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Posts Tagged ‘Tower of Babel’

We only had one day wandering round Dublin, but I managed to see some incredible things. I’m ashamed to say that I had never heard of the Chester Beatty Library, but one of the seminarians persuaded us to visit there first, and the manuscripts are absolutely outstanding. I won’t splurge or use the exclamation mark; just let me copy this short description of some of the exhibits from their website:

The early New Testament papyri are, for many visitors, the greatest Christian treasures to be seen at the Library.

These incredible discoveries were first made public in The Times (19 November 1931). Before this find, the earliest and most important manuscripts of the Greek New Testament were parchment codices from the fourth and fifth centuries, all dating from the period after Constantine had granted toleration to Christianity.

Only a few small fragments of papyrus with portions of the New Testament from an earlier date were known, and most of these were too small to be of much significance.

The discovery of the Chester Beatty New Testament papyri caused a sensation; they were at least 100 years older than the most important parchment codices at that time.

The papyri not only contained much larger portions of the New Testament than any previously known papyri, but also provided a unique witness to the biblical text at a time when Christianity was experiencing extensive persecution and destruction of its scriptures.

By acquiring these early Christian texts, including the earliest surviving codex of the gospels and acts, the earliest copy of Saint Paul’s Letters and the earliest copy of the Book of Revelation, as well as many other early or unique versions of homilies, epistles or pseudo-canonical texts, Chester Beatty’s Library became one of the major centres in the world for the study of the Christian Bible.

Here is the section about St Paul:

This significant New Testament papyrus in the Chester Beatty collection contains the texts of the letters of St. Paul, dating from around the years AD 180-200. It is one of the great treasures to survive from the early Christian church.

Paul’s letters are among the earliest surviving Christian texts and are a unique witness to the spread of Christianity and the Gospels. Only four other known papyri contain portions of more than one of Paul’s letters, and of these four, two are of a much later date. The early date of the Chester Beatty codex and the fact that it contains almost the complete text of the letters of Paul, makes this codex extremely important for the study of the text of Paul’s letters.

There was also a fragment from St John’s Gospel from the second half of the second century. I can’t resist an exclamation mark here: it was incredible! It was the Greek text of Jesus saying to Mary, ‘Woman, here is your son’, and to the Beloved Disciple, ‘Here is your mother’.

If you want to follow the St Paul up further, see the Michigan website here about the P46 codex.

I had lunch with a friend at the Dominican friary at St Saviour’s, tea in the centre of the city with another friend, and then a very disappointing pilgrimage to the church where Venerable Matt Talbot is buried – it was closed! I couldn’t believe it; in the middle of the Eucharistic Congress one of the most important shrines in Dublin was closed. Oh well – lucky I managed to venerate his relics at one of the stalls at the Exhibition Hall in the Congress earlier in the week. And then I managed to get half an hour in the Hugh Lane Gallery to see the Francis Bacon studio. If I get time I’ll post about Matt Talbot and Francis Bacon later on.

The reason we ended up in Babel was because of the Dublin Spire (or Spike as most people seemed to call it). I couldn’t find a single person in the city who liked it – and I asked lots of them out of curiosity. But I thought it was wonderful. Tall (obviously), graceful, somehow full of meaning and utterly meaningless at the same time. It is the ultimate Tower of Babel – reaching for the sky simply because that’s what human beings do.

And it created the marvellous illusion, if you stand about ten feet from the base, that it actually continues up and up without limits and pierces the clouds – like Jack’s beanstalk.

So it was a fascinating few hours in Dublin, and I hope I can go back sometime soon and visit everything I didn’t see; and get into Matt’s church!

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Jack's Beanstalk

I forgot to blog about the Kingdom of Ife exhibition at the British Museum, and I’ve just found out that it closes on 4 July. So you have a few days to go.

This is the exhibition that includes those remarkable brass heads from 14th and 15th century West Africa. They are stately and serene, but still highly personal. William Bascom, an American anthropologist who was involved in the finds, wrote: “Little that Italy or Greece or Egypt ever produced could be finer, and the appeal of their beauty is immediate and universal”

Less powerful, but equally interesting, were two terracotta chameleons about 4 inches long, each perched on a stone. Chameleons had a mythical status in Ife culture, and the captions retold the Ife creation myth (I’m summarising):

Olodumare, the supreme god who inhabited the sky, sent the god Orishanla to create the world and humankind. He got drunk on palm wine and fell asleep, so his younger brother Oduduwa took over the job.

Oduduwa climbed down an iron chain that had been hung from the sky to the watery land below. He carried from the sky above a snail-shell full of soil, a five-toed chicken, and a chameleon. He emptied out the soil, and the dry land was formed by the chicken kicking the soil around as he searched for food. The chameleon tested the land to see if it was firm. And then Orishanla (now sober) created human beings, while Oduduwa formed the rest of the living world. Oduduwa is described as the progenitor of the Yoruba race.

I love creation stories. But this one excited me so much because it reminded me of Jack and the Beanstalk. This beautiful image of the world above being united to our own world by some kind of cord. Either let down from above, like the chain; or grown up from below, like the beanstalk. The Tower of Babel. Jacob’s ladder. The Cross. Human desire stretching up; and God – perhaps – reaching down. Although for Jack the world above the clouds was not particularly heavenly.

It was always one of my favourite children’s stories. And even the comic version done for TV by the Goodies seemed magical to me. I must find a modern children’s book to see how it is being depicted today.

Here is the British Museum plug for the exhibition. It’s well worth catching:

This major exhibition presents exquisite examples of brass, copper, stone and terracotta sculpture from West Africa.

The Kingdom of Ife (pronounced ee-feh) was a powerful, cosmopolitan and wealthy city-state in West Africa (in what is now modern south-west Nigeria). 

Ife flourished as a political, spiritual, cultural and economic centre in the 12th–15th centuries AD, and was an influential hub of local and long-distance trade networks.

The exhibition features superb pieces of Ife sculpture, drawn almost entirely from the magnificent collections of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.

The artists of Ife developed a refined and highly naturalistic sculptural tradition in stone, terracotta, brass and copper to create a style unlike anything in Africa at the time. The technical sophistication of the casting process is matched by the artworks’ enduring beauty.

The human figures portray a wide cross-section of Ife society and include images of youth and old age, health and disease, suffering and serenity.

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