'Gods and Scholars' brings religious artifacts to light

Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections
A copy of the Quran, undated.
Book of Hours
Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections
Book of Hours: Use of Rome, circa 1500.

Just because Cornell University is nonsectarian doesn’t mean its founders objected to the discussion, practice or study of religion.

In fact, Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White both recognized religion’s importance, and White was an avid collector of religious texts, from 15th-century prayer books to a first edition of the Book of Mormon. Their once-controversial views inspired the latest exhibition at Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, “Gods and Scholars: Studying Religion at a Secular University.”

“Gods and Scholars” will be on display in the Carl A. Kroch Library’s Hirshland Exhibition Gallery until March 7 and is free and open to the public.

“What I wanted to show is that religion has always been on Cornell’s campus – it just hasn’t been a requirement, as it was at the time on other campuses,” said Fredrika Loew ’12, curator of the exhibit and a graduate student in the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Materials Studies. The exhibit is part of her master's thesis project.

To illustrate the relationship between religion and academics, the exhibition is organized not by faith or geographic region but by subject.

For example, a display on architecture includes a Burmese manuscript with illustrations of Buddhist temples; a Buddhist text containing a manual on building pagodas; and a photograph from White’s collection of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria, which was destroyed this summer by members of ISIS. Within the subject of language are Aramaic incantation bowls, believed to help catch demons when buried upside-down, that are inscribed with prayers or, for illiterate buyers, fragments from the “Book of the Dead,” dating to 1000 B.C.; and a 1685 bible printed in Algonquin.

Among the highlights of the exhibit are a first edition of the King James Bible and a leaf from the 1454 Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed on a press in the Western world. A Venus figurine from Ecuador dates to 2300-2000 B.C. An undated reed leaf manuscript unfolds like a fan to reveal Buddhist imagery. Also on display is an 8-foot-long papyrus scroll, purchased in 1889 by White, and then believed to be a spell from the Egyptian “Book of the Dead.” Two years ago, when examining the scroll, Loew discovered that it was actually a funerary text from the Ptolemaic period, dating to around 330-320 B.C.

“This exhibition provides a good opportunity to display some of the library’s sacred books, many of which have been in the collection since the 19th century,” said Laurent Ferri, curator of pre-1800s collections. “These artifacts, such as the ritual objects from the Johnson Museum, have a dual nature: On the one hand, they belong in our ‘profane’ world; on the other hand, they are manifestations of a wholly different order, ‘the divine.’ This paradox is at the core of the exhibition.”

Melanie Lefkowitz is a staff writer and editor at Cornell University Library.

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