Ever since he was a small boy who ducked his art classes to spend time in the Toledo Museum of Art's book room, Dr. Allan Kirsner has been fascinated with rare books and manuscripts.
“I used to come here on Saturday afternoons for painting classes,” he recalled. “I was 6 or 7 years old at the time. I didn't like to paint, so I wandered around the museum until I found this room.”
Once he had discovered the treasures of the book room, he would head there as soon as his mother dropped him off at the museum. Over time, he memorized the location of each piece in the glass cases that were used to display the collection before curators became aware of the detrimental effects of light on the pages.
Today, Dr. Kirsner is a world class collector of books and a driving force behind an exhibit of rare Bibles that is on view at the museum through Jan. 27. “The Art of the Bible/The Bible as Art” is mostly made up of manuscripts owned by the museum, but also includes 10 pieces from Dr. Kirsner's personal collection, along with a Gutenberg Bible leaf owned by Dr. James Ravin, another local collector of note, and a papyrus fragment on loan from the University of Michigan Graduate Library.
The exhibit, which opened in the museum's Hitchcock Gallery Nov. 2, gives the public a chance to see pieces that normally are locked away from damaging light and accessible only to scholars and researchers who examine them by appointment in the Grace J. Hitchcock Print Study Room. There, they are stored in custom-made boxes on shelves behind glass that has been treated to keep out ultraviolet light. Pieces from the collection go on public view only in exhibitions like the current one and are shown for no more than three months at a time.
“[This exhibit] really is a special opportunity,” said Julie Mellby, the museum's associate curator of graphic arts, who put the show together in collaboration with Dr. Kirsner and Dr. Ravin.
Ms. Mellby said the focus of the exhibit, which was timed to coincide with the holy days of three major religions, is more on art than religion. Bibles, she explained, are the perfect forum for studying the arts of early writing and printing because the reverent care given to them has ensured their survival for hundreds of years.
Two pages from the Gutenberg Bible, each from a different copy and displayed side-by-side, are the centerpiece of the show. One is owned by Dr. Kirsner and the other by Dr. Ravin. The Gutenberg Bible, printed by Johann Gutenberg in the early 1450s, was the first large printed book and represents a high point in culture, printing, and history, Ms. Mellby said. “It really changed the course of civilization.”
The museum owns two Gutenberg leaves, but both have become brittle because of exposure to light and are no longer available for exhibition.
Also included in the Bible exhibit is a New Testament commentary by Erasmus of Rotterdam that Dr. Kirsner regards as one of the great prizes of the museum. Its leather binding is stamped, “For Grolier and Friends,” a reference to Jean Grolier, the famous 16th-century book collector.
Among the other items in the exhibit are:
Also in the exhibit is a volume of the Canon Law of Pope Gregory IX in its original binding that Dr. Kirsner acquired last year with the thought that it would be a good addition to the exhibit.
The book is of special interest because its front and back inside covers are lined with vellum containing excerpts from the Talmud, the oral law of the Jews. Dr. Kirsner said Gregory IX, who was pope from 1227 to 1241, had asked the kings of Christendom to destroy and burn Talmuds because of concerns about their content. “Yet the Talmud he wanted burned was used to protect his own canon law.” A bookbinder likely applied the pastedowns without realizing their significance, Dr. Kirsner said.
In the seven weeks the “Art of the Bible” exhibit has been on view, it already has generated an enormous response, Ms. Mellby said. One morning this week, she counted 50 people in the gallery at one time. Another indicator of interest in the exhibit was the way visitors snatched up the 3,000 catalogues printed for the show.
Dr. Kirsner, who is Jewish, said he hopes even more people will visit the exhibit over the holidays to share his interest in Bibles and the history of books and printing. “I want a lot of people to see these beautiful things over Christmas.”
Admission to “The Art of the Bible/The Bible as Art” is free. Viewing hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.