Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968) was one of the greatest collectors of the 20th century.
Bequeathed by Beatty to the Irish nation - and today in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin Castle - his collection of rare book, manuscripts and decorative arts is a resource for scholars as well as a leading cultural attraction.
Within this exhibition, 'Chester Beatty's A-Z: From Amulet to Zodiac', the alphabet provides a simple framework to showcase the breadth and quality of this remarkable collection.
Each letter of the alphabet is matched to a word that is representative of something characteristically associated with the Chester Beatty Library.
Featuring many works seldom seen in public, the selection explores the threads that link cultures across the Western, Islamic and East Asian worlds.
Perhaps the most popular deity in the Hindu pantheon is the blue-skinned Lord Krishna, the eighth avatar or incarnation of Vishnu, preserver and protector of the universe.
Scrolls like this with an impressive length of 21 metres were usually rolled up in a capsule made of metal, often attached to bands and worn on the upper arm or around the neck.
Graduating from the Columbia University School of Mines in 1898, Beatty’s mining career began in the American West.
In 1900, he married Grace Madeline ‘Ninette’ Rickard in Denver, Colorado and the couple had Ninette, their daughter, in 1901, followed by their son, Alfred Chester Jr in 1907. Tragedy struck the family early as Ninette passed away on 28 March 1911 from typhoid pneumonia.
By 1913, Beatty, the children, and his second wife, Edith, had settled in London, where Beatty began his career as a mining consultant and formed the library that he eventually bequeathed to Ireland.
Having developed a lung condition during his mining days, Beatty preferred to winter in hot climates. Together with Edith and his children, Chester travelled to Egypt for the first time early in 1914.
Beatty enjoyed it so much that he built an estate near the pyramids and spent most of his winters there until the outbreak of the Second World War.
In Islam calligraphy is the most highly regarded art form, for it is by means of writing – of calligraphy – that the exact words God spoke to the Prophet Muhammad are recorded and preserved in the form of the Qur’an.
Over the centuries, different styles of calligraphy developed, often with a precise canon of proportion established to guide the writing of the script.
The Islamic Collections include many finely calligraphed Qur’ans, but few as large as this. The main text of this monumental manuscript is copied in 'muhaqqaq', a majestic and legible script commonly used for Qur’ans.
However, the inscriptions in the panels above and below the text are written in 'kufic', a script which though very decorative is difficult to read.
Japan inherited from China a fascination with the artistic potential of inscribing characters while developing its own distinctive system for rendering poetry and prose written in the vernacular.
This colourfully illustrated version of the 10th-century 'Tales of Ise' is a fine early example of the genre known as Nara ehon (Nara picture books).
In the East Asian tradition, the written word has played a central role, as the freedom of the brush was thought truly to reveal one’s personality.
Through the copying of revered models and through creative innovation, a distinctive handwriting style conveyed one’s literary education, cultural refinement and aesthetic flair.
In Islam, Iskandar (Alexander the Great) is revered as both a great king and a prophet.
When, during his travels to the ends of the earth, his protection is sought against the Yajuj and Majuj people (Gog and Magog), he orders a wall constructed to keep them at bay. Although not normally part of the story, the artist has depicted a group of divs assisting in this task.
In Buddhist East Asia demons are mostly known as 'ashuras', ‘anti-gods’ who reside in Hell and represent one of the six realms of existence, into which one can be reborn.
In Japanese paintings demons often have an ogre-like appearance, with bulging eyes, long hair and horns, tiger fangs and claws, and wearing only loin cloths and fur shoulder capes.
In China, embroidered symbols on clothing indicated status and endowed the individual with protective or auspicious properties.
Rank badges, popularly called mandarin squares, were worn by civil and military officials to indicate rank: various species of birds were used to denote the nine civil ranks, while animals were used for the nine military ranks.
These squares were sewn to the front and back of the dark surcoats worn by government officials at formal occasions during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), when a strict dress code was enforced.
Originally used to ‘fan’ the sparks for cooking and heating, its main purpose has been to agitate the air and keep the bearer cool during the hot summer months.
Over the course of time, the fan came to occupy a decisive role in many aspects of everyday life, as well as in court and religious circles, playing a vital role in the social intercourse and etiquette of China and especially Japan.
