Let There Be Light in New York


The New York Public Library takes up an entire city block in midtown Manhattan, between the glitz of Fifth Avenue and the notorious sleaze of 42nd Street. Its imposing fašade, resembling a Doric temple, sits as a monument to 19th century ideals. One bitter day last February I ran up the steps between guardian lions and into the impressive marbled entrance hall-familiar to audiences of the film Ghostbusters. But I was in pursuit of something rarer and more marvellous than any ectoplasm.

Let There Be Light had grown mightily from its original form at the British Library. The jewel of that exhibition was of course the surviving copy of William Tyndale's 1526 New Testament-then thought to be unique. Round it was displayed information on the life and death of the man himself, linking the world-famous words and their forgotten creator in a manner to which the vigour of our Society is witness today.

In New York the exhibition had widened to encompass many other versions of the Bible and become more an investigation of the nature of translation itself. It was shown in the Library's magnificent principal gallery, which had to be very low lit to protect so many rare and delicate volumes so that a visit was rather like a journey of discovery in some mysterious cavern. Reflecting the multi-faith, multi-cultural nature of American society, there were charts comparing biblical passages in translations ranging from Tyndale and the Geneva Bible to modern Roman Catholic and Jewish versions. No prize for guessing which examples succeeded most consistently in both clarity and beauty of language.

I was immensely fortunate to be able to return to the exhibition a second time in May, after attending the London seminar of April 26th where we heard from Dr Eberhard Zwink of the discovery of the Stuttgart copy. His astonishing account of its preservation by a series of almost incredible accidents of history was fresh in my mind as I literally pressed my nose to the glass case holding both volumes, united for the first time in 471 years. The Stuttgart copy was a bibliophile's dream: since it left the printer's shop, the only change in its appearance had been the expensive leather binding of Duke Ott-Heinrich, with the erroneous gold-stamped date '1530' which had concealed its identity for four centuries. Mint-fresh, the type of its intact title page was crisp and black, the immaculate pages were unturned, unread.

Beside it the British Library's copy was a small, well-thumbed volume. seeming a lot slimmer (one could only presume from wean. No title page, of course, perhaps destroyed deliberately. Its appearance wordlessly told the tale: smuggled, clandestine, hidden, treasured, read and re-read.

Mary Clow

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