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220 posts categorized "Decoration"

09 June 2018

Sir Robert Cotton's manuscripts added to Memory of the World register

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We are delighted that Sir Robert Cotton's collection of manuscripts, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. Cotton's library contains many historical and literary treasures of national and international significance, such as Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the only surviving copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the autograph papers of a number of British monarchs. Collectively they form a key part of the intellectual heritage of the nation. 

Vespasian Psalter (Cotton MS Vespasian A I  f31r)

A page from the Vespasian Psalter, known as Cotton MS Vespasian A I following Robert Cotton's system of arranging his manuscripts in presses named after Roman emperors and imperial ladies. This manuscript, made in Kent in the 8th century, contains an interlinear Old English gloss of the Psalter text: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r

Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) was a politician and antiquarian scholar, who began to assemble his collection of manuscripts as early as 1588, aged just seventeen. Cotton's collecting interests focused on works central to the study of British history, such as chronicles, cartularies, maps and state papers.

Matthew Paris Map of Britain (Cotton MS Claudius D VI 1)

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans (d. 1259). Scotland is joined to the mainland by a bridge at Stirling, while Kent is located due South of London: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1

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The Cotton library contains a nationally significant collection of medieval chronicles. The manuscript of the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, shown here recording (in red ink) the foundation of the monasteries of Rievaulx in 1132 and Melrose in 1136, is the oldest surviving annalistic chronicle from Scotland: Cotton MS Faustina B IX, f. 18r

The importance of these manuscripts for our knowledge of the past cannot be overstated. For example, Robert Cotton brought together the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world, including two early copies of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and five manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, dating from AD 679. Many of these manuscripts will be on display later this year in the Library's major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

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The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, a grant of land by King Hlothhere of Kent to Abbot Beorhtwald and his monastery, dated 679. This document is also sometimes known as the 'Reculver charter' after the place where it was issued: Cotton MS Augustus II 2

After Robert Cotton's death, the library passed in turn to his son, Sir Thomas Cotton (d. 1662), and grandson, Sir John Cotton (d. 1702). In 1702, the Cotton library was acquired by the British government, the first occasion that any library passed into national ownership in Britain – an important step in the creation of a national, public library.

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Some of the greatest works of medieval English literature are preserved uniquely in the Cotton library, among them the only surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, ff. 94v–95r

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The Cotton library is integral to our knowledge of early modern British history. This document, written by King Edward VI of England in January 1551/2, is headed 'Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediatly concluded on by my counsell': Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273r. Edward's diary is also held in the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Nero C X, ff. 10–83

Most of the collection survived a major fire in 1731, which formed part of the impetus for the creation of the British Museum in 1753. Some of the manuscripts were damaged significantly in that fire, with a small number being completely destroyed. The volumes in question were restored in the 19th century and they continue to support scientific research into the preservation and digitisation of fire-damaged artefacts.

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In October 1731, the Cotton library narrowly escaped near-total destruction when a fire broke out at Ashburnham House in London. In the 19th century, it was discovered that the fire-damaged parchment leaves could be inlaid in modern paper mounts, as shown here in a page from Bede's Ecclesiastical History: Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

Ever since the library's formation, the Cotton manuscripts have been made available for consultation by scholars worldwide. You can read more about the Cotton manuscripts in our collection guide here.

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The Cotton library is particularly rich in illuminated manuscripts from Britain and beyond. Here is the opening page of the Coronation Book of King Charles V of France, commissioned in 1365: Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII/2, f. 35r 

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Many of the manuscripts are written in Latin or in English (including Old English, Middle English and Scots English). Other European languages represented in the collection include Cornish, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Welsh. Non-European languages include Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Inuit, Persian and Turkish. Here is page from a Latin-Old Cornish glossary, copied in South-East Wales in the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 8v

You can view many of the Cotton manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. We recommend that, on the homepage, you type into the Manuscripts search box 'Cotton MS' or 'Cotton Ch' in order to see those currently available; more are being added all the time.