The invention of the folding fan in Heian period Japan (794–1185) brought about a revolution as it was much smaller than the rigid round or oval fan and could be carried in the sleeve or tucked into the boot.
Adopted for the Western market during the 18th and 19th centuries, export folding fans – particularly the brisé type, made entirely from rigid segments – represent the peak of craftsmanship in decoration, carving, inlay and lacquer work.
This skilfully crafted folding fan is an important work by the master Kunihisa, a famous ukiyo-e woodblock print maker of Yokohama in the late 19th century.
The surface is finely painted with figures in traditional costume set against a panoramic background. The sticks and guards are of ivory, the latter inlaid with so-called ‘Shibayama’ technique.
Paintings of gardens – mainly Persian and Indian – in turn represent this heavenly vision, wherein the murmur of running water, the twitter of songbirds, the call of a peacock, the luscious flavour of freshly picked fruit and raised beds of brightly-coloured and intoxicatingly-scented blossoms all serve to excite the senses.
‘As far as the eye can see’ is the phrase that immediately springs to mind when looking at this beautiful painting.
The main event may be the young woman in the foreground dancing while deftly balancing a full bottle on her head, but it is the enclosed gardens spread out behind her that catch the eye, drawing it farther and farther into the distance.
One of the treasures of Beatty’s collection is the Coëtivy Hours. Originally commissioned by Prigent de Coëtivy on the occasion of his marriage to Marie de Raiz in Paris in 1444, it was later acquired by Edith Beatty as a gift for her husband.
Of the 148 miniatures in this manuscript, 47 were produced to illustrate the Suffrages (prayers dedicated to martyrs and other saints).
Apollonia was one of the early Christian virgin martyrs. She threw herself on a burning pyre rather than destroy her chastity.
She is often depicted having her teeth pulled, one of the tortures she endured before dying. Typical of medieval illumination, the figures are painted in contemporary, rather than historical, fashions and settings.
‘Illumination’ refers to light and it is from the use of gold to represent light – usually Divine light – that the technique of decorating works of art (generally works on paper or parchment) receives its name.
Islamic manuscripts in particular are renowned for their copious use of gold, most often in conjunction with a deep blue pigment made from ground lapis lazuli.
This folio was once paired with a matching folio and placed at the beginning of one section (or 'juz') of a monumental 30-part Qur’an, the folios of which are now dispersed around the world.
The first and last openings of text in each section were surrounded by illumination and, also, each chapter began with an elaborate illuminated heading.
This pomegranate-shaped bottle, which is itself surrounded by branches of another pomegranate, reiterates the wish for numerous progeny.
The outstanding quality of the carving and the masterful degree of hollowing not only suggests an imperial workshop but makes this piece a real gem of the collection.
Awrangzib (r. 1658–1707) is depicted as one would expect a king to be portrayed: formally and solemnly seated upon a throne of gold encrusted with precious gems, wearing robes made of richly embroidered or brocade fabrics and bedecked in strings of pearls and rubies.
A jewelled parasol – a symbol of royalty – helps shield him from the sun, while a magnificent golden halo confirms his status as divinely sanctioned monarch.
In traditional Japan, covered boxes embellished with lacquer decoration were the most common containers for both treasured objects and those in everyday use, varying in size and shape and often intended for a specific purpose.
Like the tea ceremony and flower arrangement, the enjoyment of incense had developed into a complex pastime by the Edo period (1615–1868).
Beatty began as a ‘mucker’, digging and shovelling rock and dirt, but soon worked his way up to foreman and superintendent.
Good friends since university, Beatty and Harold A. Titcomb (on the right) worked well together on mining projects early on in their careers – Beatty the authority on mining matters and ‘H.A.T.’ his trusted assistant whose experience in the wilderness kept them out of harm’s way.
The famous mining engineer John Hays Hammond sent Beatty to examine the Dolores gold mine in the Mexican Sierra Madre. Beatty’s mining acumen solidified Hammond’s trust in him.
When the Guggenheim Exploration Company sought his services, Hammond insisted his talented protégé accompany him as his assistant chief engineer.
Beatty did much of the field work until he went into business for himself and made his fortune.
Patronised by the samurai warrior class, Noh became a court entertainment, in which the actors wear masks and elaborate costumes in a blending of chant, music and dance.
