Free Library of Philadelphia Welcomes Papal Visit With New Ecumenical Exhibit


The Parkway Central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia hosts the new exhibit, “Sacred Stories: The World’s Religious Traditions.”

From SEPTA cards to specialty beers, the impending papal visit has set the city abuzz. And starting Aug. 31, the Free Library of Philadelphia will join the fun with a new show at the Parkway Central Library celebrating transformative writing from across the world’s religions.
The exhibit, “Sacred Stories: The World’s Religious Traditions,” will include a wide range of religious texts from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.
Janine Pollock, the assistant chief for the Central Public Services Division at the library, said it took almost a year to put the exhibit together and showcase the best pieces. The exhibit holds about 70 objects, including books, scrolls, handwritten manuscripts and more than 20 miniature paintings.
Some highlights include Esther scrolls, which are megillahs that are the most common of surviving Jewish texts from the medieval period, Martin Luther’s first German New Testament printed in 1522 and the “Alcoran of Monhomet,” the first translation of the Koran into English printed in 1649.
Many of the pieces were already in the library’s collection in the Rare Book Department, but some were provided by the Rosenbach Museum and Library.
“Every so often, we have an exhibition like this — it was sort of about time, with the World Meeting of Families coming to town,” Pollock said. “The pope will probably never see this, unfortunately, but [for] the people who are coming to Philadelphia, we wanted to have something special for them.”
Pollock said many of these religious texts were kept in sacred places and only used on ceremonial and other special occasions, often being passed from teacher to pupil, which is why they survived and are in viewable condition today.
The exhibit also features a Bible translated from Hebrew into English by Isaac Leeser, who was a Jewish American known to produce the first such translation in 1845 in Philadelphia. He is also known as the founder of the Jewish press in America.
Other works include Hebrew-to-Spanish Bibles from the 1500s during the Spanish Inquisition, the first Hebrew biblical text printed with vowels dating back to 1482 and other Esther scrolls.
Pollock said displaying all the different religious texts side by side shows the similarities in how each religion relied on books and writings to transmit ideas.
“ ‘Sacred Stories’ is not only religious stories and tales, but also the stories of the materials themselves,” she said.
Alexander Devine, guest co-curator, added that these materials tell a deeper story, one that reveals the history of the people behind them: who owned them, where they were at different times throughout history, why they were made and what they were used for.
Devine has an extensive background in medieval manuscripts and Bibles from the 12th through 15th centuries. He is currently finishing his Ph.D. in portable manuscript Bibles of the 13th century at the University of Pennsylvania’s Schoenberg Institute for Manuscripts Studies.
For a manuscript junkie like Devine, the stories and objects in the exhibit are execptional.
“The people, the objects and their stories are how I first kind of fell in love with them,” he said. But, he added, “it’s pretty hard not to fall in love with them straight away.”
He said the materials in the exhibit range from the ninth to the 20th century. One of the books was actually printed centuries ago in his hometown of Durham, England.
Devine found it difficult to pick and choose the best manuscripts to display, comparing himself to Peter Jackson having to make cuts to The Lord of the Rings. He said he became very proud of the collection, but it was “agonizing choosing which ones to exclude.”
Devine said these handwritten manuscripts involve many people in the process. For instance, there’s a scribe, someone who paints covers, someone who bonds the book, someone who compiles all the pages — this diligence and attention to detail were critical to the transmission of ideas.
“There’s a lot to be learned about the different traditions of creating the objects themselves,” he said. “You are very literally touching history.”
The exhibit is free and will be open Mondays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Although the Parkway Central Library will closed on Sept. 26 and 27 during the pope’s visit, there will be extended hours on Sept. 20 from 1 to 5 p.m. and Sept. 22 and 23 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
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