Against a background of news stories about bloody division in the Middle East, the Chester Beatty museum in a quiet corner of Dublin is managing to look at the world through a different lens.
An exhibition focusing on the beautiful objects of East Asian, Christian, Jewish and Islamic cultures — and the strong links between them — is proving one of the most popular of the summer.
Management at the museum say the phenomenal attendance has surpassed expectations, with a combination of Irish and overseas visitors flocking to see the works at a museum described in guide books as one of Europe’s finest.
The bulk of the treasures assembled by the late Chester Beatty, an American mining engineer, who moved here and donated his precious objects to the state, have never been seen, because there isn’t room to display them, not even in this new headquarters. (The old museum was in the embassy belt of Ailesbury Road where Beatty lived.)
So, exquisite tasters of ancient jade, stunning prayer covers and illuminated manuscripts make up the A to Z exhibition that is attracting so many people this year. A permanent exhibition mainly explores prayer books manuscripts and single page paintings.
The key note is struck with the very first A for Amulet display. Amulets are, like the old scapulars, or today’s wristbands, worn on the body to proclaim allegiance and protect against evil. From Armenia in the 16th century, there is a tiny illustrated scroll of sacred Christian text which is said to have cured an ancient King of his illness and helped him defeat the Persians; there is an amulet from India with magic squares and most interestingly of all, a 19th century roll of magical prayers from the Gospel of John, made as a gift for a Muslim woman named Gamila. Apparently, the exchange of magical practices between Muslims and Christians was common in Ethiopia.
The Jewish Mezuzah, the tiny scroll of biblical script kept often in ornate silver and placed on the door post is included. There are prayer covers for psalters and several books of hour but it is a treatise on eye surgery by a 10th century Muslim doctor from Baghdad and his 11th century surgeon-cousin from Andalucia that catches the eye, so to speak, of this viewer.
Optics, we are told, were of great interest to the scientifically minded world of medieval Islam. The beautiful calligraphy in Baghdad physician Ali Ibn Isa’s “Memorandum for Oculists” explores how eyes see and catalogues diseases of the eye “and their treatment”.
Papyrus, the chief writing material of the Greco-Roman world, is well represented. The Chester Beatty holds one of the finest collections of early Christian papyrus so far discovered. But it is the 19th century Japanese lacquered storage boxes that take the breath away. A 19th century incenses storage box from Japan shows a monkey holding a peach; while another is in the shape of a lute.
Calligraphy is common to all traditions. But in Islam it is the most highly regarded art form and in Japan and China the brush stroke reveals personality as well as education.
Appropriately, Chester Beatty (1875-1968) himself also appears. One of the greatest collectors of the 20th century, he was an extraordinary friend to Ireland and his interesting journey from “M to B”, from mining engineer to bibliophile, is well told.