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Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

19 June 2018

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander

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The reign of Ivan Alexander (r. 1331–71) was a high point in the cultural history of Bulgaria, and the Tsar’s personalised copy of the Gospels translated into the Slavonic language is the most celebrated surviving example of Bulgarian medieval art. In 2017, the book was added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. As part of the celebration of Bulgarian National Day of Culture on 24 May, the manuscript was also featured on Bulgarian television. The Gospel-book has been fully digitised, and is available on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

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Tsar Ivan Alexander, his wife and two sons, all blessed by God: Add MS 39627, f. 3r

The makers of this book, who probably worked at the Tsar’s capital, Turnovo, drew on the long tradition of Byzantine book production and more recent Slavonic practices. They also conceived it as part of the Tsar’s revival and championing of Christian culture in the Balkans as the power of the Byzantine emperor ebbed and that of the Ottoman Turks grew.

In the words of its scribe Simeon, the volume was created ‘not simply for the outward beauty of its decoration … but primarily to express the inner Divine Word, the revelation and the sacred vision’. It now retains an extraordinary 367 ‘life-giving images of the Lord and his glorious disciple Jesus’. Once also richly decorated on the outside, bound within silver-gilt boards, the manuscript was probably displayed during services on major feast days attended by the Tsar and his family and intended to commemorate them in perpetuity after their deaths.

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The Tsar’s three daughters and son-in-law: Add MS 39627, f. 2v

At the opening of the volume, an imposing double-page portrait contrived in the tradition of Byzantine imperial portraits reflects both the artistic heritage of its creator and the imperial ambitions of the Tsar. In this image Tsar Ivan Alexander and his family together receive God's blessing. The Tsar is depicted dressed in imperial regalia and accompanied by his second wife, Theodora, a converted Jew, and by their two sons Ivan Shisman (r. 1371–1395) and Ivan Asen (d. 1388?). On the left-hand page are the Tsar’s three daughters, the eldest of whom, Kera Thamara, stands beside her husband, Despot Konstantin.

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Christ ascends to Heaven above his disciples and Mary; Tsar Ivan Alexander receives the blessing of St Mark, all at the end of St Mark’s Gospel: Add MS 39627, f. 134v

Ivan Alexander is also shown in the company of each of the Evangelists at the end of their Gospels and between Abraham and the Virgin Mary in a large illustration of the Last Judgment prompted by St Mark’s account of Jesus’s prophecy to his disciples. These portraits promote the full integration of the secular and religious roles of the Tsar.

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Christ on the Cross before and after his death, mocked by the crowd (below) and bleeding from the lance wound, with the dead raised from their graves by the ensuing earthquake (above), in St Matthew’s Gospel: Add MS 39627, f. 84r

The biblical text of the volume is equally lavishly decorated. Within the text several hundred illuminated miniatures illustrate the life and teachings of Christ in the sequence narrated by each of the Evangelists, focusing on his infancy, miracles, parables and Passion. Given the fourfold narrative of the Gospels and the profuse illuminations in the volume, many episodes common to more than one of the Gospels are illustrated several times. Most of these scenes are contained within one relatively shallow, horizontal strip, but some are extended to two or three such strips stacked vertically up the page or restricted to a smaller box within the text block.

None of these choices were the original idea of the makers of the Tsar’s book. They were instead based on the illuminations of an equally extraordinary Byzantine manuscript (untraced). In their frieze format and choice of subjects the miniatures correspond most closely to a remarkable 11th-century manuscript of the Gospels now in Paris that was produced at the Studios Monastery in Constantinople and possibly made for the Emperor Isaac I Comnenus (r. 1057–1059) (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS grec 74). Only one other contemporary Byzantine Gospels, now in the Laurenziana Library at Florence, presents a similarly extended sequence of nearly three hundred frieze miniatures (Florence, Bibioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 6.23).

The individual portraits of the Tsar in his volume replace those of an abbot in the Studios Gospels; the opening family portrait may have been modelled on a now-lost imperial family portrait at the opening of the Byzantine manuscript from which it drew its other illustrations. Later Slavonic manuscripts of the Gospels that incorporate similar portraits and frieze miniatures reflect continued respect for this type of Gospels into the 17th century.

 

Further Reading

Bogdan D. Filov, Miniaturite na Londonskoto Evangelie na Tsar Ivan Aleksandra / Les miniatures de l'évangile du roi Jean Alexandre à Londres (Sofia, 1934).

Ekaterina Dimitrova, The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (London, 1994).

Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), ed. by Helen C. Evans (New York, 2004), no. 27.

Cynthia Vakareliyska, ed., The Curzon Gospel, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), no. 35.  

The manuscript has also been reproduced in a new facsimile edition.

 

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16 June 2018

Cotton manuscripts quiz

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Last week we announced that the manuscript collection of Sir Robert Cotton, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. To celebrate, we've decided to test our readers' knowledge of the Cotton library. Some of these questions are easier than others, we hope. There are no prizes up for grabs but please let us know how you get on via Twitter, @BLMedieval, using the hashtag #cottonquiz, or by the comments field below. Good luck!

