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The Heart of Gold in Buddhism and Christianity: Splendor and Sacrality at the British Library

Maunggan gold plates, 5th-6th centuries, Myanmar. From blogs.bl.uk

Gold might be a lavish and sumptuous element. Items marked with its color are often tinted by avarice and desire. But gold is also intended to indicate something special: a legal document of political power or change, a proclamation made by a monarch, or a letter written by an aristocrat or person of status and wealth. A final and undeniable category of gold manuscript is that of religious documents. The majesty of gold is something truly ecumenical. All faiths can agree that gold is grand. The holy deserves only the most splendid, and few have done better than the well-resourced British Library, staffed by world-class curators and scholars, to highlight the manifold facets of gold’s political, social, cultural, and religious functions.

The British Library’s exhibition “GOLD: 50 spectacular manuscripts from around the world” opened on 20 May with a virtual tour on 19 May, and will run until 2 October. The curators were naturally informed on the nature of the religious manuscripts displayed. They were individually focused on curating manuscripts from individual traditions at diverse historical periods, but there was a wider theme of gold as a universal language that, despite its secular connotations, spoke to something higher in human aspirations. Although I had wanted to cover the rich and majestic Islamic, Hindu, and Jewish manuscripts as well, in the end I chose to limit myself to the offerings of Buddhism and Christianity.

Both the Buddha and Jesus preached nobility and even transcendence in the experience and embrace of voluntary poverty and simplicity. Yet in not only their early art, but also texts involving their figures, precious minerals, stones, and metals feature. As Dr. Eleanor Jackson, curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, noted:

While many people clearly appreciated gold-adorned books, there were also those who thought that they were inappropriate. In the later 4th century, St. Jerome criticized luxurious books written in gold for their superficiality and ostentation. It’s unclear from his account whether these were specifically Christian books, although it’s quite likely that they were. He wrote: “Let whoever will to keep the old books, either written on purple skins with gold and silver, or in uncial letters, as they commonly say, loads of writing rather than books, while they leave to me and mine to have poor little leaves and not such beautiful books as correct ones.” (Jerome, Prologue to the Book of Job).

And: “Parchments are dyed purple, gold is melted into lettering, manuscripts are decked with jewels, while Christ lies at the door naked and dying.” (Jerome, Letter 22, to Eustochium.)

I asked her whether there were any records of the earliest Christian manuscripts to deploy gold—after all, some of the exhibit’s manuscripts, like the Harley Golden Gospels or the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold, date to the early Middle Ages. She said that the Golden Canon Tables, created in Constantinople in the sixth or seventh century, were the earliest Christian items in the exhibition, noting: “These fragments would have originally come from a Gospel Book, and they are written on parchment painted with gold. The British Library also holds fragments from the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, a Greek manuscript of the Gospels from the sixth century, which is written in silver and gold inks. However, Christian texts were probably produced in gold much earlier than this, they just do not survive.”

From the beginning, there was a distinct socio-economic dimension to the creation of gold Christian manuscripts.

“It is likely that the earliest Christian manuscripts to deploy gold were owned by wealthy Romans who had converted to Christianity. Gold had been used for important books in the Roman Empire for many centuries. For example, there are records of a poem by the emperor Nero (r. 54–68 CE) written in gold, and a copy of Homer written in gold on purple parchment owned by the emperor Maximus (r. 235–38 CE),” said Dr. Jackson. She added: “The earliest account of a Christian manuscript using gold that I am aware of is a gift of poetry by Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius written in gold and silver on purple leaves, which was given to the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine (r. 306–37 CE). Although this manuscript doesn’t survive, there are other copies of Porfyrius’ poems which do. Their main theme is praise of Constantine, but some of them are explicitly Christian.”

