500 Years of Treasures from Oxford

Feb 04 – Apr 30, 2017

Founded 500 years ago in 1517, Corpus Christi College, one of the oldest of the 38 self-governing colleges at the modern University of Oxford, is a repository of extraordinary treasures, few of which have ever been seen by the public. To mark its 500th anniversary, a selection of fifty manuscripts and early printed books from its celebrated Library, ranging in date from the 10th to the 17th centuries, is being brought to America for the first time.

Focusing on the first hundred years of the College’s existence, the exhibition introduces its Founder, Richard Fox, powerful Bishop of Winchester and adviser to Henry VII and Henry VIII, and its first President, John Claymond, who laid the foundations of the Library’s great collection. From the start, Corpus—the first Renaissance college at Oxford—was to pursue Humanist ideals of scholarship in three languages: not just Latin, but also Greek and Hebrew, the original languages of the Bible, along with such other subjects as Astronomy, Mathematics, Medicine, and Philosophy.

A series of display-cases present books in each of these languages, including a number that are bilingual and even trilingual. Most notable among them are a group that has been called "the most important collection of Anglo-Jewish manuscripts in the world"; these works of the 12th and 13th centuries include a series of volumes apparently commissioned by Christians from Jews, from which to learn Hebrew and study biblical texts in their original language, as well as the commentaries of Rashi and what is thought to be the oldest surviving Ashkenazi prayer book.

Highlighting Corpus’ role in the development of science and medicine at Oxford, the exhibition finishes with a series of ground-breaking works, from Galileo’s first observation of the moon using a telescope and Sir Isaac Newton’s autograph observations of Halley’s comet to Hooke’s observations of insects using a microscope and Vesalius’ studies of the human body.

Read Curator's Insights

Guest Curator, Corpus Christi College, Oxford

Corpus Christi College 500th Anniversary logo

Caroline Duroselle-Melish
Curatorial Advisor, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Early Modern Books and Prints, Folger Shakespeare Library

Saint Jerome is depicted with three open books displaying the first words of Genesis in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, because he used the original languages, Hebrew and Greek, when making his new Latin version of the Bible.

Despite the serious subject-matter of the text, the penwork decoration of this manuscript includes such details as a dog listening to a man playing a hurdy-gurdy, and human-headed hybrid creatures.

Probably no works of ancient literature have been as enduringly popular as Homer’s Iliad, and its sequel, the Odyssey. This copy has especially unusual decoration.

This is the start of Psalms in Hebrew and in St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Hebrew, laid out to allow plenty of space for extensive Latin notes in the margins and between the columns.

Composed at about the same period as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Piers Plowman is considered its literary equal, and one of the greatest works of medieval English literature. This is the only manuscript that has a depiction of Will, the poem's narrator. 

This sumptuous early 16th-century biblical manuscript in French was bequeathed to Corpus Christi College by James Oglethorpe (d. 1785), founder of the American colony of Georgia. 

Meet the Curator

Guest Curator, Corpus Christi College, Oxford

Peter Kidd has worked with medieval manuscripts for most of the past thirty years, first as a research student, and then in a variety of curatorial roles at the Getty Museum in California (where he put on his first exhibition of illuminated manuscripts), the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and the British Library, London. He has published approximately 60 articles, book-reviews, and catalogues about Western European illuminated manuscripts of the 11th to the 16th centuries; his most recent book, just published, is a catalogue of the medieval and Renaissance manuscripts of The Queen’s College, Oxford. He lives in London and works freelance as a researcher and consultant for a variety of commercial and non-profit organizations.

About Corpus Christi College, Oxford

Corpus Christi College at the University of Oxford delivers world-class undergraduate and graduate education to students of exceptional potential, regardless of financial background, through rigorous academic selection, individual and small group tutorial education, and personal support. It provides an academically diverse environment in which students may mature towards independence in study and research. The College also aims to promote research and instruction of the highest quality by its Fellows, all of them distinguished teachers and researchers in their fields, and study by its students, for the benefit of wider understanding. Its honey-colored, limestone buildings are among the most beautiful in Oxford, and its remarkable 16th-century Library is one of the jewels of the city yet closed to the general public, making the rare glimpse afforded by this exhibition all the more extraordinary.