Performances take place in a minimalist setting, accompanied by musicians playing flute and drum and a chorus of singers. The fan is the most important prop to indicate objects, actions or emotions.
This 'surimono' (a privately-published woodblock print) depicts a scene from a Noh play.
It shows a travelling priest praying at Suma Bay for the souls of Matsukaze and Murasame, two sisters who were loved by the exiled courtier Yukihira.
The ghost of Matsukaze appears to the priest, bemoans her bygone love and dances in Yukihira’s robes which he left with the sisters before returning to Kyoto.
Centred in Baghdad, this intellectual movement started in the 8th century with the translation, mostly from Greek, of scientific texts by such thinkers as Galen, Plato, Aristotle and Euclid, all of whom had theories on optics.
Arabic-speaking scientists studied these translations, critiqued the content and developed the ideas further through their own reflection and experience.
Ali ibn Isa al-Kahhal was a practising eye specialist living in late 10th-century Baghdad, where he wrote this influential textbook.
It explores the means by which eyes can see, and catalogues diseases of the eye and their treatment. On these pages he discusses seeing at a distance and up close.
His work was translated into many languages and published in Latin in 1497.
Papyrus sheets, or rolls, were produced in varying quality; the best were called hieratica (sacred) in Egypt or regia (royal) in Rome.
It was manufactured by laying thin strips of papyrus stalk in two perpendicular layers. These sheets were pressed together, allowing the plant’s natural juices to act as an adhesive, and dried in the sun.
The Library’s collection of papyri includes both documentary and religious texts primarily dating to between the 1st and 6th centuries AD, although some of the Egyptian papyri date to as early as 1800 BC.
The Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri is one of the most important collections of early Christian texts so far discovered.
It includes manuscripts from as early as the 2nd century and highlights the Christian preference for the codex over the scroll.
A decorative flourish marks the end of ‘The Epistle of Enoch’ and the beginning of the Passion homily of ‘Melito’, Bishop of Sardis (d.c. 180).
This simple embellishment represents some of the earliest ornamentation of Christian codices.
Similar decorative devices are found in the Codex Sinaiticus. (Beatty contributed toward the acquisition of the Sinaiticus manuscript for the British Museum.)
These prints were produced on the occasion of the coronation of George III (1738–1820) and his queen consort, Sophia Charlotte (1744–1818), on 22 September 1761.
Produced to take advantage of the popularity of the new queen, such prints were originally sold as facing pairs together with a portrait of the king.
Mezzotint engravers working in London at the time were dominated by a group of Irish artists.
Of this ‘Dublin Group’, as they came to be called, James McArdell was the leading figure of his generation. A keen businessman, McArdell published many of his own plates (such as this one), although this did little to stop pirated copies from being sold by unscrupulous print-sellers.
Unlike most of his fellow mezzotint engravers, who made affordable print copies of paintings by renowned artists, Thomas Frye produced a number of original prints.
He designed three versions of Queen Charlotte in 1762 and this particular composition inspired numerous copies by other mezzotint engravers
‘Celebrity’ prints were particularly popular in the 18th century.
This was due in part to the fact that mezzotint engravings allowed for more subtle gradations in light and shade than other printing techniques. Consequently, artists were able to produce more painterly qualities, like naturalistic lighting effects and realistic textures.
This anonymous cartoonist has satirised the attempted escape of the royal couple through Montmédy when Queen Marie-Antoinette travelled under the name Madame de Korff (de Caoffre) with the King as her valet de chambre.
Louis XVI acts as the Queen’s coiffeur; her hair was often the subject of ridicule because it was linked to the extravagant sums she spent on fashion.
Again, the King and Queen’s attempted escape to Montmédy is the ‘target’ of this print. Louis is depicted as a child riding a hobby horse, with Marie-Antoinette as the ‘power behind the throne’.
Its tail is made of ostrich (autruche/Autriche) feathers. The stag’s head (an attribute of the cuckold), alludes to the Queen’s alleged affairs.
The Revolutionary Tribunal was established in 1793, to try those accused of counter-revolutionary activities: thousands of those tried were sent to the guillotine.
The Library holds the published issues of the Tribunal’s bulletin recounting the two-day trial, sentencing and execution of ‘la veuve Capet’, Queen Marie-Antoinette, which took place in October 1793.