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Sir Robert Cotton was closely acquainted with many of the leading scholars and collectors of his day. In this letter, Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644) sent him the charter of King John dated at Runnymede, now known as Magna Carta, and preserved as Cotton Charter XIII 31A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

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Cotton was renowned for rearranging his manuscripts and for preserving pages from other books and documents. Prefacing a gospelbook is this cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York, which in turn incorporates a mounted papyrus fragment of Gregory the Great, Homiliae XL in Evangelia, dating from the late 6th or 7th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r

The British Library's two manuscripts of Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215 and both forming part of Sir Robert Cotton's library, were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World International Register in 2009. We are thrilled that this whole manuscript collection of national and international importance has now been recognised by UNESCO. We hope that the Cotton library will continue to inspire research into the rich cultural and historical heritage of the British Isles. The full list of inscriptions on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register can be accessed here.

Tickets for the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, featuring a number of the Cotton manuscripts, can be purchased online.

 

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31 May 2018

London in medieval manuscripts

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The British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts team comes from all over the world, but we have one place in common: the city of London, where we work at St Pancras. Today is London History Day, and here are some of our favourite medieval depictions of that city, at once distant yet somehow still recognizable.

 

An early map of the world

London is one of the oldest capital cities, which has survived the fall of the Roman Empire, viking attacks, fires and more. Let's start our survey with the earliest surviving detailed map of the British Isles. This map was made in southern England in the mid-11th century, but it may have been based on earlier models, possibly including maps made under the Roman Empire. The British Isles is shown in the lower left corner, with Lundona being one of the places named.

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Cotton MS Tiberius B V!1  f. 56v British Isles

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An early map of the world, dating from the 11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v

 

London landmarks

The itinerary of Matthew Paris (d. 1259), a monk of St Albans Abbey, is a linear map that allowed the reader to travel to Jerusalem in his or her mind. Matthew described London as the chief city of England and claimed that it was founded originally by Brutus as ‘New Troy’. Matthew also picked out several landmarks, all of which still exist in some form or another today. These included the River Thames, Lambeth, Westminster, St Martin-in-the-Fields, the bridge, and the Tower of London. At the bottom of the map, Matthew Paris listed several of the gates of London. (Click here to see Edward Mills’s fantastic reconstruction of Matthew’s view of London.)

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Matthew Paris’s depiction of London: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r

 

The Tower of London

The earliest topographically accurate depiction of London is found in a collection of the poems of Charles, Duke of Orléans, made in Bruges around 1483. Charles had been captured at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and he was held in England for the next twenty-five years. At the centre of the image is the Tower of London, where Charles was imprisoned during some of this time in England and where he composed his poems.

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A view of London with the Tower of London, and Duke Charles d’Orléans writing in the Tower: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

Another early resident of the Tower was King Richard II. He was held in captivity there shortly after being deposed in 1399. Things didn't end well for Richard, as he subsequently died at Pontefract Castle (perhaps being starved to death).

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Richard II in the Tower: Harley MS 4380, f. 181v

One thing is certain. There are now fewer elephants in residence at the Tower than there were in the time of Matthew Paris!

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Matthew Paris’s drawing of the elephant that lived in the Tower of London: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 169v

 

St Paul's Cathedral

At the centre of the image in his Itinerary, Matthew Paris drew St Paul’s Church. His building is unfamiliar to modern eyes, since he depicted it with a steeple and not with the iconic dome designed by Christopher Wren (d. 1723), following the destruction of the medieval cathedral in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

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St Paul's Cathedral in the time of Matthew Paris: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r

 

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey today is probably not much different from the time of Matthew Paris. In the same manuscript as the Itinerary, Matthew Paris drew depictions of kings holding objects with which they are particularly identified. He depicted King Henry III (r. 1216–1272) holding Westminster Abbey, which he had rebuilt over the structure commissioned by Edward the Confessor. The Abbey today is still largely the same design as that commissioned by Henry.

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Matthew Paris’s depiction of Henry III holding Westminster Abbey: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 9r 

 

London Bridge

Other London landmarks looked very different. The city's bridges are not lined today with houses, as London Bridge was in the medieval period. The population of London was also substantially smaller: around 60,000 people lived there by 1500. But ‘rush hour’ could still be perilous. John Lydgate recounted how, at 4pm on 20 November 1441, the young son of a butcher was pushed by an ox and fell off London Bridge. Thanks to the help of St Edmund, a passing boatman rescued the child and returned him, safe and sound, to his mother. The whole sequence is illustrated vividly in a 15th-century copy of Lydgate’s Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund.

