Sunday, November 5, 2006

“The Venerable Bede,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer exclaimed, looking down Thursday at nearly-inscrutable Latin writing behind a dimly lit case in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

It’s no wonder that such a supremely “cool,” erudite legal authority would register both surprise and recognition. There was much in a similar vein for some 180 guests to admire at the preview reception and dinner heralding the Freer-Sackler institution’s latest exhibit, “In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000.”

Bede, a venerated British Catholic scholar (circa 673-735), was famous for historical writings and biblical studies, but his book, “Commentary on Proverbs,” was up against a number of heavy hitters on display. Among them were a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other priceless items that are part of the evolution of the Bible as we know it today.

An eclectic group of social and cultural connoisseurs gathered to celebrate what is, in a sense, a double whammy since the exhibit coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art. “An exceptional gift of magnificent collections, a fine building and a generous endowment that was presented to the nation in 1906 by Charles Lang Freer,” in the words of Julian Raby, director of both the Freer and Sackler. “When the gallery opened to the public in 1923, it was the first fine arts museum in the Smithsonian.”

Freer “was no biblical scholar,” Mr. Raby noted by way of explaining how a museum devoted to mainly Asian art has undertaken an exhibit devoted to biblical scholarship. “But so important was scholarship and research to him that he supported a group of scholars to produce some of the most important 20th century studies on biblical texts of the early period.” Few if any biblical manuscripts in the Freer have been on view since 1978, he added. Some never have been seen in public before.

The 70-odd items on show come from two dozen institutions around the world, including 11 from the British Library and 11 from Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, the exhibition’s co-sponsor. In pre-dinner remarks, the Bodleian’s librarian, Reg Carr, cited the exhibit as “the most stupendous display of Bible manuscripts ever to be displayed in a single place.”

To keep matters from getting too sedate, a jazz quartet played during the reception and a dance band opened up for post-dinner dancing — a good time to show off some of the “Asian fancy” gowns worn by such committee luminaries as Ann Nitze, Marjorie Billington, Lady (Catherine) Manning and Dame Jillian Sackler, whose late husband, Dr. Arthur Sackler, was responsible for the founding gift in 1987. Other guests of note included Justice Antonin Scalia; Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson; Librarian of Congress James Billington (escorting “drop-in guest” Cardinal Jorge Maria Mejia, librarian emeritus of the Vatican); designer Mary McFadden; and the ambassadors of Britain, Jordan, Portugal, Mongolia, Cambodia and Thailand.

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