Far away from the Roman world, across Eurasia and in the heart of Southeast Asia, a region gradually missionizing to a different faith, the earliest Buddhist gold manuscripts on display come close to the era of pro-Christian Constantine. Dr. Annabel Gallop, lead curator of Southeast Asia, said that the Maunggan gold plates, which date to the 5th–6th centuries, are the oldest Buddhist manuscripts at GOLD. They bear the Ye dhamma chant in Pali written in the Pyu script, an extinct Sino-Tibetan language. It was mainly spoken in what is today central Myanmar. “Similar Buddhist strips, inscribed in Sanskrit, have been found in some quantities in Java dating to the ninth and 10th centuries,” said Dr. Gallop

Dr. Jana Igunma, Ginsburg curator for Thai, Lao, and Cambodian, provided an overview of the relationship between Buddhism and gold since ancient times:

Buddhist kings and royals in mainland Southeast Asia relied on the belief that rebirth is a consequence of karma, and especially that rebirth at the top level of human society results from accumulated merit in previous lives. Through supporting the Buddhist sangha and partaking actively in the dissemination of the Buddha’s teachings, members of royal families—male and female alike—endeavored a continuation of their positive karma into their future lives, with the ultimate aim to be reborn in the age of the future Buddha Maitreya, and subsequently to attain nirvana.

The production of manuscripts with lavish gold decorations, or Buddhist texts written in gold ink, was actually only a small part of giving support to the sangha. “Other donations included Buddha images in the form of sculptures, murals, paintings on cloth and wood; entire temple libraries with furniture and complete sets of Tripitaka manuscripts; robes and food for monks; temple buildings, wells, ponds, and stupa monuments,” continued Dr. Igunma. She also noted that:

In stark contrast to these endeavors to improve their karmic prospects, historically, were wars led with utmost cruelty against neighboring countries, disregarding the fact that their populations were following the same Buddhist faith. Often such wars ended with the forced migration of large numbers of people to increase the economic power of the winning polity, which was the basis of grandiose offerings to the Buddhist sangha and support of large numbers of monks to ensure the preservation and dissemination of the Buddha’s words.

Yet I could not help noting with a degree of sadness that there was a severe scarcity of gold texts in Buddhist Southeast Asia until the 18th and 19th centuries. Dr. Gallop replied:

Surviving evidence is, of course, scarce, but seems to indicate that there were two main types of gold manuscripts, namely texts written on sheets or strips of gold. The first, and much earlier, group were Buddhist texts like the Maunggan plates. Whenever gold manuscripts are found, naturally the main concern is that, through the centuries, they have been melted down for the value of their precious materials. But because the Buddhist texts were generally buried either in stupas or with other relics, in some cases they have survived because they were unearthed in archaeological contexts.

The second type was letters, written at the highest echelons of state. The messages were inscribed on gold to reflect the great diplomatic value of the communication. Dr. Gallop noted:

We know from Dutch records that in the early 17th century, letters between the Buddhist court at Ayutthaya and the Islamic court of Aceh exchanged letters written on gold. And at least in the Qing dynasty, if not earlier, the annual tribute letter from Siam to the Chinese emperor was written on gold, but it appears that these were routinely melted down soon after receipt. Only one survives today, from King Taksin of 1781, held in the Palace Museum in Taipei. Probably the most sumptuous Southeast Asian gold letter surviving today is from King Alaungpaya of Burma in 1756 to King George III, which is not only written on gold but also studded with rubies. It is now held in Hanover, Germany.

There is a similar item displayed at GOLD, a slightly more modest diplomatic letter by two rulers in Bali. It was sent to the Dutch governor of Semarang on the north coast of Java, dated 1768. However, Dr. Gallop qualified, it was quite difficult to ascertain just how often gold was used for such diplomatic documents in Southeast Asia: “There are not many references in contemporary European sources of the 17th–19th centuries, which suggests that while not unknown, they were never common, and therefore, even allowing for the ever-present threat of melting down, the rare survivals may also indicate the small volume of production.”

