Curator's Insights: 500 Years of Treasures from Oxford

Peter Kidd: A "New Intellectual Current"

When Bishop Richard Fox founded Oxford's Corpus Christi College, he wanted the college to be "part of the new intellectual current spreading across Europe," says Peter Kidd, curator of 500 Years of Treasures from Oxford.
 
Fox had encountered the "new learning," with its focus on original texts, because he was both "a bishop and a statesman," says Kidd. "He undertook missions abroad for Henry VII and was part of the court of Henry VIII." Fox planned Corpus Christi as a Renaissance college, emphasizing classical works in Latin and Greek, but also Hebrew.
 

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500 Years of Treasures from Oxford

The Lapworth Missal. Misal, Use of Sarum. England, dated 1398. Corpus Christi College, Oxford. 

To mark Corpus Christi's 500th anniversary, Kidd selected exceptional works from the college library, with a focus on its early years. "About 80 to 90 percent of the exhibition" is from the library's first century, he says, acquired between its founding in 1517 and 1611, "when the King James Bible was completed."
 
The college's role in the creation of the King James Bible is a key part of its history, which is represented in Treasures from Oxford by handwritten notes. John Rainolds, the president of Corpus Christi, first proposed the Bible and led one of the six committees that produced it. 
 
The library acquired many of its initial works from Bishop Fox and others from John Claymond, the first Corpus Christi president.
 
Among Claymond's contributions is a printed 1497 book of the letters of St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin. In it, an image designed by Albrecht Dürer depicts the fourth-century saint removing a thorn from a lion's paw; at his desk, books are open to Greek, Hebrew, and Latin.
Claymond also gave Corpus Christi a group of Hebrew manuscripts, which has been called the world's "most important Anglo-Jewish collection." The works were written before 1290, when Jews were expelled from England. If Kidd were asked to choose his favorite item in the exhibition, he says, "I'd pick one of the Hebrew manuscripts. They are probably culturally the most significant, and they are a unique survival."

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William Langland, Piers Plowman. England, late 14th century. Corpus Christi College, Oxford. 

Treasures from Oxford displays manuscripts in Middle English, too, including Piers Plowman and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Bequeathed to the college in the 1600s, the works were an unusual addition.

"English literature was not a serious subject for scholarly study at the time," says Kidd. Today, of course, the same English manuscripts are a significant holding.

A final section, which suggests the range of the Corpus Christi collection, includes works of early science, among them a letter by Isaac Newton and a printed book by Galileo. 

The highlights of the exhibition, however, will be "different for each person," says Kidd. His advice is to "walk along the gallery until something catches your eye, and go from there."

The Lapworth Missal, with its 14th-century illustration of the crucifixion, "is the most artistically significant item—and the gold is spectacular."

To other visitors, he says, the "complexity of the page layouts" that compare Hebrew and Latin may appeal instead—reflecting the multiple languages to which Fox devoted the college and its library.

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Galileo Galilei, Sidereus Nuncius. Venice, 1610. Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Galileo Galilei, Sidereus Nuncius. Venice, 1610. Corpus Christi College, Oxford.