Chester Beatty's A-Z

Chester Beatty Library

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.

A is for Amulet
An amulet is a small object usually worn on the body to protect the wearer from various evils, dangers and afflictions. Amulets are created from a broad range of materials, such as animal skin, bone, minerals, metal and paper. The belief in supernatural forces and in the use of a symbol, text or form to exert some influence over them is common to all societies.

This amulet includes an explanation of the apocryphal 'Letter of Abgar', written from Jesus to Abgar V of Edessa (4 BC–AD 50).

Legend has it that the letter cured the king of his illness, helped him resist the Persian invasion and aided in the conversion of his kingdom to Christianity.

Many Islamic amulets are inscribed with magic squares; less common are the rows of ‘magic’ numerals that fill the central space of this amulet.

The precise function or meaning of these is uncertain, as is the identity of the individual – one Shah Sultan – whose name is inscribed in gold in the centre of the amulet.

This scroll contains magical prayers to protect against evil. Although it contains a passage from the Gospel of John, it was made for a Muslim woman named Gamila.

The exchange of magical practices between Muslims and Christians was common in Ethiopia.

The figure is probably the Archangel Phanuel, who is invoked in the text.

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.

The tenth book of the Bhagavata Purana relates stories of Krishna’s childhood and youth.

B is for Beatty
Mining magnate, philanthropist and one of the most successful businessmen of his generation, Alfred Chester Beatty was born in 1875, in New York City.  His paternal ancestry can be traced back to the counties of Armagh and Laois in Ireland.

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.

There are many letters in the Archives in which Beatty describes his trips to Le Mont Dore for 'the cure'. The clear, mountain air at this resort in central France was ideal for his respiratory ailments.

In 1913 he married Edith Dunn Stone (pictured here), also from New York, who shared Beatty’s appreciation of art and collecting.

The family set sail for a lengthy holiday in China and Japan in 1917, during which time Beatty built up a sizeable East Asian collection.

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.

C is for Calligraphy
The word ‘calligraphy’ means penmanship or handwriting, although it is usually used to refer specifically to beautiful handwriting. The manuscripts that Chester Beatty collected from around the world include examples of calligraphy from many countries, cultures and faiths.

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.

D is for Demon
In Islamic tradition, a demon is known as a 'div', a non-human creature that lives within, but normally in opposition to, the world of men.

Divs are frequently depicted in paintings, usually as horrific, scantily-clad and variously-coloured beasts with jagged horns, sharp claws and fangs, long tails and flaming eyebrows.

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.

The legend of the famous war lord, Minamoto no Yoshitsune (c. 1159–89), tells the story of how the hero and his followers conquered the underworld.

In this scene, Yoshitsune’s loyal companion, Benkei, splits open the head of one of the demons, while Yoshitsune, holding a fan, looks on.

E is for Embroidery
The ancient craft of embroidery has been practised in many cultures to sumptuously decorate textiles, mostly costumes, accessories and furnishings.

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.

Military officials wore square badges which displayed animals symbolising courage and ferocity.

In addition, most of these badges included a variety of auspicious symbols, such as a flaming jewel, a bat or lingzhi fungus, which were thought to bring wealth and good fortune.

Embroidered bindings of velvet, satin, silk or canvas, embellished with designs worked in metallic and silk thread, were fashionable among wealthy patrons throughout Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Usually the work of professional embroiderers, they often covered devotional works and almanacs. The decorated fabric was glued or stitched to the boards of a bound volume.

This is possibly an Italian 18th-century binding of white silk Damask, with a large flower embroidered in coloured silk and metallic thread on both covers, and another embroidered flower on the spine. The binding has been removed from its original text block, and re-used on this modern edition.

F is for Fan
The fan has been an important accessory in East Asia for thousands of years.

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.

G is for Garden
The Persian word 'firdaws' means both ‘garden’ and ‘paradise’, and gardens in Islamic lands are ultimately modelled on descriptions of paradise as given in the Qur’an.

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.

Within this enticing environment, brightly tiled pavilions and cool marble terraces provide relief from the heat and serve as a stage for a variety of events, from moments of solitude and quiet to more boisterous displays of music and dance.

‘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.

H is for Hours
Books of Hours were the best-sellers of late medieval Europe. Some of the finest illuminators were employed in the production of the miniature paintings, illuminated borders and marginalia that ornament the pages of these manuscripts.They were produced for private devotion and contained a series of short services, the Hours of the Virgin, designed to be read at different times of the day. Most also included a calendar of feast days, psalms, scriptural readings, hymns and prayers to the Virgin, saints and martyrs.

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).

According to the Golden Legend, while Mark was performing Easter service in Alexandria, a crowd of pagans gathered, threw a cord around his neck and dragged him through the city.

The first Christian martyr, Stephen, is generally depicted as a young, beardless man with a tonsure and deacon’s vestments.

He was accused of blasphemy by the Jewish authorities and subsequently stoned to death.

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.

I is for Illumination
Chester Beatty was noted for his refined and discerning taste, and he took care to purchase only the best material available. Beautifully illuminated manuscripts, albums and scrolls make up much of his collection, which has altered little since his death in 1968.

