By Shelley Marsden
TAOISEACH Enda Kenny has launched a unique exhibition at Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library.
A to Z: from Amulet to Zodiac allows the public can view, for the first time, a variety of rare treasures and important artefacts. A visual treat, the exhibition takes visitors on an alphabetical tour of precious objects chosen to explore the threads that link cultures between the Western, Islamic and East Asian worlds.
Opening the exhibition, Kenny described the collection as “one of the greatest gifts this country ever received”, adding that its range was “genuinely staggering”.
He said: “From Demons to Kings, from Gardens to Wings, this is an aesthetic journey where each individual object will speak to every visitor in a different way. Time spent in the Chester Beatty is a really enjoyable opportunity for quiet meditations among powerful texts and artefacts from east and west, presented beautifully and curated with expertise and passion.”
A , for instance, is for Amulet and the exhibition displays a dazzling array of the seventeenth-to nineteenth- century protective charms from Christian, Hebrew, Islamic and Hindu faiths.
T is for Travel and the collection includes some of the earliest known printed travel books, including rare 1576 guide to the ‘most famous islands of the world’ with a chapter devoted to Ireland, one of the earliest printed maps of the island and a less-than-flattering description of the Irish.
Similarly, C for Calligraphy, H for Hours and I for Illumination evoke examples of writing and decoration across the European, Islamic and East Asian traditions. The 15th-century Coëtivy Hours, the leaves from a 14th-century Qur’an, and the Japanese 16th- and 17th-century scrolls and picture books further serve as reminders of Beatty’s resolve to seek out quality and rarity in all his acquisitions.
Some highlights include several medieval Books of Hours, created for private religious devotion – the ‘bestsellers’ of late medieval Europe, and a bond volume of the French Revolutionary Tribunal records of Marie Antoinette’s 1793 trial and execution – right up to the moment she mounted the steps to the guillotine.
The letter J is given over to jade, considered to be the most powerful and mystical material used in Asian art. Beatty collected more than 950 snuff bottles, many of them jade and appearing in this exhibition. Noh is the oldest dramatic art form in the world and the exhibition includes several theatrical masks.
Library Director Fionnuala Croke told the Irish World she is still coming across items that amaze her. Of the format of the exhibition she said: “We came up with the idea using a very simple, fun framework like the alphabet would be an accessible way to give people a sense of some the highlights, right across the range of the collection.”
“There are some surprises there, too. It’s nice to pull out material that people haven’t seen before, and perhaps don’t even know that we have like the fans, the embroidered book covers, the records of Marie Antoinette’s trial – it’s amazing to have some of these things here.”
One of her favourites is an early travel book: “It’s a first edition of a Portuguese account of the mythical Christian King Prestor John who people really believed existed, and wrote books about. They so believed he existed that the Pope even sent messages out with letters to him. “
Ms Croke added: “The whole library is incredible. I’m not sure people realise just what a gift it was when Chester Beatty bequeathed his collection. It was often called the finest collection in private hands during his lifetime. The richness of the collection is incredible. He had the means, and he bought the very best.”
Free to visit, the Chester Beatty Library has been described by travel bible the Lonely Planet as ‘not just the best museum in Ireland, but one of the best in Europe’, and is the only museum in the country to have won European Museum of the Year.
Born in New York in 1875, on the site where the Rockefeller Center stands today, the library’s namesake Alfred Chester Beatty made his money in the mining industry – originally as a ‘mucker’, working his way up to become a mining magnate, before moving to London to pursue his interests as a collector of minerals, rare books, manuscripts and paintings.
Somewhat frustrated by post-war Britain, he moved to Ireland in 1950 and on his death, his precious collection was entrusted to the Irish people. He was Ireland’s first honorary citizen and was given a state funeral.
Chester Beatty’s A to Z: from Amulet to Zodiac runs from July 11 2014 to Feb 1 2015 at Chester Beatty Library, in Dublin Castle. See www.cbl.ie.