Is Consciousness an Illusion?? Five Experts in Science, Religion & Technology Explain

Even among non-neu­ro­sci­en­tists, deter­min­ing the ori­gin and pur­pose of con­scious­ness is wide­ly known as “the hard prob­lem.” Since its coinage by philoso­pher David Chalmers thir­ty years ago, that label has worked its way into a vari­ety of con­texts; about a decade ago, Tom Stop­pard even used it for the title of a play. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, it’s also ref­er­enced in the episode of Big Think’s Dis­patch­es from the Well above, which presents dis­cus­sions of the nature of con­scious­ness with neu­ro­sci­en­tist Christof Koch, Vedan­ta Soci­ety of New York min­is­ter Swa­mi Sar­vapriyanan­da, tech­nol­o­gy entre­pre­neur Reid Hoff­man, San­ta Fe Insti­tute Davis Pro­fes­sor of Com­plex­i­ty Melanie Mitchell, and math­e­mat­i­cal physi­cist Roger Pen­rose.

Koch describes con­scious­ness as “what you see, it’s what you hear, it’s the pains you have, the love you have, the fear, the pas­sion.” It is, in oth­er words, “the expe­ri­ence of any­thing,” and for all their sophis­ti­ca­tion, our mod­ern inquiries into it descend from René Descartes’ propo­si­tion, “Cog­i­to, ergo sum.” Sar­vapriyanan­da, too, makes ref­er­ence to Descartes in explain­ing his own con­cep­tion of con­scious­ness as “the light of lights,” by which “every­thing here is lit up.”

Mitchell con­ceives of it as a con­tin­u­um: “I’m more con­scious when I’m awake,” for exam­ple, and “cer­tain species are more con­scious than oth­er species.” And per­haps it could devel­op even in non-bio­log­i­cal enti­ties: “I don’t think that we have any machines that are con­scious in any inter­est­ing sense yet,” Mitchell says, but “if we ever do, they’ll be part of that spec­trum.”

The ques­tion of whether a machine can attain con­scious­ness nat­u­ral­ly aris­es in host Kmele Fos­ter’s con­ver­sa­tion with Hoff­man, who’s made seri­ous invest­ments in arti­fi­cial-intel­li­gence research. As impres­sive as AI chat­bots have late­ly become, few among us would be will­ing to deem them con­scious; nev­er­the­less, attempt­ing to cre­ate not just intel­li­gence but con­scious­ness in machines may prove a fruit­ful way to learn about the work­ings of the “gen­uine arti­cles” with­in us. Pen­rose’s the­o­ry holds that con­scious­ness aris­es from as-yet-unpre­dictable quan­tum process­es occur­ring in the micro­tubules of the brain. Per­haps, as Koch has sug­gest­ed, it actu­al­ly exists to one degree or anoth­er in all forms of mat­ter. Or maybe — to quote from a song in heavy rota­tion on my child­hood Walk­man — it’s just what you make of your­self.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Neu­ronal Basis of Con­scious­ness Course: A Free Online Course from Cal­tech

John Sear­le Makes A Force­ful Case for Study­ing Con­scious­ness, Where Every­thing Else Begins

Real­i­ty Is Noth­ing But a Hal­lu­ci­na­tion: A Mind-Bend­ing Crash Course on the Neu­ro­science of Con­scious­ness

The Sim­u­la­tion The­o­ry Explained In Three Ani­mat­ed Videos

What Is High­er Con­scious­ness?: How We Can Tran­scend Our Pet­ty, Day-to-Day Desires and Gain a Deep­er Wis­dom

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

The Ten Earliest Depictions of Jesus: How Art Visualized Jesus in the First Centuries After His Death

Jesus Christ: as soon as you hear those words, assum­ing they’re not being used exclam­a­to­ri­ly, you see a face. In almost all cas­es, that face is beard­ed and framed by long brown hair. Usu­al­ly it has strong, some­what sharp fea­tures and an expres­sion of benev­o­lence, patience, faint expectan­cy, or (depend­ing on the rel­e­vant Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion) com­plete agony. What­ev­er the details of his appear­ance, even the least reli­gious among us has a per­son­al Jesus in our imag­i­na­tion, a com­pos­ite of the many depic­tions we’ve seen through­out our lives. But where, exact­ly, did those depic­tions come from?

