In an extraordinary gesture of international goodwill, the Spanish Ministry of Culture this past fall selected the rarest books and manuscripts from Spanish libraries for an exhibition at the New York Public Library. Items on display ranged from a 13th-century manuscript on the game of chess to exuberant prints by Joan Miro. Libraries from all parts of Spain contributed material, with the majority of pieces coming from the National Library, the Royal Palace, and the Escorial Monastery just outside Madrid.

“Treasures From Spain; Ten Centuries of Spanish Books,” with 200 works on display, created a living awareness of the various cultures that determined the destiny of Spain. The exhibit exemplified Jorge Luis Borges’ description—cited in the exhibition catalog—of books as “the best memory of our species.”

For the 10 centuries spanned by the show, Spain has developed as a cultural melting pot, much like America. Nothing but the Catholic Church united the diverse cultures of the Iberian peninsula, and that unification did not occur until the end of the 15th century. Even the religious impulse has expressed itself in diverse ways, as may be seen by comparing the early manuscripts that surround the liturgical text with fiendish Flemish devils with other manuscripts illustrated with the soft, sweet colors of Italianate birds and flowers or with the classical architectural contours borrowed from French artists.

While Flemish, French, and Italian influences dominated Spanish art and literature during the Renaissance, medieval Spain conceded superiority in scientific and scholarly matters to the Muslims and Jews, especially in the great school of translators in Toledo. The intricate Mudejar ornamentation of manuscripts in the exhibition reflected the legacy of that culture in decorative arts throughout the southern provinces.

“Treasures From Spain” included the spectacular 13th-century illuminated manuscript entitled Cantigas de Santa Maria, a collection of Galician-Portuguese lyrical poetry representing the most important poetic genre of medieval Spain. The Cantigas manuscript is most famous for its miniature paintings. Besides providing precious information on costume and architecture of the period, these masterpieces reveal an era in Spanish culture when Arabic, Jewish, and Christian individuals lived and indeed flourished together.

“Treasures From Spain” transcended the limitations of any one cultural influence to express the visionary potential of what the Spanish Minister of Culture has termed the “long search for certainty” in the human spirit. After centuries of pursuing that search under monarchy, Spaniards may now continue it with the new freedom of democracy.

Ironically, no such collection of Spanish books and manuscripts has ever been shown in Spain. Popular response to the exhibition in New York has persuaded the Spanish government to reassemble the show in Madrid. Spaniards themselves might then explore the value of these treasures and restore them to their own collective memory.