29/01/2019 by Chris Green
Two magnificent exhibitions show- once again – why Christians should be interested in history.
The first is at the British Library: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War
Now I suspect for most of us, the phrase ‘Anglo Saxon’ conjures up a mental image of a bloke in a beard with a sword, probably wearing a helmet, and that’s about it. Pressed harder, and we’d come up with something about ‘that bit before the Normans’, and maybe namecheck the Vikings.
Now, actually, name-checking a Viking is always a good idea. Harald Bluetooth, anyone? (Yes, your connectivity is named after him). Sweyn Forkbeard sounds like someone who knew his way through a rugby tackle.
But I digress.
The period in the exhibition is everything between the arrival of the first Christian missionaries, led by Augustine, in 597, and the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066. That’s about 400 years of Christian history, represented by 400 years of literature.
Let me pause to bookend the period. When Augustine arrived, he brought gospels. The exhibition has one. When William arrived, he surveyed England in the Domesday book. The exhibition has one of those too. That ought to make your jaw drop. If you’re remotely bookish, or remotely historically minded, this is astonishing.
And in between, is room after room of wonders. The only surviving copy of Beowulf. And Pearl. Annotated copies of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. The earliest known legal text in English; the earliest letter in English; the Lindisfarne gospels; a gospel owned by Cuthbert, which is the earliest leather-bound book we know, and it’s still glorious; a bible from King Canute (yes, he was real); a bible owned by Alfred the Great (yes, he was real, too – and they’ve got the Alfred Jewel, an exquisite piece of gold and enamel, which held a pointer so that readers didn’t lose their place). Copies of letters from Cyprian which Augustine brought with him. The earliest complete bible in Latin, which hasn’t been in the country for a millennium. A millennium. They called it a ‘once in a generation’ exhibition, but I can’t see these wonders coming together in one exhibition for a very long time.
Honestly, you should dribble.
And then you should think.
Because, Christian, our brothers and sisters from those days, were profoundly believers in the Word. Each book is witness to the care with which they pored over their bibles, studied, read, sang and valued them. Now many of these these are royal texts, or owned by archbishops, so we should be careful, but nevertheless. They prized their bibles. Or, on the evidence here, they mostly prized their gospels. I don’t know enough to know whether the relative scarcity of Epistles and so forth is a result of the exhibition choice, or other reasons. It’s worth a pause to reflect.
Even so, though, these meticulous and beautiful books are witness to spiritual seriousness.
And my word are they beautiful. The handwriting is fabulous, the illustrations extraordinary, the golds and colours still paint fresh.
This is a culture of sophistication, and elegance, and extraordinary creativity. There are musical texts, too, and legal texts, but it’s all so wonderfully done. Yes, I know it lived alongside cow poo and serfdom. But that doesn’t negate the beauty as well.
If you ever fall into the trap of thinking that beauty stopped in Rome and started again with Leonardo da Vinci, think again. Christians loved, preserved and developed beauty.
Oh, and they’ve borrowed a bit of Sutton Hoo treasure as well, in case you feel bored.
Now, turn the dial back a bit further. To ancient Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian empire. Got there? Details a bit hazy? Then let the British Museum help you, with I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria
Assyria was the greatest empire of its day, or before. Its last and greatest king was Ashurbanipal, who devotes his life to displaying his power and wisdom and wealth in his glorious city. After him, it fell to the Babylonians, and was looted and destroyed.
Now, when it comes to stuff from ancient Iraq, the British Museum has a bit of a head start. Ignore the moral question (for the moment), it seems to have ‘acquired’ an enormous amount of stone and clay stuff from Nineveh and its surroundings. There’s the odd bronze or gold item, but of course the perishable stuff is long.
Let me qualify ‘stone stuff’. This is room after room of vast wall carving, which hung on Ashurbanipal’s palace walls, or decorated his floor, decorated with elegant cleverness and artistry. To give you sone idea of how good it is, let me point out that it’s sharing a building with the Elgin marbles, and it doesn’t look shabby. Battles are fought, lions are hunted, lands are mapped and fish are caught. Nineveh was a visual wonderland.
Let me qualify ‘clay stuff.’ Ashurbanipal was a reader, and his library was written in cuneiform (delicate triangular markings pressed in clay tablets, which were then baked.) His library was huge, of course. he was the kind of man who would say ‘I have the best library. The best.’ And he did. It was exhaustive. Tons of it still lie in the basement of the museum, one of the world’s largest and most difficult jigsaw puzzle. But here, a selection is displayed, on bookshelves reading to the ceiling, in a pretty echo of the King’s Library at the British Library.
When bible readers think of Assyria, we think invasion, threat and exile. Rightly so. This was the land and culture to which the northern tribes were taken captive, never to be seen again.
And think on this: the predominant use of the imagery in Nineveh was worship – idol worship, as the prophets rightly called it. The winged bulls, griffins, half-person half-dragon creatures, were to display, and adore, the gods of Assyria. These are most beautiful and dreadful idols, who have now lost their power.
Don’t confuse great beauty with truth.
And the moral issue? The exhibition closes very powerfully in the present day, with reports of what ISIS has done to the ancient sites in Iraq, and how the British Museum is actively training Iraqi archaeologists to identify and preserve antiquities on site. The holdings the museum has, kept safe from ISIS, are part of the future of archaeology over there. And who knows what other treasures are yet to be unearthed. Morally complex, but at least some wonders have been saved.