The word that quickly springs to mind as you survey the new A to Z exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin is colour. One page from a 16th-century Shahnama, Iran's Book of Kings, is particularly striking. A phoenix-like creature called the Simurgh carries an abandoned child to its mountaintop nest, scarlet feathers soaring across lavender rock, and all still vibrantly vivid.
“One notable thing about our collection is the quality,” says Dr Elaine Wright, the curator of the Library’s extensive Islamic Collection. “They’ve just been taken care of so well. Especially some of the manuscripts, the illustrations, it’s unbelievable. You’d swear they were done yesterday.”
Chester Beatty’s A to Z features the pick of this relatively unsung collection, which boasts some of the world’s most remarkably preserved Qurans, manuscripts and more varied artefacts. How it came to reside in Dublin is also quite remarkable.
Beatty was an American mining engineer and collector who moved to London in 1912, and made a significant effect. During the Second World War he offered up his house as a military hospital, and “was sort of an unofficial adviser to Churchill”, Wright explains. However, when Churchill was ousted as prime minister in 1945, Beatty became unsettled, particularly when new financial laws hampered his artefact-hunting.
He resolved to continue curating abroad, and Ireland – newly independent and desperate for investment in 1950 – “was really eager to encourage him”, says Wright. London’s V&A Museum, clearly alarmed at the potential cultural loss, compiled a dossier to compel the government to act, “but before that was completed he snuck the collection out of the country”.
How did he manage such a logistical feat?
“I don’t know,” Wright laughs. “He moved his staff and everything.”
Based in the suburbs until 2000 and largely ignored by the public, the library now occupies a prime spot in the famous Dublin Castle complex, where I meet Dr Wright. She featured in The National last year, having launched an ambitious online database of stamps that distinguish Islamic manuscripts, and this A to Z event reveals further hidden treasures.
The Islamic Collection itself contains over 6,000 items, so only “one to two per cent are displayed at any one time”, she admits. Numerous exhibits have never been shown before, such as a magnificent 14th-century Egyptian Quran, too large for the Islamic Collection’s regular space. Written in several elaborate scripts, it comes under C for Calligraphy, one of Beatty’s major passions.
Wright talks me through her varied selections, chosen to showcase “the depth and breadth of the collection”. I is for Illumination, the decoration of sacred texts, is represented by two glorious frontispieces from an epic, 30-part Quran, dated 1308. O gives us Optics, and several 13th-century medical textbooks demonstrating Arabic scientists’ fascination with our vision. And Z is Zodiac, notably a gold-peppered drawing of Aries, from 14th-century Iran.
“In the ancient world, astrology and astronomy, there wasn’t really a big difference between them,” she explains.
Particularly compelling are those paintings, however. D features domesticated demons building a wall for Alexander the Great, another work from 14th-century Iran. “Look closely,” Wright suggests, almost conspiratorially. “The demons always have flaming eyebrows.” And K includes two revealing portraits of Indian kings from the 15th and 16th centuries.
The ostentatious robes, jewels and throne of Emperor Aurangzeb are in curious contrast to his great-grandfather, Akbar, who “was much more powerful, he more or less established the Mughul dynasty, and yet he’s depicted far more simply”, says Wright.
Chester Beatty was royally revered in Dublin by the time of his death in 1968. Indeed, he became the first private citizen to receive an Irish state funeral, having bequeathed his Library to the city. A legacy, indeed.
• Chester Beatty’s A to Z runs at Chester Beatty’s Library, Dublin, until February 1, 2015