Sacred Treasures

Paul Keenan visits the Chester Beatty Library

Entering the dimly-lit interior, it becomes immediately apparent that The Irish Catholic has arrived in a place of reverence. Sacred music, softly piped from the shadows brings the visitor on, guided by angelic forms etched into glass, towards pools of light inviting the eyes to peer on Christian treasures; parchment and papyrus, ancient Greek in rudimentary script, Latin surrounded by gold inlay, illuminated by medieval artistry.

And then, at the heart of the room, the smallest and simplest of texts demands attention.

Displayed so as to appear to float before the visitor, this mere fragment of some greater text, frayed and torn from the whole contains a bare line of text, sufficient for those with knowledge enough to recognise the whole from the four words: “Mother, behold thy son!”

While a flight of imagination might bring the reader to some richly-stocked museum in the Holy Land, or to a great European cathedral in time to absorb this great Christian lineage to the very crucifixion, neither destinations is, in fact, correct.

Just yards from the bustle of Dublin’s city centre traffic, these treasures lie, accessible to all, in the Chester Beatty Library. Housed in the Sacred Traditions exhibition, the setting is one which succeeds in fusing beautifully the sacred and historic in a space reserved both for those who revere the power of the written word and the Word of God.

Guided by the expertise of Dr Jill Unkel, curator of the Western collection, the import of this collection is made quickly apparent.

Referencing the ‘floating’ Gospel of John, she reveals that the fragment can be dated to 150-200 AD, making it a document of immense importance to the tradition of the Christian story as communicated on the page.

Path of development

Another artefact serves to illustrate: under layers of protective glass, a larger, though no less frayed document is identified by Dr Unkel as the earliest known copies of St Paul’s Letters gathered in a single volume.

“More important, perhaps,” Dr Unkel points out, “the document is clearly a codex, two pages of a larger book. What this shows is that the work comes from the very earliest period of Christian writing.”

For reasons yet to be fully elucidated by scholars, the earliest Christian writers eschewed the more traditional Jewish recording device that was the scroll, setting in train the tradition of books as we recognise today.

And here, for the Chester Beatty visitor, is that path of development. From the first penning of the Word, including an example of the earliest drawing together of the four Gospels in a single volume, the journey from the 3rd Century, the early medieval period is presented in four folios from the Book of Hours, breath-taking in the enduring vibrancy of their coloured illustrations and gold framing, while complete tomes, illuminated manuscripts in great, buckle-locked covers attest to the high-point of Europe’s monastic scriptoria – including a pristine copy of St Augustine’s City of God in Italian dating to 1100. Later volumes chart the missionary trials of the Jesuits in China (1673) and Japan (1715). Slight detours offer samples of the great tradition of icons, and even an intriguing ‘reawakening’ of the scroll, courtesy of an Ethiopian document, the colourfully titled Roll of Magical Prayers on the Secret Names of God, which finds the Devil trapped both by the Word and the written word around him.

The entire collection – there is as much again in storage with a promise of an outing this summer – is currently the subject of a major digitisation project towards making them all more available to scholars and those unable to travel to the library.

For those able to attend this wealth of wonders, however, the effect by journey’s end is a distinct reluctance to depart, stirred by a fear that something has been missed by senses barely equipped to take in the full import of the documents here.

Emerging from the sanctified space to be assailed by the capital’s traffic, however, is to be reminded that one is not in some far-flung environment. The Chester Beatty can easily be revisted.

And will be.


Alfred Chester Beatty

Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968) was an Irish-American mining magnate who used his substantial fortune to source and collect ancient religious texts as well as Oriental Art and books, often employing scholars from Oxford and Cambridge to authenticate papyri and other documenst sourced on his many trips to Egypt and Japan. A naturalised British subject (1933) and honorary Irish citizen (1957) he bequeathed his rich collection to both the British Museum and the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.

Upon his death in 1968, Chester Beatty was afforded a State funeral, one of very few private citizens to receive the honour. He is buried in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin.


Admission to the Chester Beatty Library is free and the library is open 10am-5pm weekdays (closed Mondays Oct-April), Sat. 11am-5pm, Sun 1pm-5pm. Closed Good Friday and Monday public holidays.

For full times and details on all collections at the Chester Beatty, visit