The Use­fulCharts video above assem­bles the ten ear­li­est known images of Jesus in art, orga­niz­ing them in a count­down that works its way back from the sixth cen­tu­ry. Remark­ably, these exam­ples remain imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­niz­able even a mil­len­ni­um and a half back, though beyond that point the son of God becomes rather more clean-cut.

“Orig­i­nal­ly, Jesus was always depict­ed with­out a beard,” explains Use­ful­Carts cre­ator Matt Bak­er, “and as we’re about to see, he usu­al­ly just looks like a typ­i­cal Roman from the time of the Roman Empire.” Ancient-Rome enthu­si­asts will rec­og­nize his man­ner of dress, although they might be sur­prised to see him using a mag­ic wand, in one late-third-cen­tu­ry image, to raise Lazarus from the dead.

The hol­i­day sea­son is an espe­cial­ly appro­pri­ate time to con­sid­er where our cul­tur­al con­cep­tion of Jesus comes from, giv­en that he is — at least as some Chris­tians put it — the very “rea­son for the sea­son.” And indeed, among these ten ear­li­est art­works fea­tur­ing Jesus is a sar­coph­a­gus lid inscribed with a clas­sic Christ­mas tableau, which depicts him as a “baby being held by his moth­er, Mary. Stand­ing behind them is, pre­sum­ably, Joseph, and in front of them are the three wise men and the star of Beth­le­hem.” That’s cer­tain­ly a depic­tion of Jesus for all time. As for what depic­tion of Jesus reflects our own time, we can hard­ly stop a cer­tain “restored” nine­teen-thir­ties Span­ish fres­co turned inter­net phe­nom­e­non from com­ing to mind.

Relat­ed con­tent:

What Makes Caravaggio’s The Tak­ing of Christ a Time­less, Great Paint­ing?

Behold! The Very First Christ­mas Card (1843)

Did Psy­che­del­ic Mush­rooms Appear in Medieval Chris­t­ian Art?: A Video Essay

Sal­vador Dalí’s Avant-Garde Christ­mas Cards

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

A Map of All the Countries Mentioned in the Bible: What The Countries Were Called Then, and Now

“For most of the last two thou­sand years, the Bible has been vir­tu­al­ly the only his­to­ry book used in West­ern civ­i­liza­tion,” writes Isaac Asi­mov in his Guide to the Bible. “Even today, it remains the most pop­u­lar, and its view of ancient his­to­ry is still more wide­ly and com­mon­ly known than is that of any oth­er.” As a result, “mil­lions of peo­ple today know of Neb­uchad­nez­zar, and have nev­er heard of Per­i­cles, sim­ply because Neb­uchad­nez­zar is men­tioned promi­nent­ly in the Bible and Per­i­cles is nev­er men­tioned at all.” That same dis­pro­por­tion­ate recog­ni­tion is accord­ed to “minor Egypt­ian pharaohs” like Shishak and Necho, “peo­ple whose very exis­tence is doubt­ful” like Nim­rod and the Queen of She­ba, and “small towns in Canaan, such as Shechem and Bethel.”

