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A Match Made in Heaven : The J. Paul Getty Museum and UCLA have combined forces to create an awe-inspiring exhibit of Bibles

<i> Colker is a Times staff writer. </i>

In the beginning, there were two great Bible collections on the Westside.

The J. Paul Getty Museum had handwritten, spectacularly illuminated manuscripts of Bibles going back to the 9th Century. UCLA’s University Research Library had printed Bibles that graphically showed the history of the book, in its sacred and sometimes oddball forms, from the time of Gutenberg through the present.

“There are wonderful resources at the individual institutions,” said David Zeidberg, head of special collections at UCLA. “But collectively, we can show the history of this book in a far more comprehensive way.”

Spiritually, if not geographically, the Getty and UCLA have joined forces for the first time to put on “A Thousand Years of the Bible,” an exhibit that opened Tuesday at both institutions and will be on view through March 31.

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At the Getty, the “Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts” part of the exhibit starts with a fragment from a Bible that was handwritten in about 845 and ends with an Epistle of St. Paul done in about 1525.

UCLA’s “Printed Word” section, housed in the special collections room of the University Research Library on campus, begins with a leaf of a Gutenberg Bible from about 1455 and ends with a 1965 novelty printing of “The Ten Commandments” done in type so small it is almost microscopic.

The combined show was the brainchild of Ranee Katzenstein, assistant curator of manuscripts at the Getty, who got the idea when she was putting together what was planned as a solo exhibit at the museum. “The aim of our exhibition was to show that the Bible was not a static object but one that had been changing dynamically in its form through the ages,” she said.

“One of the most important forms it took during the Middle Ages is a glossed Bible, which is a Bible with commentary written between the lines of text. But we didn’t happen to have a glossed Bible in our collection.”

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The Getty doesn’t often borrow from other institutions for its exhibits, but Katzenstein felt it so necessary to have a glossed Bible in the show that she arranged to get one on loan from the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. Another important Bible was borrowed from the special collections department at UC Santa Barbara.

“We were really thrilled to work with these other collections,” she said, “and in that spirit it seemed natural to show more of the development of the Bible by getting UCLA to show its printed Bibles as well.”

Getty and UCLA officials first met to discuss the joint project last summer.

Because the exhibit was put together relatively quickly, there was not enough time to coordinate with other significant collections in the area. “That would have been ideal, but it would have taken at least another year to coordinate it all,” Zeidberg said. “Maybe someday we can build on what we have started here and do that.”

Los Angeles has a long history of Bible collecting, as detailed in the exhibition catalogue in an essay by John Bidwell, a reference librarian at the Clark Memorial Library. The best known local collection was amassed by Henry E. Huntington beginning in 1911 when he bought a Gutenberg Bible for a then-record price of $50,000. (A Gutenberg would now go for several million dollars if any of the 48 existing complete copies went on the block.) Huntington’s spectacular collection is in the Huntington Library in San Marino.

The Ostrow Library at the University of Judaism owns a wildly eclectic, 5,000-volume Bible collection that was donated by a Seattle collector, Benjamin Maslan, in 1984. It seems that Maslan would collect any book from any time period and in any language--including Tagalog, Chinese and Syriac--as long as it was a Bible, and he snared many rare and valuable ones.

The vast majority of the Getty’s rare books, including its Bibles, came to the museum in one fell swoop in 1983 when it acquired the famed Peter Ludwig collection from Germany. The Getty only collects manuscripts, books that are handwritten and illustrated and therefore unique.

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Katzenstein opened several of the 20 Bibles in the Getty part of the show, showing that they range widely in size and use of illustrations. “The large ones are lectern Bibles, meant to be read aloud in religious communities,” she said. “While the small ones were for private use, probably for students of theology and law, for which it was a key text.”

The text is beautifully rendered in many of the Bibles, often in silver and gold. But it is the vivid illustrations that are the most striking aspect of the Bibles. “The Bible as a text inspired some of the greatest works of art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance,” Katzenstein said as she opened to Genesis a 13th-Century Bible from northern France.