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.

Within the realm of Islamic art, the term ‘illumination’ refers only to non-figurative decoration, and the most characteristic motif of Islamic illumination is the arabesque, a scrolling and interlaced vine from which spring palmette leaves and/or blossoms.

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.

Some of the surviving folios are signed by either the calligrapher or the illuminator.

Several are also dated, and from this we know that on average it took three months to illuminate one volume, about twice as long as it took to copy out the text.

J is for Jade
Jade is considered to be the most powerful and mystical material used in Asian art, comparable to gold, silver and diamonds in the West. Admired for its sheen, beauty, smooth surface, strength and durability, jade has long been associated with imperial authority, heaven and immortality, particularly in China.

The stone of emperors and kings, jade has embellished their palaces, adorned their bodies and even accompanied them to their graves to join them in the afterlife because of its alleged magical and healing properties.

The Chinese character for jade (yu) traditionally referred to a number of hard stones. Today we distinguish between ‘soft jade’ (nephrite) and ‘hard jade’ (jadeite).

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.

The fish is an extremely popular subject in Chinese art.

While the dragon-headed carp rising from waves is a metaphor for a poor scholar who, by passing the civil services exams, raises himself to the status of high official, the goldfish symbolises ‘gold and jade’, that is, wealth and abundance.

Chester Beatty was fascinated by minerals since childhood; no wonder that his collection embraces more than 950 snuff bottles, all from the Qing period (1644-1911), many of them made of jade.

K is for King
The Islamic Collections, especially, abound with material made for, and depicting, kings (sultans, shahs and padshahs), princes and other members of royalty.

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.

The Mughal rulers of India were avid patrons of painting, in particular portraiture.

Even in officially commissioned paintings, Akbar (r. 1556–1605) was at times depicted rather humbly, as he is here, simply dressed and minus the accoutrements and paraphernalia of royalty included in the painting of his great-grandson Awrangzib.

L is for Lacquer
Lacquer is a unique Asian artistic material, a hard glossy surface covering that is applied to an object to make it more beautiful and to render it resistant to heat, water, insects and acid. This tough, impervious substance derives primarily from the translucent sap of the Rhus verniciflua tree and has been used as a protective coating since prehistoric times.

In Japan, the time-consuming and expensive art of lacquer making has maintained an unparalleled level of technical virtuosity.

The Library holds a group of lacquer incense storage boxes ('kobako') in various shapes.

Lacquer is usually coloured by the addition of vegetable and mineral dyes, preferably black and red.

Gold or silver lacquer is obtained by sprinkling metallic powder onto a lacquer surface to create different colours and textures ('maki-e').

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).

M is for Mining
Beatty started his mining career in the western regions of the United States and in Mexico before he made the fortune that allowed him to pursue his passion for collecting.  These photographs, held in the Library’s Archives, allow a glimpse into Beatty’s early mining career.

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.

N is for Noh
Noh is not only the earliest fully developed theatrical genre in Japan, but the oldest living dramatic form in the world. Its origin dates back to the 14th century and many plays from that period are still performed today.

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.

The first scene of the noh play Okina (The Old Man) is shown here.

The artist captures the layout of a Noh theatre with the lead actor, wearing an elaborate robe and mask and holding a fan to accentuate gestures, performing with musicians and singers in front of a seated audience.

Noh plays are divided into several groups based on the identity of the protagonist: heavenly being, young woman, warrior, old-age, spirit, animal and demon.

Masks, dating back to the 7th century, are probably the most ancient objects serving as models for netsuke and are recognised as highly treasured masterworks.

Only a few netsuke masks are painted or coloured in imitation of stage masks.

Hannya, the horned witch, is the most popular of all Noh masks.

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.

O is for Optics
The study of optics, including the nature of vision and diseases of the eye, was of great interest to scientists in the medieval Islamic world. The Library’s collection of more than 2,600 Arabic manuscripts includes many copies of medical and other scientific texts, and thereby serves as an important repository of medieval Islamic scientific knowledge.

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.

In addition to benefitting their own society, the works they composed were, from the 11th century, translated from Arabic into Latin and circulated for several centuries in Europe, where they influenced and stimulated awakening scientific endeavours.

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.

Abu’l-Qasim al-Zahrawi (known in the West as Albucasis) was a surgeon in 11th-century Andalucia (present-day Spain).

He composed this treatise, which illustrates over 200 surgical tools he had devised, and explains how to use them.

Shown here are tools, including scissors and scalpel, used for treating problems of the eyelids, such as growths and inverted eyelashes.

P is for Papyrus
Papyrus was the chief writing material in the Greco-Roman world and, grown primarily around the Nile, was one of Egypt’s main exports throughout Antiquity.

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.)

When used for the construction of codices, the delicate nature of papyrus led scribes or binders to reinforce the stitching.

This was done by adding small pieces of parchment along the fold of the outermost folios of each quire, thus preventing the papyrus from tearing when sewn together.

Q is for Queen
The Western Print Collection contains a number of royal portraits; among them are some remarkable 18th-century mezzotints by Irish artists.