Asi­mov notes that “only that is known about such places as hap­pens to be men­tioned in the Bible. Ecbatana, the cap­i­tal of the Medi­an Empire, is remem­bered in con­nec­tion with the sto­ry of Tobit, but its ear­li­er and lat­er his­to­ry are dim indeed to most peo­ple, who might be sur­prised to know that it still exists today as a large provin­cial cap­i­tal in the mod­ern nation of Iran.” In the video from Hochela­ga above, we learn that Iran, then called Per­sia, is cel­e­brat­ed in the Bible “for end­ing the Jew­ish exile and return­ing Israel to its home­land. The Book of Usa­iah gives a spe­cial shout-out to its King, Cyrus the Great: he is giv­en the title ‘anoint­ed one,’ or ‘mes­si­ah.’ ”

Though “Per­sia has played a huge role in the his­to­ry of the region, and at a time was one of the largest empires of its day,” it’s just one of the sur­pris­ing­ly many lands to receive Bib­li­cal acknowl­edge­ment. As Hochela­ga cre­ator Tom­my Trelawny makes clear, “when the Bible was writ­ten, the coun­tries as we know them today did­n’t even exist.” But though the con­cept of the mod­ern nation-state had­n’t yet come into being, the places that would give rise to a fair few of the nation-states in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry cer­tain­ly had: “shout-out to Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Per­sia, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, and Spain, that still exist today, or at least go by the names that appear in the Bible.”

You may notice, Trelawny adds, that “many of these exot­ic lands are men­tioned in the sto­ry of King Solomon’s tem­ple, and how pre­cious raw mate­ri­als were import­ed from far­away places, from the strongest Lebanese cedars to the finest Indi­an ivories.” It hard­ly mat­ters “whether King Solomon was even real; we know these geo­graph­i­cal regions exist today, and that Bib­li­cal writ­ers seemed to know of them as well.” As depict­ed in the Bible or oth­er sources, the ancient world can seem scarce­ly rec­og­niz­able to us. But if we make the nec­es­sary adjust­ments to our per­spec­tive, we can see a process of glob­al­iza­tion not dis­sim­i­lar to what we see in our own soci­eties — whose fas­ci­na­tion with dis­tant lands and expen­sive lux­u­ries seems hard­ly to have dimin­ished over the mil­len­nia.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Lit­er­ary Crit­ic Northrop Frye Teach­es “The Bible and Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture”: All 25 Lec­tures Free Online

Chris­tian­i­ty Through Its Scrip­tures: A Free Course from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty

Intro­duc­tion to the Old Tes­ta­ment: A Free Yale Course

Intro­duc­tion to New Tes­ta­ment His­to­ry and Lit­er­a­ture: A Free Yale Course

Ancient Israel: A Free Course from NYU

Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: A Wit­ty, Eru­dite Atheist’s Guide to the World’s Most Famous Book

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

The Birth and Rapid Rise of Islam, Animated (622‑1453)

To any­one unfa­mil­iar with the his­to­ry of Islam, it comes as some­thing of a shock that it got start­ed less than a mil­len­ni­um and a half ago. In that rel­a­tive­ly short span of time, Islam has become the world’s sec­ond-largest reli­gion, a fact that becomes more under­stand­able when you see the run­ning start to which it got off visu­al­ized in the video above. Cre­at­ed by Ollie Bye — pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for his car­to­graph­i­cal ani­ma­tions of the rise and fall of the British Empire, the spread of writ­ing, and the his­to­ry of the world — it depicts the spread of Islam, which began in earnest after the death of its founder, the prophet Muham­mad, in the year 632, and whose lega­cy is the “Mus­lim world” as we know it today.

“By con­quest and con­ver­sion, the new reli­gion spread quick­ly west­wards through the ter­ri­to­ries of the Byzan­tine empire,” says the Vic­to­ria and Albert Muse­um’s page on lux­u­ry objects of the peri­od. “By the 640s, Mus­lim forces were advanc­ing across North Africa, con­quer­ing Sici­ly in 652 and the Iber­ian Penin­su­la in 711.”