In almost any copy of the Shahnama the scenes of the Simurgh are amongst the most beguiling.
With its wonderfully coiffed head feathers and flowing tail feathers, and, especially, in its role as the protector of Zal and his son Rustam, the greatest hero of the Shahnama, what artist could resist depicting the Simurgh?
By the 16th century demand for travel narratives had significantly increased. The genre is very broad, and in an era of imperial expansion included the travelogues of explorers, diplomats, missionaries and early settlers.
As one might expect from a collector who enjoyed travelling throughout his life, Chester Beatty’s Collection includes a number of rare 16th-century travel accounts.
This full-page woodcut introduces Francisco Alvares’ rare account of a Portuguese diplomatic mission of 1515 to the court of Ethiopian Emperor Lebna Dengel.
Dengel was believed by many Europeans to be the legendary Christian king, Prester John. Alvares remained at the imperial court for six years, and produced the first detailed account of travel in Ethiopia.
Pictures of beautiful women ('bijin-ga'), usually the most popular and trendsetting courtesans, were one of the prevalent image genres.
This polychrome work by the Edo print designer, book illustrator and painter Chobunsai Eishi, possibly part of a triptych, depicts a group of women in a large manor house in the countryside.
The celebrated master Hiroshige, one of the leading designers of landscape prints, was particularly skilled at conveying the season, weather and time of day.
In this print a white cat, outlined in the kimedashi embossing technique, watches a procession from the windowsill of a tea house and represents the courtesan who has just finished her work.
The 'ukiyo-e' woodblock print is the best known of Japan’s traditional art forms. It was their discovery and subsequent popularity that kindled the wild enthusiasm for Japonisme in late 19th-century Europe, and inspired the Impressionists.
The Library’s collection of 450 ukiyo-e prints spans the 250-year history of the genre, containing superb single-sheet prints and illustrated books by most of the major artists.
The skin is prepared by soaking it in a lime bath, scraping it to remove the flesh, hair, and fat, and stretching it on a wooden frame. Text is written on the surface with ink, and folios are often ornamented with pigments and gold.
Vellum has also been used for many centuries as a bookbinding material. It is often used in ‘limp’ bindings (without strengthening boards) and may be inked, stained, painted, or tooled for additional decorative effect. There are numerous examples in the collection of vellum both as a writing surface and a binding material.
In Eastern Orthodox icons, John’s role as the forerunner to Christ or the last Old Testament holy prophet before Christ, is emphasised.
He carries a chalice holding the ‘sacrificial lamb’, depicted in the East not as a lamb (as in Western iconography) but as the baby Jesus.
In addition, his scroll reads: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’. The Forerunner is one of the most highly venerated saints in the Orthodox Church, second only to Mary, the mother of God.
Coinciding with a period of heightened hostility towards Catholics in England, Scotland and Ireland, suspicions of popery and tyranny were used as political weapons.
In the midst of this hysteria, Titus Oates, together with Israel Tong and others, conspired to manufacture a popish plot to assassinate Charles II.
Although the machination was later uncovered and the schemers imprisoned, the fictional plot led to the execution of at least fifteen Catholic ‘conspirators’.
The Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–-95), keen on maintaining the Manchu nomadic tradition, is known to have used yurts as temporary dwellings during his autumn hunts in Muran (Mulan in Chinese), north of his summer residence in Hebei province - and for festive occasions such as opulent banquets in the Zhongnanhai area west of the imperial palace in Beijing.
This is the last of sixteen engravings commissioned by the Qianlong emperor to celebrate his military consolidation of East Turkestan (today Xinjiang).
The imperial procession is making its way towards a large ceremonial yurt, complete with a temporary throne, which is the focus of the heavily populated banquet scene.
Written by the Persian astronomer, Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi in about 960, this astronomical treatise is based ultimately on an ancient Greek source, Ptolemy’s Almagest.
It includes numerous drawings of the signs of the zodiac and other constellations with the star points indicated in gold. Many figures appear as mirror-image pairs
This manuscript is the only surviving copy of the treatise or ‘report’ (taqrir) on the constellations written by the 16th-century scholar al-Dashtaki.
As stated in the manuscript, al-Dashtaki dedicated his work to the then Safavid ruler of Iran, Isma‘il II (r. 1576–77), and this may in fact be the copy originally presented to the ruler.