of the Holy Trinity in Moscow in 1618.

The beginnings of the modern mission
The final part of the Christian section is given over to missionary activity, where we first find mention of the Society of Jesus. The story is told of the mission to Ethiopia: Catholic monarchs in Europe were anxious to form an alliance with the African country against Islam, none more so than Phillip II of Spain and Portugal (1527 -1598), who wanted also to convert Ethiopia from its orthodox faith to Roman Catholicism. The Jesuits succeeded in converting the emperor Susneyos (reigned 1606 – 1632) and members of his court, but the emperor’s policy of forcibly converting the country failed, leading to his abdication and the expulsion of the Jesuits from Ethiopia. The text on display here is entitled The Miracles of Jesus, depicting an African Jesus with his disciples at the Last Supper. Although the Jesuits were gone by the time this book was produced (c.1700), it was they who had introduced Christian images into Ethiopia with their copies of Italian Gospel-Books.

The Jesuits were also the first Christian missionaries of the modern era to China in the 16th century. Originally, they tried to reach an accommodation between Christian teachings and native beliefs, but this was opposed by other missionaries and the Papacy. Although the Chinese emperor issued an edict of toleration in 1692, fifty years later, Christian missionaries were forced to leave the country, and the persecution of Christians began. This part of the exhibition contains an Imperial Edict on the Disappearance of Four Jesuits (1718), as well as Jesuit letters from China to Rome. Indeed the Chester Beatty Library possesses a considerable collection of Jesuit Relations, showing the level of Jesuit activity in India, China, Japan and Ethiopia.

Individually and collectively, the contents of the Sacred Traditions Exhibition are priceless, and we owe much to the memory of Sir Alfred Chester Beatty. The items on display in the Christian section are a powerful reminder of our heritage and of the potency of the written word.


This article first appeared in ADMG (Nov 2001), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.