Let’s pause to give that achieve­ment due con­sid­er­a­tion: Islam over­took Spain just a cen­tu­ry after its foun­da­tion, a con­quer­ing speed that puts the Roman Empire in the shade. (The Mus­lims also man­aged to get the upper hand of the Per­sians, who’d pre­sent­ed such a stiff chal­lenge to not just the Romans but the Greeks before them.) “By the ear­ly 8th cen­tu­ry, Islam­ic ter­ri­to­ries had almost encir­cled the Mediter­ranean.“ ‘

“Dur­ing this time Mus­lim rulers, sol­diers, traders, Sufis, schol­ars, poets and archi­tects all con­tributed to the shap­ing of dis­tinc­tive Islam­ic cul­tures,” says the site of Har­vard’s Plu­ral­ism Project. “Across the wide-reach­ing Islam­ic world, tran­sre­gion­al Islam­ic cul­ture mixed with local tra­di­tions to pro­duce dis­tinc­tive forms of state­craft, the­ol­o­gy, art, archi­tec­ture, and sci­ence.” (Nor should we neglect the delights of Moor­ish cui­sine.) This Islam­ic Gold­en Age, like all gold­en ages, even­tu­al­ly came to an end. The cen­ter of civ­i­liza­tion had shift­ed unde­ni­ably by the time of the Euro­pean Renais­sance — which, accord­ing to the Plu­ral­ism Project, may nev­er have tak­en place “with­out the cre­ativ­i­ty and myr­i­ad achieve­ments of Mus­lim schol­ars, thinkers, and civ­i­liza­tions.” And giv­en that Islam remains the world’s fastest-grow­ing major reli­gion by births, it sure­ly has­n’t exert­ed the last of its glob­al influ­ence just yet.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the World’s Five Major Reli­gions: Hin­duism, Judaism, Bud­dhism, Chris­tian­i­ty & Islam

Ani­mat­ed Map Shows How the Five Major Reli­gions Spread Across the World (3000 BC – 2000 AD)

The Com­plex Geom­e­try of Islam­ic Art & Design: A Short Intro­duc­tion

How Ara­bic Trans­la­tors Helped Pre­serve Greek Phi­los­o­phy … and the Clas­si­cal Tra­di­tion

A Visu­al Map of the World’s Major Reli­gions (and Non-Reli­gions)

The His­to­ry of the World in One Video: Every Year from 200,000 BCE to Today

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

J. Robert Oppenheimer Explains How, Upon Witnessing the First Nuclear Explosion, He Recited a Line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I Am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”

No mat­ter how lit­tle we know of the Hin­du reli­gion, a line from one of its holy scrip­tures lives with­in us all: “Now I am become Death, the destroy­er of worlds.” This is one facet of the lega­cy of J. Robert Oppen­heimer, an Amer­i­can the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist who left an out­sized mark on his­to­ry. For his cru­cial role in the Man­hat­tan Project that dur­ing World War II pro­duced the first nuclear weapons, he’s now remem­bered as the“father of the atom­ic bomb.” He secured that title on July 16, 1945, the day of the test in the New Mex­i­can desert that proved these exper­i­men­tal weapons actu­al­ly work — that is, they could wreak a kind of destruc­tion pre­vi­ous­ly only seen in visions of the end of the world.

“We knew the world would not be the same,” Oppen­heimer remem­bered in 1965. “A few peo­ple laughed, a few peo­ple cried. Most peo­ple were silent. I remem­bered the line from the Hin­du scrip­ture, the Bha­gavad Gita; Vish­nu is try­ing to per­suade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his mul­ti-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroy­er of worlds.’ ”

The trans­la­tion’s gram­mat­i­cal archaism made it even more pow­er­ful, res­onat­ing with lines in Ten­nyson (“I am become a name, for always roam­ing with a hun­gry heart”), Shake­speare (“I am come to know your plea­sure”), and the Bible (“I am come a light into the world, that whoso­ev­er believeth on me should not abide in dark­ness”).