The answers are now given below (no peeking!).

1. On which manuscript does Sir Robert Cotton rest his hands in this portrait?

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2. From whom did Cotton reportedly acquire his two copies of the 1215 Magna Carta?

3. The diary of which English king is found in the Cotton library?

4. Which Roman emperor connects Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Lindisfarne Gospels?

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5. How old was Sir Robert Cotton when he acquired his first manuscript? (And for a bonus point, what was the manuscript in question?)

6. In 1602–03, Robert Cotton presented a dozen manuscripts to whom, one of the earliest donations for which other great collection?

7. The Reculver charter is written in what script?

8. Name the English monarch for whom this map was made.

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9. How many volumes were destroyed in their entirety in the 1731 fire?

10. The plan for which famous battle was identified in a fire-damaged Cotton manuscript?

 

***

Here are the answers:

 

The Cotton Genesis (Cotton Otho MS B VI)

Sir Edward Dering (Cotton Charter XIII 31A, sent to Cotton in June 1630) and Humphrey Wyems of the Middle Temple (Cotton MS Augustus II 106, presented to him on New Year's Day 1629)

King Edward VI (Cotton MS Nero C X)

Nero (they are named Cotton MS Nero A X/2 and Cotton Nero MS D IV respectively)

Seventeen (Cotton MS Vespasian D XV is inscribed on f. 83v, 'Robertus Cotton 1588 Æ 17')

Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library in Oxford

Uncial (Cotton MS Augustus II 2)

King Henry VIII (Cotton MS Augustus I i 9)

Thirteen, plus three more in the 1865 British Museum bindery fire (as noted by Andrew Prescott, ‘“Their present miserable state of cremation”: the restoration of the Cotton library’, in C. J. Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and his Legacy (London, 1997), pp. 391–454, at pp. 392, 421)

Agincourt (the French battle-plan is found in Cotton MS Caligula D V, ff. 43v–44r)

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12 June 2018

The Serres Gospels goes online

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In this spectacular portrait, Jacob, bishop of Serres (b. 1300, d. 1365), humbly presents his Gospel-book to Christ. He is shown at the end of a copy of the Four Gospels in Old Church Slavonic, known as the Serres Gospels. This book is now completely digitised, and is available to view online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

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Portrait of Jacob of Serres: Add MS 39626, f. 292v

Jacob lived in turbulent times. He rose to prominence through the patronage of Stefan Dušan, who became king of Serbia in 1331 and thereafter expanded his territories. Dušan initially appointed Jacob as the first abbot of his newly-built monastery of the Holy Archangels near Prizren, which eventually became Dušan’s burial place. He then promoted Jacob to the position of bishop of Serres after conquering the city in 1345.

Perhaps acknowledging the exceptional circumstances that led to its creation, the Serres Gospels contains a lengthy inscription explaining that it was made for Jacob at the Metropolitan Church of St Theodore in Serres, in 1354, in the time of Tsar Stefan Dušan, his wife Helena, their son Kral Uros, and the Patriarch Joanikije (who died on 3 September 1354, providing the latest possible date for the manuscript). At the end of the inscription, the scribe signed his name in the shape of a cross as Kallist Rasoder. Rasoder is an epithet referring to ragged clothes, suggesting Kallist’s commitment to a life of humble austerity.

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End of the colophon with the scribe's signature: Add MS 39626, f. 293v

In contrast to its austere scribe, the Serres Gospels is gloriously lavish. Throughout the manuscript, headings, initial letters and punctuation marks are written in gold, and each of the four books of the Gospels begins with a panel of ornament (a headpiece) painted in gold and rich colours.

Most impressive of all is the manuscript’s only full-page picture, the portrait of Jacob making his donation (pictured above). Unusually, it was made by gilding the entire surface within the frame, and then painting over the top of the gold. Where the paint has worn away, you can see the gold shining through underneath. This difficult and expensive technique makes the picture brilliantly luminous.

Jacob is depicted in his clerical robes standing in a supplicant posture with his bejewelled manuscript before him — a self-reference to the Serres Gospels. The inscription beside him supplies his speech: ‘This tetraevangelion (Gospel-book) I am offering to Thee, Christ, my Lord’. Jacob’s face is delicately painted and expressive, and he gazes imploringly at the viewer with deep blue eyes. In the top right, Christ emerges from the heavens to receive his gift.

The inscription in the roundel above contains a poetic prayer from the vespers service of the Sunday before the Great Lent: ‘While the Judge is sitting and angels standing before [Him], while the trumpet is sounding and the flame is burning, what will you do, o my soul brought to judgement? Then thy evil deeds will be brought before [Him] and thy secret sins will be revealed. But before the end, beseech Christ the Lord: God make me pure and save me’.

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Opening to the Gospel of Matthew: Add MS 39626, f. 5r

Despite Stefan Dušan’s death in 1355, Jacob maintained his office as bishop of Serres until his own death in 1365. His manuscript continued to be treasured, and today survives as testament to the spiritual devotion and artistic magnificence of its age.

 

Eleanor Jackson

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