I went to the “Sacred” exhibition at the British Library in North London today. The show is basically an exhibition of Christian, Jewish and Islamic texts alongside each other.
Its a nice idea that puts together the 3 warring Abrahamic faiths, and you can see visually how similar the traditions are without needing to understand a word of Arabic, Hebrew or English. It was a great chance to see some really early manuscripts, and get a sense of touching history. Texts that are so close to the source of faith.
It seems to me, that broadly, the older and simple the texts were, the more of God seemed to shine through. I think the lesson is that its tempting to think that opulence and verbosity are no less than the deity deserve – that we can somehow communicate or apprehend God by being garrulous – but actually, for me God shines through the simplicity of the Kufic Moroccan Qu’ran in a way that is out of this world.
Funnily enough, it was the Islamic texts that (visually) allowed God to flow out more than any other. The Islamic prohibition on the use of images has lent a kind of purity to the visual, that is not quite present in either my own Christian tradition, or the Jewish texts.
The only Christian texts that really breathed God for me were the Armenian “Lives of the Desert Fathers” (that figure is one of the most alarmingly striking images I have ever seen) and the Ethiopian/Coptic rendering of the Trinity for similar reasons. Both had an unfamiliarity about them that was refreshing, and inspired me to dig a little further into the Desert Fathers history. Although bizarrely, I can find a link to neither on the British Library’s own website. Maybe I’m just being blind. Put a link in the comments box if you find them.
As to the drawbacks of the show – Its amazing how easy it is to “gag” art by talking about it. The clutter of signs, explanation and multi-media is so excessive, that it really distracts from the things you’re looking at. Both the Mizrah and the Islamic marriage contract were partially obscured by signs telling you what they were! Its only a matter of time before you might as well have stayed at home and read about it instead.
As a whole the multi-media experience was centre stage. The actual texts themselves were scattered to the edges of the room. What the hell was the blue LED cone for? Such wizardry displays a lack of faith in the objects we’re supposed to be looking at.
I’m a firm believer in making things accessible to all, but sometimes there’s a fine line between being helpful and patronising people. Some like having the explanations nearby, but the things that tend to get written on these placards don’t help people develop confidence in their own responses to art. In my opinion, it’s just as ok to say: “its nice.” and move on, as it is to just sit there and stare for half an hour because you can’t take your eyes off it. If you’re someone who derives pleasure from knowing how things fit together historically, then a bit of explanation is fine – or just buy the catalogue.
The moral of the story?
Keep it Simple, Keep it Sacred.
UPDATE: I got a nice response from Rob Ainsley from the British Museum re: the texts that didn’t make it onto the Sacred website:
“You’re right, there isn’t a page for the Lives of the Desert Fathers on the website. We only had time and resources to put about half of the texts on display on the website (67 of 150 or so). There’s a complete list at
However, of the texts that were in the exhibition but are not on the website, we *may* be able to add some of the ‘most requested’ over the next month or two. (Not a trivial business, because we have to do things such as taking high-resolution pictures of the text). If so, LoDF will be on our shortlist.”
Its brilliant that the British Library interacts with the punters, and it shows that they have a real love for what they’re doing that is forward-looking. Cool!