But what is death, as the Gita sees it? In an inter­view with Wired, San­skrit schol­ar Stephen Thomp­son explains that, in the orig­i­nal, the word that Oppen­heimer speaks as “death” refers to “lit­er­al­ly the world-destroy­ing time.” This means that “irre­spec­tive of what Arju­na does” — Arju­na being the afore­men­tioned prince, the nar­ra­tive’s pro­tag­o­nist — every­thing is in the hands of the divine.” Oppen­heimer would have learned all this while teach­ing in the 1930s at UC Berke­ley, where he learned San­skrit and read the Gita in the orig­i­nal. This cre­at­ed in him, said his col­league Isidor Rabi, “a feel­ing of mys­tery of the uni­verse that sur­round­ed him like a fog.”

The neces­si­ty of the Unit­ed States’ sub­se­quent drop­ping of not one but two atom­ic bombs on Japan, exam­ined in the 1965 doc­u­men­tary The Deci­sion to Drop the Bomb (below), remains a mat­ter of debate. Oppen­heimer went on to oppose nuclear weapons, describ­ing him­self to an appalled Pres­i­dent Har­ry Tru­man as hav­ing “blood on my hands.” But in devel­op­ing them, could he have sim­ply seen him­self as a mod­ern Prince Arju­na? “It has been argued by schol­ars,” writes the Eco­nom­ic Times’ Mayank Chhaya, “that Oppen­heimer’s approach to the atom­ic bomb was that of doing his duty as part of his dhar­ma as pre­scribed in the Gita.” He knew, to quote anoth­er line from that scrip­ture brought to mind by the nuclear explo­sion, that “if the radi­ance of a thou­sand suns were to burst into the sky that would be like the splen­dor of the Mighty One” — and per­haps also that splen­dor and wrath may be one.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2020. In the light of the new Oppen­heimer film, we’re bring­ing it back.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Oppen­heimer: The Man Behind the Bomb

The “Shad­ow” of a Hiroshi­ma Vic­tim, Etched into Stone, Is All That Remains After 1945 Atom­ic Blast

Haunt­ing Unedit­ed Footage of the Bomb­ing of Nagasa­ki (1945)

63 Haunt­ing Videos of U.S. Nuclear Tests Now Declas­si­fied and Put Online

53 Years of Nuclear Test­ing in 14 Min­utes: A Time Lapse Film by Japan­ese Artist Isao Hashimo­to

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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When There Were Three Popes at Once: An Animated Video Drawn in the Style of Medieval Illuminated Manuscript

Pope Fran­cis, who’s been head of the Catholic Church for a decade now, is offi­cial­ly Pon­tiff num­ber 266. But if you scroll through Wikipedi­a’s list of popes, you’ll see quite a few entries with­out num­bers, their rows cast in a dis­rep­utable-look­ing dark­er shade of gray. The pres­ence of sev­er­al such unof­fi­cial Popes usu­al­ly indi­cates par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing times in the his­to­ry of the Church, and thus the his­to­ry of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion itself. The new TED-Ed video above, writ­ten by medieval his­to­ry pro­fes­sor Joëlle Rol­lo-Koster, tells of the only peri­od in which three popes vied simul­ta­ne­ous­ly for legit­i­ma­cy. This was The West­ern Schism — or the Papal Schism, or the Great Occi­den­tal Schism, or the Schism of 1378.

How­ev­er one labels it, “the ori­gins of this papal predica­ment began in 1296, when France’s King Philip IV decid­ed to raise tax­es on the church.” So begins the nar­ra­tor of the video, which ani­mates the his­tor­i­cal scenes he describes in the style of a medieval illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script. (It includes many amus­ing details, though I haven’t man­aged to spot any aggres­sive rab­bits or snails, to say noth­ing of butt trum­pets.) Pope Boni­face VIII, the Church’s leader at the time, respond­ed with the Unam Sanc­tam, “a rad­i­cal decree assert­ing the pope’s total suprema­cy over earth­ly rulers.” The clash between the two result­ed in the death of Boni­face, who was even­tu­al­ly replaced in 1305 by Clement V.

As “a French diplo­mat seek­ing peace in the war between Eng­land and his home­land,” Clement strate­gi­cal­ly moved the seat of the papa­cy to Avi­gnon. Sev­en popes lat­er, the papa­cy moved back to Italy — not long before the death of Gre­go­ry XI, the Pon­tiff who moved it. Out of the chaot­ic process of select­ing his suc­ces­sor came Pope Urban VI, who turned out to be “a reformer who sought to lim­it the car­di­nals’ finances.” Those car­di­nals then “denounced Urban as a usurp­er” and elect­ed Pope Clement VII to replace him. But Urban refused to relin­quish his posi­tion, and in fact “entrenched him­self in Rome while Clement and his sup­port­ers returned to Avi­gnon.”

This began the schism, split­ting West­ern Chris­ten­dom between the cap­i­tals of Avi­gnon and Rome. Each cap­i­tal kept its line going, replac­ing popes who die and per­pet­u­at­ing the sit­u­a­tion in which “Euro­pean rulers were forced to choose sides as both popes vied for spir­i­tu­al and polit­i­cal suprema­cy.” Only in 1409 did a group of car­di­nals attempt to put an end to it, elect­ing a new pope them­selves — who went unrec­og­nized, of course, by the exist­ing popes in Rome and Avi­gnon. The schism went on for near­ly 40 years, under­scor­ing the allit­er­a­tive truth that “even those who are sup­posed to be pious are prone to pet­ty pow­er strug­gles.” Most popes, like any fig­ures of pow­er, must feel lone­ly at the top — but that’s sure­ly bet­ter than when it’s too crowd­ed there.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Lis­ten to a Brief His­to­ry of Papal Abdi­ca­tion

A Brief Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry of Mar­tin Luther’s 95 The­ses & the Ref­or­ma­tion — Which Changed Europe and Lat­er the World

The Vat­i­can Library Goes Online and Dig­i­tizes Tens of Thou­sands of Man­u­scripts, Books, Coins, and More

Watch the Bayeux Tapes­try Come to Life in a Short Ani­mat­ed Film

Ani­mat­ed: Stephen Fry & Ann Wid­de­combe Debate the Catholic Church

Pope John Paul II Takes Bat­ting Prac­tice in Cal­i­for­nia, 1987

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Discover the Sarajevo Haggadah, the Medieval Illuminated Manuscript That Survived the Inquisition, Holocaust & Yugoslav Wars

If you attend­ed a seder this month, you no doubt read aloud from the Hag­gadah, a Passover tra­di­tion in which every­one at the table takes turns recount­ing the sto­ry of Exo­dus.

There’s no defin­i­tive edi­tion of the Hag­gadah. Every Passover host is free to choose the ver­sion of the famil­iar sto­ry they like best, to cut and paste from var­i­ous retellings, or even take a crack at writ­ing their own.  

As David Zvi Kalman, pub­lish­er of the annu­al, illus­trat­ed Asu­fa Hag­gadah told the New York Times, “The Hag­gadah in Amer­i­ca is like Kit Kats in Japan. It’s a prod­uct that accepts a wide vari­ety of fla­vors. It’s prob­a­bly the most acces­si­ble Jew­ish book on the mar­ket.”

21st cen­tu­ry adap­ta­tions have includ­ed Mar­velous Mrs. Maisel, Sein­feld, Har­ry Pot­ter, and Curb Your Enthu­si­asm themed Hag­gadot.

There are Hag­gadot tai­lored toward fem­i­nists, Lib­er­tar­i­ans, inter­faith fam­i­lies, and advo­cates of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment.

One of the old­est is the mirac­u­lous­ly-pre­served Sara­je­vo Hag­gadah, an illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script cre­at­ed by anony­mous artists and scribes in Barcelona around 1350.

Though it bears the coats of arms of two promi­nent fam­i­lies, its prove­nance is not defin­i­tive­ly known.

Leo­ra Bromberg of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Thomas Fish­er Rare Book Library notes that it is “espe­cial­ly strik­ing for its col­or­ful illu­mi­na­tions of bib­li­cal and Passover rit­u­al scenes and its beau­ti­ful­ly hand-scribed Sephardic let­ter­forms:”

As pre­cious as this Hag­gadah was, and still is, Hag­gadot are books that are meant to be used in fes­tive and messy settings—sharing the table with food, wine, fam­i­ly and guests. The Sara­je­vo Hag­gadah was no excep­tion to this; its pages show evi­dence that it was well used, with doo­dles, food and red wine stains mark­ing its pages.

Some brave soul took care to smug­gle this essen­tial vol­ume out with them when 1492’s Alham­bra Decree expelled all Jews from Spain.

The manuscript’s trav­els there­after are shroud­ed in mys­tery.

It sur­vived the Roman Inqui­si­tion by virtue of its con­tents. As per a 1609 note jot­ted on one of its pages, noth­ing there­in seemed to be aimed against the Church.

More hand­writ­ten notes place the book in the north of Italy in the 16th and 17th cen­turies, though its new own­er is not men­tioned by name.

Even­tu­al­ly, it found its way to the hands of a man named Joseph Kohen who sold it to the Nation­al Muse­um of Sara­je­vo in 1894.

It was briefly sent to Vien­na, where a gov­ern­ment offi­cial replaced its orig­i­nal medieval bind­ing with card­board cov­ers, chop­ping its 142 bleached calf­skin vel­lum down to 6.5” x 9” in order to fit them.

It had a nar­row escape in 1942, when a high-rank­ing Nazi offi­cial, Johann Fort­ner, vis­it­ed the muse­um, intent on con­fis­cat­ing the price­less man­u­script.  

The chief librar­i­an, Dervis Korkut, a Mus­lim, secret­ed the Hag­gadah inside his cloth­ing, reput­ed­ly telling  Fort­ner that muse­um staff had turned it over to anoth­er Ger­man offi­cer.

After that folk­lore takes over. Korkut either stowed it under the floor­boards of his home, buried it under a tree, gave it to an imam in a remote vil­lage for safe­keep­ing, or hid it on a shelf in the museum’s library.

What­ev­er the case, it reap­peared in the muse­um, safe and sound, in 1945.

The muse­um was ran­sacked dur­ing 1992’s Siege of Sara­je­vo, but the thieves, igno­rant of the Haggadah’s worth, left it on the floor. It was removed to an under­ground bank vault, where it sur­vived untouched, even as the muse­um sus­tained heavy artillery dam­age.

The pres­i­dent of Bosnia pre­sent­ed it to Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers dur­ing a Seder three years lat­er.

Short­ly there­after, the head of Sarajevo’s Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty sought the Unit­ed Nations’ sup­port to restore the Hag­gadah, and house it in a suit­ably secure, cli­mate-con­trolled set­ting. 

A num­ber of fac­sim­i­les have been cre­at­ed, and the orig­i­nal codex once again resides in the muse­um where it is stored under the pre­scribed con­di­tions, and dis­played on rare spe­cial occa­sions, as “phys­i­cal proof of the open­ness of a soci­ety in which fear of the Oth­er has nev­er been an incur­able dis­ease.”

UNESCO added it to its Mem­o­ry of the World Reg­is­ter in 2017, “prais­ing the courage of the peo­ple who, even in the dark­est of times dur­ing World War II, appre­ci­at­ed its impor­tance to Jew­ish Her­itage, as well as its embod­i­ment of diver­si­ty and inter­cul­tur­al har­mo­ny depict­ed in its illus­tra­tion:”

 Regard­less of their own reli­gious beliefs, they risked their lives and did all in their pow­er to safe­guard the Hag­gadah for future gen­er­a­tions. Its destruc­tion would be a loss for human­i­ty. Pro­tect­ing it is a sym­bol of the val­ues which we hold dear.

