Last week, exploring the chance to see some medieval art in Washington DC this winter, I wrote about Anonymous 4 and the Folger Consort at the National Cathedral, and rounded it out with a mention of the Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire Hoard at the National Geographic’s Explorer’s Hall. You can find that post here.
But there’s more, and although it leaves town Monday, January 16, I’d hate to not mention the Folger Library’s exhibition Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible, tracing the evolution of the Bible in English from its origins up to us. The Bodleian Library’s Cædmon manuscript is on display at the head of the exhibition. Better known to Old English scholars (at least where I went to school) as the Junius manuscript (MS Junius 11), this thousand year old manuscript includes Old English retellings of the stories of the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel, which is why it’s appearing in this exhibition as one of the earlier renderings of these stories in English. The Junius manuscript also includes a poem titled Christ and Satan, detailing in verse Christ’s dealings with Satan when fasting in the desert before his mission began and then again after the Crucifixion, when he descended into Hell to release those souls kept captive there, unable to progress to Heaven no matter how good they were when living on Earth, until after Christ’s death for their salvation.
The treatment of the story is very Anglo-Saxon, casting characters, themes, and settings in an epic, heroic manner, much like the more familiar Old English Beowulf. It was an heroic time for Christianity, not apologizing for anything at all.
At the Folger this afternoon, the Junius book was opened to pages 8-9, the left page covered with text beginning with a beautifully illuminated initial letter thorn (Þ) in the form of a cluster of gripping winged beasts, maybe dragons, highlighted in red ink, swallowing one another. The text describes the beginning of God’s creation of the world, and starts with the phrase “Þa seo tid gewat ofer tiber sceacan middangeardes,” which means something like “Then the time was finished for making the framework of the world….” After which, God creates the first evening, going to work on the details.
The right page, page 9, features a drawing of God taking a rib from Adam on the right side of the page, and then a drawing of God creating Eve on the left side of the page, each scene complete with a caption like “Her drihten gescop Adames wif Evam,” which works out to “Here, the Lord shaped Adam’s wife Eve.” Interestingly, God is bearded when he’s taking Adam’s rib, but He’s clean-shaven when He’s working on Eve. Over it all, angels in Heaven, Michael in the center, look down on the scene, with the caption “Here, God’s angels descend from Heaven into Paradise.” One of them is already on a ladder working his way down.
Most of the rest of the exhibition is Renaissance, including a first edition of the King James Bible, and there’s much there to see, but as a follow on to last week’s post on medieval DC, I couldn’t leave the Junius manuscript out. If you’re anywhere near Capital Hill today, you would do well to take a look.
That’s the best thing about the Internet. At the Folger, the exhibit hall is rather dark, to good purpose since the light might damage the books. But you’ll get a better of view of the book online anyway, and it will be there well after tomorrow. You’ll see a vision of Christianity that is epic, assertive, heroic, and unapologetic, something you won’t see in DC very often.