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.

R is for Revolution
Throughout the French Revolution (1789–-99), publishers offered journals, pamphlets, books, almanacs, prints, songs and ephemera of the controversies, conspiracies and executions from both the revolutionary and royalist points of view. These included numerous satirical prints, of which the Library has a considerable collection.

These caricatures or political cartoons were produced relatively cheaply in hand-coloured etching or aquatint.

Although they only represent a small proportion of the propaganda produced during this period, these humorous images both reflected and influenced public opinion.

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.

S is for Simurgh
The Simurgh is a fabulous, bird-like creature of Persian mythology. In the context of Chester Beatty’s collections, it is known from the 501 illustrations depicting the stories of the 'Shahnama' that he purchased throughout the years.

The Shahnama, or Book of Kings, is the epic poem completed by Abu’l-Qasim Firdawsi in the year 1010.

Widely regarded as the national epic of Iran, it tells the story of the kings and heroes of pre-Islamic Iran.

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?

This dramatic painting depicts the moment when the baby Zal – born an albino and rejected by his father who leaves him to perish on a mountainside – is swept up by the Simurgh.

Intending to serve him up as a tasty morsel for her chicks, the Simurgh instead saves him, raising him in her nest alongside her own offspring.

According to Firdawsi, so strong is the Simurgh that she can carry off an elephant in her talons and so magnificent that when she flies through the sky the sun is put to shame.

Here, the magnificent Simurgh is about to be slain by Prince Isfandiyar, Rustam’s nemesis.

T is for Travel
In Europe, the introduction of movable type in the mid-15th century coincided with the age of discovery, and travel literature became increasingly popular.

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 is an early edition of author and cartographer Porcacchi’s celebrated description of islands, with numerous illustrations throughout by the Paduan engraver Girolamo Porro (c. 1520–1604).

The work contains an early map and four-page description of the four provinces of Ireland, and of the dress of its inhabitants.

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.

U is for Ukiyo-e
Ukiyo-e literally means ‘floating world pictures’ and is often used as a generic term for Japanese woodblock prints of the 17th to 19th centuries which depicted the ‘floating world’ of urban pleasures –  beautiful courtesans, kabuki actors and common people in the licensed brothels, theatres, restaurants and tea houses.

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.

Frequently used as posters or advertisements, they were quickly and cheaply mass-produced for the newly prosperous chonin (townsmen) class of the major cities of Edo (modern Tokyo), Osaka and Kyoto.

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.

V is for vellum
The word vellum is often used interchangeably with parchment to refer to any animal skin prepared for use in manuscripts. Vellum, however, often refers specifically to the skin of a young calf. Islamic book makers adopted paper well before their European counterparts and, because of this, the majority of the vellum in the collection was produced in Europe.

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.

W is for Wings
Depictions of winged figures typically denote deities, angels and other ethereal or mythical creatures.

John the Baptist, or John 'the Forerunner' as he is known in the Eastern Orthodox Church, is here depicted as the Angel in the Desert.

Although he was a historical figure, he is represented with wings because he is the divine messenger (or angel) announcing the coming of the Saviour.

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.

This composition is typical of the Greek tradition of icons depicting John the Forerunner. He is alone in the wilderness, wearing a robe of camel hair to signify his status as the first ascetic.

A small axe by a tree refers to his ministry (Matthew 3:10) and the instrument of his martyrdom.

X (10)
While the Hindu-Arabic numbering system became popular among European scholars in the early 13th century, Roman numerals continued to be used for centuries. The popularity of Roman numerals in everyday life is highlighted by the practice of marking playing card values with them well into the 17th century.

In the late 17th century, politico-historical playing cards became particularly popular.

This set of cards, based on drawings by Francis Barlow, depicts the Popish Plot of 1678.

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’.

Y is for Yurt
The yurt is a portable housing structure used by nomads since ancient times in the Central Asian steppe, particularly Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Circular in shape, it is usually made of a lattice wall of flexible wood and covered by thick layers of fabric or sheep’s wool felt to resist cold winds and rain.The slightly-domed top of the roof, called the 'crown', is partially open to allow air to circulate and to accommodate a long chimney.

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.

Z is for Zodiac
At certain times of the year specific groups of stars, or constellations, are visible. Twelve of these are zodiacal signs, first devised by Babylonian astronomers in the 5th century BC, as a reference system for the position of the planets throughout the year.

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

In the traditional Islamic setting, astronomy was important for religious purposes (as it is today).

Astrology, too, flourished, both within and beyond the court, despite theological objections that it is not compatible with belief in the omnipotent will and power of God.

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.

In Europe, the Renaissance brought a renewed interest in classical science, including astronomy.

The publication of lavish, hand-coloured celestial atlases flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries, incorporating the motifs of the zodiac and other constellation-figures derived from Antiquity.

Also known as the 'Atlas Coelestis', this collection of celestial maps is renowned for the beauty of its 29 hand-coloured and illuminated double plates.

The first 21 describe the astronomical theories of Ptolemy, Copernicus and Tycho Brahe and feature the signs of the zodiac as still in use today.

Chester Beatty Library
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