Who should control the 1500-year old monastery manuscript of the Garima Gospels?


Probably like most Kat readers, this Kat enjoys visiting a museum that displays a piece of art from an earlier place and time. True, advances in reproduction and digitization enable us to come closer and closer to the real thing, but ultimately there is no substitute to encountering the object itself. However, there is a price to be paid in our modern desire to experience such “authenticity” detached from the original setting of the work. Indeed, “modern” is a relative term, as various countries have, since the 19th century, been removing (some say “plundering”) artifacts for museum display abroad. Add to that the desire of scholars to have access to the “authentic” original rather than any reproduction, and the pressures to secure the work can be substantial. Consider the story of the dispute over the Garima Gospels.

As reported (“Gospel truths”, The Economist, March 24, 2018), the issue involves illuminated Christian manuscripts of the Garima Gospels, estimated to be 1,500 years old and maintained at the Abba Garima monastery in an isolated part of northern Ethiopia. According to tradition, these manuscripts, written in the ancient South Semitic language of Ge’ez, were the work of a Byzantine prince, Abba (Father) Garima, who is said to have founded the monastery in the 5th or 6th century. They were apparently unknown until the 1940’s, when they were first disclosed to an English artist, Beatrice Playne. Subsequent efforts at restoration of the manuscripts, funded by a British heritage charity, took place a decade ago, but only a few scholars have been permitted to examine them in situ at the monastery in Ethiopia.

Against this background, the current situation regarding these manuscripts involves several competing interests. Scholars would like to enjoy greater access, but priests at the monastery are wary. As one said, euphemistically “…we find them doing other things”. But the article points to perhaps a more basic issue: such public access, either to scholars or simply adventurous tourists willing to make the trek to the isolated monastery, is inconsistent with the purpose for which the manuscripts were made and lodged at the monastery in the first place.

The term used by Michael Di Giovine is that moving them would “re-contextualise the objects on display,” meaning that the manuscripts are part of a broader religious ecosystem, which includes tactile encounters as well as related ritual activities. Remove the manuscript from its setting and it loses its religious raison d’etre, with the result that the manuscript is reduced to a mere object on public display.

Some Kat readers will immediately recognize in these claims the arguments put forth by Walter Benjamin in his influential 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (as reworked by John Berger in 1972 in his seminal  book, “Ways of Seeing”). Central for Benjamin was his notion of “authenticity” and “aura”. The idea was that traditionally a work of art could only be understood in terms of content. As Benjamin wrote (in English translation)--
even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: Its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.
Benjamin went on--
Originally the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult. We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual—first the magical, then the religious kind. It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the “authentic” work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value.

In modern terms, the clash between the “aura” of the manuscripts in the context of their intended use for a small population of believers versus display to potentially a large public population is the issue of agency (what the article calls "heritage'). Are the manuscripts a piece of tangible property (copyright not being an issue) belonging to the monastery or can some foreign body claim control over them by arguing that such body is acting as a steward on behalf of the broader “universal” interest? Does such a claim extend to the need of scholars for access to the manuscripts? And finally-- should the IP community take a greater interest in issues of this kind (just as innovation is not strictly an IP issue, but is still of keen concern)?


By Neil Wilkof

Photo on upper right is by Da. O. Peratieri and is in the public domain.
Photo on lower left is by Lior Golgar who has released it into the public domain.

Who should control the 1500-year old monastery manuscript of the Garima Gospels? Who should control the 1500-year old monastery manuscript of the Garima Gospels? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Sunday, June 17, 2018 Rating: 5

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