Today, there are institutions in Southeast Asia that prioritize finding and preserving these rare and precious gold texts. “These golden manuscripts are among the most highly prized items held in various Southeast Asian museums, including in the National Museum of Indonesia,” said Dr. Gallop. “They are more likely to be held in national institutes rather than university libraries. The British Library’s Balinese gold letter was exhibited at the National Library of Indonesia in Jakarta and in the Kraton of Yogyakarta as part of the ‘Golden Letters/Surat Emas’ exhibition in 1991.”

The beginning of Christian modernity starts at a different place, specifically in the 16th century during the Reformation. During this time, Catholics and Protestants alike enjoyed gold-decorated books. “For example, the British Library holds the Taverner Prayer Book (c. 1540), a small, richly decorated prayer book partly written in gold which contains English translations of prayers by the German Protestant reformer Wolfgang Capito,” said Dr. Jackson. “Even though it’s a reformed prayer book, the use of gold is not surprising given who it was made for. It is highly likely that it was commissioned for or by Anne, Duchess of Somerset, wife of Edward Seymour. Their arms and initials feature inside. By the time that more puritanical forms of Protestantism became widespread, manuscript culture had already seriously declined in favor of printed books.”

This massive technological shift was perhaps more seismic than any theological and cultural differences that bifurcated the Catholic and Protestant worlds, profound as they were.

Finally, what of the curators’ favorite items, manuscripts to which they feel partial? “The Maunggan gold plates cannot fail to inspire awe through their exceptional age, and also the use of the now-extinct Pyu script. However, I was not prepared for the visual impact of the beautiful Tibetan thangka painting of Garuda, ethereally depicted in gold on blue ground, which left a glow long after I had passed it,” praised Dr. Gallop.

The Second Coming of Christ from the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold. From blogs.bl.uk

And Dr. Jackson had great admiration for the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold. She said: “I think this is a particularly interesting and impressive manuscript. It begins with a gold-inscribed poem that says: ‘The great Æthelwold . . . ordered to be made in this book many arches well adorned and filled with various figures decorated with manifold beautiful colors and with gold,’ so we can see that gold was central to the commission from the beginning.” She further noted:

This was St. Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester (r. 963–84), who was one of the key figures in the English Benedictine Reform movement of the late 10th century. The manuscript is very richly decorated with 28 full-page miniatures, two historiated initials, and 19 pages with decorated frames, all featuring copious gold. The sheer number of illuminations, as well as the richness of the colors and extensive use of gold make it an impressive statement of wealth and glory.

Æthelwold’s interests are very evident throughout the manuscript. It gives great prominence to St Æthelthryth, the founder of Ely Abbey, which Æthelwold had re-founded in 970, St. Swithun, the patron saint of Winchester whose cult Æthewold worked vigorously to promote, as well as saints associated with the Benedictine order. The page showing Æthelthryth of Ely is on display in the exhibition.

Whether to express power, purity, or both; from Indonesia to Germany; be it a snapshot in time of a saint’s act or the political instincts of a religious sovereign; the Buddhist and Christian manuscripts of GOLD span the entire spectrum of human aspiration, from the empire-building kind to that which is more inward-looking or transformational. The breadth and diversity of these manuscripts is almost too much to capture in words, yet it is perfectly possible to connect them all—through color, gold. Gold is expensive, lavish, and perhaps a bit overdoing it. But gold is also an indicator of devotion and investment, economic sacrifice, and the demand for skill in production. Gold expresses a labor of love, and the makers and patrons of these items, complex though their own lives may have been, truly loved their Dharma or Christ.

See more

Highlights from our Gold exhibition (British Library)
‘More Unique Than Most’: the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (British Library)

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The British Library’s Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage Lectures: Mélodie Doumy and Marie Kaladgew on the Anatomy of a Lotus Sutra Scroll
New Channels of Discovery and Discussion: The British Library’s Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage Lectures
Book Review: Esoteric Theravada: The Story of the Forgotten Meditation Tradition of Southeast Asia
An Interview with Birgit Kellner on the Role of Indian Manuscripts in the History of Tibetan Buddhism

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