On the first page of this Bible in Latin is an extravagant rendering of the letter “I,” with pictorial illustrations down the stem of the letter from the six days of Creation, plus a scene from the Crucifixion.

“This is the work of a great artist,” Katzenstein said, shaking her head in awe, “but we have no idea who it was. Most of the illustrations from this time are unsigned.”

Not surprisingly, many of the illustrations depict scenes from Bible stories. Among the most lively are scenes from St. John’s vision of the Apocalypse from a 12th-Century manuscript that was made in London about 1250. Included are vivid depictions of earthquakes, dragons and the horses of the Apocalypse. All the scenes are witnessed by St. John, who observes from just outside the frames. “Talk about your postmodern approach,” she said.

The UCLA section of the show begins with the printing revolution sparked by Johan Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in about 1440. It took him almost 15 years to set the type for his Bible, the first complete book off his press.

Had matters turned out a bit differently in 1952, the UCLA section would have begun with a complete Gutenberg. Back then the chief librarian and some of the regents were trying to quickly put together the $200,000 or so to buy one of the Bibles that had suddenly come onto the market.

They couldn’t do it and as a consolation, Regent Edward Dickson bought the library a single leaf that had become available from another Gutenberg.

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Almost all the holdings in the UCLA special collection of rare books were donated or purchased with donated funds. Many come from an early Italian printing col lection that was started by Franklin Murphy almost 30 years ago when he was the university chancellor and is supported by yearly grants from the Ahmanson Foundation.

Some, however, including a rare “Song of Solomon” with illustrations by Eric Gill, came from the curious collection of Walter O. Schneider.

After emigrating from Germany in 1915, Schneider found work at the Los Angeles Country Club where he lived, in the same room, for 47 years. Quietly, he used his modest salary to build an extensive collection of more than 5,000 fine books, all in pristine condition.

When he died, UCLA officials were shocked to hear that they were the beneficiaries of this collection of which they had never heard.

In the UCLA special collections room, where temperature and humidity is strictly controlled, Zeidberg wheeled out a library cart of the Bibles that had been chosen for the exhibit and encouraged a visitor to leaf through them. Unlike the Getty collection, which can only be handled by specially trained and designated personnel, the UCLA holdings are actively used.

“We are a research library and we acquired these books to be used for research purposes,” Zeidberg said. “We make sure people are careful, but these books are available to the public.

“Of course, they can’t be checked out.”

The condition of the pages of the 16th- and 17th-Century Bibles he opened was astonishing. “The paper in these Bibles is in far better shape,” he noted, “than Bibles we have from the 19th Century, and better than many of the books people have in their homes.

“That’s because they used rag paper back then. Later came wood pulp and all the trouble with the acids in them.”

Although many of the printed Bibles at UCLA feature lavish illustrations, the chief scholarly interest in them lies in the texts. One of the collection’s prizes is a 1516 edition of the Psalms that is the first known Bible to be a polyglot--printed in several languages.

UCLA also has one of the rarest of almost-matched sets. In 1590 Pope Sixtus V was so adamant that the Catholic Church have a standardized version of the text that he issued a revised edition and declared that if anyone changed as much as a word, that person would be excommunicated. However, translation problems were discovered almost immediately. In UCLA’s copy, words have been obviously covered up and then printed over.

“It’s the 16th-Century version of whiteout,” Zeidberg said.

It was so bad that the next Pope, Clement VII, felt that he needed to issue a corrected edition, but he didn’t want it to seem as if he was disregarding Sixtus’ decree. So the Clement edition was made to look almost exactly like Sixtus’, complete with the same dire warning against making changes.

The Clement version is still the standard Latin text used by the Catholic Church.

Going to the end of the cart, Zeidberg pulled out one of the most curious entries in the exhibit, a slipcover about the size of a small index card marked, “The Smallest Bible in the World.”

Inside was a single microfiche card from the mid-1960s that its maker, National Cash Register Co., says contains the entire text of the old and new testaments of the Bible.

“We got everything in this exhibition,” Zeidberg said, one hand on the polyglot version and the other holding the microfiche, “from the sublime to the ridiculous.”


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