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Lisbon's Hebrew Bible: An Enlightened Acquisition

Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb
January 9, 2012

Reading Room of the National Library of Portugal, Lisbon

«By any standards, Lisbon's Hebrew Bible—now on view at the Met—is a masterpiece of medieval illumination. Its acquisition in 1804 by the National Library of Portugal may be credited to the enlightened intellectualism of the institution's first librarian, António Ribeiro dos Santos.» The library had been founded by Queen Maria I on February 29, 1796, as the "Royal Public Library of the Court," at the instigation of Fra Manuel do Cenáculo Villas-Boas, bishop of Beja and archbishop of Evora. The archbishop's own collections, those of Ribeiro dos Santos, and those of Portugal's Jesuit Colleges formed the nucleus of the collection. In that distinctly Roman Catholic context, the Library's early acquisition of an illuminated Hebrew Bible may seem, at first, a surprising addition. After all, the Jewish community of Portugal had been forcibly expelled in 1496, and the Inquisition did not officially end there until 1821.

The First Librarian

Portuguese Painter. António Ribeiro dos Santos, 1790 (?). Oil on canvas. Galeria dos Directores, Colecção de Pintura da Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, Lisbon

In every regard, the training and background of António Ribeiro dos Santos, the first librarian, seem very traditional and church oriented. Born in 1745 in Oporto, he was sent to Brazil to study under Jesuits in Rio de Janeiro. When he returned to Portugal in 1764, he studied canon law at University of Coimbra, completing his dissertation in 1771. Six years later, he was named librarian of his university. In his official portrait, preserved at the National Library, he wears the Insignia of the Royal Military order of Saint James of the Sword, founded in the Middle Ages as an order of knights for the protection of Christian pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela. Looking beyond his résumé and his official portrait, however, it becomes apparent that Ribeiro dos Santos was possessed of a more independent spirit than appearances would suggest.

The eighteenth-century Joanina Library of the University of Coimbra, Portugal

An Enlightened Thinker

We can begin to glimpse something of his patterns of thinking by considering the guidelines that he drafted for the Coimbra university library during his tenure there, especially concerning the acquisition of books to enhance its collections. Ribeiro dos Santos felt strongly that the collections should be constantly enriched, and advocated including books that historically had been forbidden by the defunct Royal Censorship Board. (At the National Library, these would eventually include a fifteenth-century Portuguese edition of a Perpetual Almanac, the work of Abraham Zacuto, a Jewish mathematician and astronomer, who had been in the employ of the Portuguese King Manuel I before the Expulsion.)

As director of the university library, Ribeiro dos Santos argued in favor of opening the collections to the public, so that people could be informed about arts and sciences in other nations. Ribeiro dos Santos is also recognized today for his opposition to slavery and for wrestling with issues such as capital punishment. When accused of espousing populist and republican doctrines, Ribeiro dos Santos defended his notion of tolerance to the Court as rooted in the faith of the Catholic Church.

Ribeiro dos Santos's publications attest to his deep interest in the contributions of different historic cultures—including Greek, Visigothic, Arabic, and Celtic—to the Portuguese language. Moreover, he published a multivolume series of memories about the sacred literature of the Portuguese Jews, from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century. He also studied historical, anti-Jewish writings by ecclesiastics, including his Portuguese predecessors, and the "Civil and Religious Status of Portuguese Jews and their Emigration to Different Parts of the World" in two volumes. Indeed, some consider Ribeiro dos Santos the first Portuguese intellectual since the Expulsion to have had a positive view of Judaism.

"The Oldest and Most Rare Hebrew Manuscript"

Against this background, António Ribeiro dos Santos was, it seems to us, in a position to be particularly receptive to a missive sent in 1804 from the Portuguese ambassador Francisco Maria de Brito, advocating the acquisition of "the oldest and most rare Hebrew manuscript," then being offered for sale at the Hague. Ribeiro dos Santos, in turn, obtained royal patronage to support the purchase of the manuscript.

Detail of folio 304r, with Jonah and the Whale, from the Cervera Bible, illuminated by Joseph the Frenchman, Spain, 1299–1300. Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment. Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, Lisbon (BNP, IL.72)

As the images seen at the Metropolitan Museum this winter and the details illustrated here attest, the ambassador's enthusiasm was more than warranted. At the same time, both the ambassador's and the librarian's enthusiasm for the book may also be a reflection of a new era, for around 1800 Portugal decided to invite Jews back into the country as part of an effort to bolster the country's economy. But against the backdrop of the library's other early acquisitions, it seems more simply a reflection of a "catholic" (in the literal sense, meaning "universal") interest in learning. In that regard, it is worth noting that in 1805, the year after the purchase of the illuminated Hebrew Bible, Ribeiro dos Santos arranged for the National Library to purchase a Gutenberg Bible.

The images of the Cervera Bible, a recognized National Treasure of Portugal, are now available online, a development that Ribeiro dos Santos would surely have approved.

Detail of folio 147r (left) and folio 318v (right)

Further Reading

Domingos, Manuela D. Subsídios para a história da Biblioteca Nacional, Lisbon, 1995

Do Terreiro do Paço ao Campo Grande: 200 anos da Biblioteca Nacional, (exh. cat.), Lisbon, 1997

Libório, Fátima. Guia da Biblioteca Nacional, Lisbon, 1996

Pereira, José Esteves. O pensamento politico em Portugal no século XVIII: António Ribeiro dos Santos, Lisbon, 1983

Prato, Jeonathan. "Ribeiro dos Santos, António," Encyclopaedia Judaica, Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, eds., 2nd ed., Detroit, 2007, vol. 17, 280–281

Barbara Boehm

Barbara Drake Boehm is the Paul and Jill Ruddock Senior Curator for The Met Cloisters in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters.

Melanie Holcomb

Melanie Holcomb is a curator in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters.