Revealing the mystery of Mani

16 May, 2019

This summer the Chester Beatty’s remarkable Manichean papyrus collection will be the subject of an in-focus exhibition opening on 21 June.

The Manichaean religion was founded in Mesopotamia in the third century by the prophet Mani. Using beautifully written and illustrated books, multilingual missionaries carried the religion west from Mesopotamia across the Mediterranean, and east along the Silk Road into Northern India, and Central and East Asia. Although Manicheism was severely persecuted and disappeared from the Roman and Byzantine Empires by the 7th century, the last believers in this faith practiced in southern China into the 17th century, where their traditions were heavily influenced by Buddhism.

Manichaean Kephalaia, c. 400 AD, Medinet Madi (Egypt), CBL Pma 1.233-234.

Manichaean Kephalaia, c. 400 AD, Medinet Madi (Egypt), CBL Pma 1.233-234.

In 1929 antiques dealers in Cairo offered for sale a cache of papyrus manuscripts said to have been found in a wooden chest in the ruins of an old house in Medinet Madi, an abandoned village in northern Egypt. Half of the collection was acquired by Chester Beatty, and the other half by a representative of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. These texts were discovered to contain a direct line to the ancient followers of Mani and have proved critical in deepening our understanding of this once thriving transcontinental religion.

The surviving papyrus folios are extremely fragile and are now stored between glass or Perspex to protect them. But a millennia of fluctuating environmental conditions have left them darkened, friable, and extremely difficult to read.

Dr Hugo Ibscher conserving Manichean manuscripts in Berlin.

Dr Hugo Ibscher conserving Manichean manuscripts in Berlin.

To aid the on-going research into these rare texts, the Chester Beatty was delighted to welcome a mobile lab team from the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures in Hamburg (CSMC, University of Hamburg) and the Federal Institute for Material Research and Testing in Berlin (BAM).

The team comprised of Prof. Dr. Ira Rabin, Dr. Olivier Bonnerot, and Ivan Shevchuk who conducted multispectral imaging (MSI) and X-ray fluorescence analysis (XRF) on a number of Manichaean manuscripts.

The aim of applying multispectral imaging to the Manichean folios (c. 400 AD, Egypt, CBL Pma) was to greatly improve the readability of the obscured or damaged writing. While the project initially focused on folios housed between plates of glass, a select number of folios housed between acrylic sheets of Perspex were also imaged with some promising initial results.

Ivan Shevchuk performing MSI to recover Manichaean texts.

Multispectral Imaging (MSI)

The team used the Megavision cultural heritage multi-spectral imaging system. The system uses LED panels set up at four different angles and distances to illuminate the objects and capture images of each folio at 19 different wavelengths across the visible, ultraviolet and near-infrared regions of the light spectrum. Six different optical filters were used to capture fluorescence. This resulted in 50 photographs of each side of a folio, or a total of 100 high-resolution digital images per plate.

MSI at the Chester Beatty (or examples of different MSI illuminations: gathering spectral recflectance information at 365 and 530 nanometers).

MSI at the Chester Beatty (or examples of different MSI illuminations: gathering spectral recflectance information at 365 and 530 nanometers).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, processing multispectral data is a time consuming task. Processing one side of a fragment can take up to a whole working day, and although some automatisation is possible, each side of a fragment will be approached in a unique way to achieve the highest quality results. It is during this processing, which will be performed at the CSMC, that the writing will be recovered, made visible and finally legible.

Full results are expected towards the end of the year. These will provide a set of high resolution false colour images, produced for each side of every fragment. These will be enhanced to maximise the contrast between the recovered writing and the papyrus background to a setting that it is most pleasing to read. However, the initial results are extremely promising.

Some initial results, Manichaean Kephalaia, c. 400 AD, Medinet Madi (Egypt), CBL Pma 1.33-34.

Some initial results, Manichaean Kephalaia, c. 400 AD, Medinet Madi (Egypt), CBL Pma 1.33-34.

X-ray fluorescence analysis (XRF)

In addition to multispectral imaging, the team used an Elio portable XRF spectrometer to examine the Manichaean Synaxeis (CBL Pma 5) book block. Continued conservation of its folios has been deemed impossible, leaving behind a ‘book block’ which centuries of humidity have caused to deteriorate to an almost peat-like state. The affectionately named ‘sod of turf’ contains approximately 100 inaccessible pages. Thankfully, the Elio spectrometer has a working distance of 1-2 cm with a measuring head supported on a tripod, ensuring the technique is entirely non-invasive.

Dr. Olivier Bonnerot and Jessica Baldwin (Head of Collections and Conservation) in the Conservation Lab.

XRF imaging of Manichaean Synaxeis book block, c. 400 AD, Medinet Madi (Egypt), CBL Pma 5.

The initial XRF results have confirmed the nature of the ink as iron gall. It is hoped that this vital piece of information will feed into a future project which hopes to digitally open the book through x-ray tomography and algorithmic post processing. Keep an eye on this space for more details to be announced later this year.

The team imaged 92 objects with MSI and 31 objects using XRF over a two week period. It was a pleasure working with the team from CSMC/BAM, and our thanks are extended to them.

The Chester Beatty is hosting the Fifth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting on 20-21 June 2019. For more details of the full programme and to register now, click here.

Open today 10am–5pm

Tuesday to Friday 10am–5pm
Saturday 11am–5pm
Sunday 1pm–5pm

Closed Mondays: Nov - Feb

**Closed 1 Jan; Good Friday; 24-26 Dec & Monday Public Holidays.**

Admission is free
Suggested donation €5


Chester Beatty
Dublin Castle
Dublin 2
D02 AD92