For those inter­est­ed, the Sara­je­vo Hag­gadah fig­ures cen­tral­ly in the best­selling 2008 nov­el Peo­ple of the Book, writ­ten by the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning author Geral­dine Brooks. You can read an New Times review here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

How Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beau­ti­ful, Cen­turies-Old Craft

Turn­ing the Pages of an Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­script: An ASMR Muse­um Expe­ri­ence

The Medieval Mas­ter­piece, the Book of Kells, Has Been Dig­i­tized and Put Online

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

15-Year-Old Picasso Paints His First Masterpiece, “The First Communion”


It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a life­time to paint like a child. — Pablo Picas­so

We think it’s safe to say that most of us have a pre­con­ceived notion of Picas­so’s style, and The First Com­mu­nion, above, isn’t it.

Picas­so was just 15 when he com­plet­ed this large-scale oil, hav­ing lost his 7‑year-old sis­ter, Con­chi­ta, to diph­the­ria one year before.

The strick­en young artist had attempt­ed to bar­gain with God, vow­ing to give up paint­ing if she was spared. As Ari­an­na Huff­in­g­ton writes in the biog­ra­phy Picas­so: Cre­ator and Destroy­er:

…he was torn between want­i­ng her saved and want­i­ng her dead so that his gift would be saved. When she died, he decid­ed that God was evil and des­tiny an ene­my. At the same time, he was con­vinced that it was his ambiva­lence that had made it pos­si­ble for God to kill Con­chi­ta. His guilt was enormous—the oth­er side of his belief in his pow­ers to affect the world around him. And it was com­pound­ed by his almost mag­i­cal con­vic­tion that his lit­tle sis­ter’s death had released him to be a painter and fol­low the call of the pow­ers he had been giv­en, what­ev­er the con­se­quences.

If there’s evil at work in the “First Com­mu­nion,” he keeps it under wraps. All eyes are on the rapt young com­mu­ni­cant, embod­ied in his sur­viv­ing sis­ter, Lola, in a snowy veil and gown.

Their father, painter and draw­ing pro­fes­sor José Ruiz y Blas­co, assumes the part of the girl’s father or god­fa­ther, a solemn wit­ness to this rite of pas­sage.

Ruiz y Blas­co pro­vid­ed instruc­tion and cham­pi­oned his son’s gift. He encour­aged him to enter the “First Com­mu­nion,” and lat­er, “Sci­ence and Char­i­ty” (in which he appears as the doc­tor) in the Exposi­cion de Bel­las Artes, a com­pe­ti­tion and exhi­bi­tion oppor­tu­ni­ty for emerg­ing artists.

Picas­so lat­er remarked that “every time I draw a man, I think of my father.  To me, man is Don José, and will be all my life…”

Ruiz y Blas­co, con­vinced that Picasso’s tal­ent would bring suc­cess as a nat­u­ral­is­tic painter of clas­si­cal scenes and por­traits, was deeply dis­ap­point­ed when his teenaged son began blow­ing off class at Madrid’s pres­ti­gious Acad­e­mia Real de San Fer­nan­do. 

Just imag­ine how he react­ed to the scan­dalous Cubist vision ofLes Demoi­selles d’Avignon,” unveiled a mere eleven years after the “First Com­mu­nion.”

The rest is his­to­ry.

Just for fun, we invit­ed the free online AI image gen­er­a­tor Craiy­on (for­mer­ly known as DALL‑E Mini) to have a go using the prompt “Picas­so First Com­mu­nion”.

The results should sur­prise no one. 

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Gestapo Points to Guer­ni­ca and Asks Picas­so, “Did You Do This?;” Picas­so Replies “No, You Did!”

14 Self-Por­traits by Pablo Picas­so Show the Evo­lu­tion of His Style: See Self-Por­traits Mov­ing from Ages 15 to 90

How To Under­stand a Picas­so Paint­ing: A Video Primer

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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