The New British Library

Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, Gutenberg and more...

In his article in the June magazine about St Barnabas, Jim McLean mentioned the Codex Sinaiticus, "now in the British Museum". So it was - until a month or two ago! It is now on display in the new British Library building next to St Pancras Station, which opened its splendid exhibition galleries in April.

I can recommend a visit to the new British Library even if you don’t need to use it for research. It is one of the great buildings of this century - and it is very conveniently placed for anyone travelling to or from Nottingham by train! It was widely criticised while it was being constructed - on grounds of design, cost and incompetent execution - but in fact it has succeeded in what it sets out to do. Its wide terraced piazza creates a new open space on Euston Road, and the impact of the vast entrance hall, open to the public seven days a week, has to be experienced to be appreciated. The sense of space and the quality of the craftsmanship are overwhelming.

Off the entrance hall are three fascinating exhibition galleries. One has changing displays on different subjects, another is a hands-on "Workshop of Words, Sounds and Images", and the third contains a permanent exhibition gallery of "Treasures of the British Library". This is where you can see several of the Library’s unique manuscripts of the Bible, and other important religious works.

Among these is the Codex Sinaiticus, one of the oldest Greek manuscripts of the Bible, written in the middle of the 4th century AD, and discovered by Konstantin Tischendorf in St Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai in 1844. Through him it reached the collection of the Tsar of Russia, and in 1933 it was bought by the British Museum from the Soviet government for 100,000. The handwriting is not easy to read at first glance, but it is certainly still decipherable, and it is a moving experience to look at the words of the Gospels written only 300 years after Our Lord’s time. Next to it is the Codex Alexandrinus, written about a hundred years later and the basis for much biblical study in England in the 17th century.

Other manuscripts on display include the Lindisfarne Gospels, written on Holy Island in about 700 and one of the most wonderful examples of Celtic illumination in Britain. Nearby is the first printed bible, printed by Gutenberg in Mainz in about 1455 - there are early manuscripts of the Bible in English, leading up to the printed editions and culminating in the first edition of the Authorised Version. There are also various versions of the Book of Common Prayer, and much, much more.

This exhibition, in the John Ritblat Gallery, is expertly designed and interpreted. It is a far cry from the crowded display cases in the British Museum, though many of the exhibits are the same - and altogether makes for a rewarding experience. But be warned - take your time if you are planning a visit - there is so much to see (and read, and listen to, and touch) that time will run away with you. There is however also a good coffee bar and restaurant in the Library, with a good view of the glass tower (six storeys and seventeen metres high) containing the King’s Library, to remind you that you really are in a library, not just an exhibition gallery. I think it’s a great place!

Peter Hoare
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 30th June 1998