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Bodleian Library Treasures

Selections from one of the world’s oldest and most precious library collections is now available in a handsomely produced large-format hardbook: “Bodleian Library Treasures”.


Sean Sheehan


An Aztec pictographic manuscript prepared on the orders of Don Antonio de Mendoza (1491-1552), shortly after the conquest of Mexico; an exquisite small Chinese book with twenty poems by the Emperor Gaozong, who ruled from 1736 to 1796; a Mughal portrait of a man at death’s door; an illustrated Arabic encyclopaedia. Just a very few of the treasures that the Bodleian Library in Oxford, founded in 1602, has collected over four centuries.

Manuscripts, printed books, music, maps and ephemera, in a variety of languages and from all corners of the world, make up the priceless Bodleian Library. In total there are some 11 million volumes on over 150 miles of shelving but the rare and important books, a hundred of which are illustrated in Bodleian Library Treasures”, are housed in the 1930s New Bodleian Library known as the Weston Library.

Kennicott Bible © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

The founder of the library, Thomas Bodley, was known for his knowledge of Hebrew and encouraged the acquisition of books in that language.

One of the most beautiful is a Hebrew Bible written in Spain in the fifteenth century, known as the Kennicott Bible, and one of its finely decorated vellum leaves is shown below. The page contains no text – it was used as a divider of the bible into three sections – and displays influences from both eastern and Celtic art traditions.

The four centuries during which the Bodleian built up its collection also saw the establishment and rule of a vast British empire and the two developments are not unconnected.

Tipu Sultan (1750-1799), known as the Tiger of Mysore, was the last ruler of the southern Indian kingdom of Mysore.

His opposition to British rule led to his death on the battlefield in the fourth Anglo-Mysore War in 1790. His library of some two thousand books was seized by the British and from it a copy of the Quran was given to the Bodleian.

Tipu Sultan’s Quron was written in 1550, probably in Iran, on 344 leaves of glazed paper measuring 39 x 25cm. It has a beautifully intricate illuminated opening, one part of which is shown below.

Tipu Sultan Quran © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford 2

In northern Europe, manuscript illumination was perfected by Flemish artists and a superb example is “The Hours” of Englebert of Nassau.

It was probably completed in the 1470s and came to be named after one of its owners, Englebert II, count of Nassau.

One of its full page miniatures is shown below, depicting the Virgin Mary being greeted by her cousin Elizabeth before a pond with water lilies and a spring landscape in the background.

Opposite it, a winter landscape shows Mary and Joseph being turned away from an inn in Bethlehem. Both incidents are framed in a gold border with a floral design. 

“The Hours of Englebert of Nassau MSS. Douce 219-20 © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

“Bodleian Library Treasures” by David Vaisey, is published by Bodleian Library Publishing. You can explore the collection at Digital Bodleian and visit the exhibition galleries in the Weston Library.

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