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A boy falling off London Bridge and being returned by a boatman to his mother: Yates Thompson MS 47, ff. 94v, 97r

 

Alison Hudson and Julian Harrison

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19 April 2018

A Bible fit for a king

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As regular readers of this Blog will know, the display of the Lindisfarne Gospels follows a conservation programme recommended by an international committee of experts. It is now back in secure storage for a rest period, until the autumn when it will be back on display and featured in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library. 

In its place we have just put out on display in the British Library's Sir John Ritblat Gallery (Royal MS 15 D I and Royal MS 18 D IX) two volumes that have been described as forming the most beautiful Bible in French ever made (Berger, La Bible (1884), p. 389; a companion volume is Royal MS 18 D X). Their large number of images, which illustrate a wide range of Old and New Testament subjects, certainly make the Bible among the most profusely illustrated. Moreover, many of their illustrations treat their biblical subjects with a painterly breadth and spaciousness that distinguish them from other late medieval Bible miniatures. Overall, the Bible is an eloquent witness to why Gabriel Tetzel, a visitor to England, described the court of Edward IV (r. 1461–83) in February 1466 as ‘the most splendid … in all Christendom’ (cited in Charles Ross, Edward IV (London, 1974), p. 259).

These volumes were produced in Bruges, one of the most vibrant commercial and artistic centres in Europe during the second half of the 15th  century. Bruges teemed with book artisans capable of producing high quality manuscripts for wealthy clients.

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As he sits feasting at his table, King Belshazzar is distressed at the sight of a disembodied human hand writing on the wall of his chamber, in the book of Daniel: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 45r

As in many such volumes, the illumination is the result of close collaboration between several artists. All but one of its eleven large miniatures in the volume including the books of Tobit to the Acts of the Apostles (Royal MS 15 D I) were contributed by a principal artist working with a talented assistant. In such images as Belshazzar’s Feast these two illuminators developed striking compositions, the basic simplicity of which is enlivened by the bold application of a lively palette and the introduction of a range of complicated figure poses. Despite their large size, all the illustrations focus almost entirely on one episode each.

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Christ dies on the Cross between the two thieves, as Mary falls into the arms of St John, the other two women look on in grief and the Centurion and soldiers converse, in the Gospel Harmony: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 353r

Additional scenes are relegated to obscure corners of the miniatures and easily overlooked by the viewer. In putting together their paintings, the two miniaturists drew on a stock of patterns of both individual figures and groups. Sources for the impressive Crucifixion, for example, include an earlier Netherlandish engraving of the same subject for the two thieves and a panel painting of the Crucifixion by the celebrated Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden (d. 1464) for the crucified Christ.

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Judith holds the head of the Assyrian general Holofernes whom she has beheaded while in a drunken stupor in his tent outside the besieged city of Bethulia; in the background she carries his head on the point of her sword back to the city, in the book of Judith: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 66v

The only large miniature not painted by these two artists, The Death of Holofernes, was contributed by a painter who worked with a more subdued palette and had greater interest in the depiction of space and the play of light over forms.

Like many of his royal predecessors, Edward IV sought to possess some of the finest books produced on the Continent. As a result he established a remarkable collection of lavish south Netherlandish manuscripts that reflected contemporary aristocratic taste for French instructional and historicising texts enlivened by colourful illuminations. At the beginning of the Tobit to Acts volume, an inscription by the scribe Jan du Ries identifies the date of his manuscript as 1470 and its patron as Edward. However, the volume appears not to have been originally intended for the English king. Edward’s name and titles have clearly been written over an erasure and were not part of du Ries’s original text. Further evidence suggests that the volume was completed for Edward much later.

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Tobit is blinded by bird droppings while he lies asleep in his house; outside Tobit’s son Tobias converses with the angel Raphael disguised as a traveller, at the beginning of the book of Tobit: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 18r

The two companion volumes that make up the remainder of his Bible historiale are dated 1479, a date that conforms to what we now know to have been Edward’s principal period of collecting Netherlandish illuminated manuscripts. Detailed analysis of the heraldry and border decoration, together with an analysis of the costumes of the figures, confirms that the decoration of this volume also formed part of that campaign around 1479.

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God creating the animals: Royal MS 18 D IX, f. 5r

The other volume on display features a magnificent image of God creating the animals, painted in vivid detail. Probably for lack of an earlier patron with sufficient interest and wealth, the high ambition of the planners of this copy of the Bible historiale remained unfulfilled until several years after the writing of the text, when the painting was finally completed for the English king.

 

Further reading

Samuel Berger, La Bible française au Moyen Âge: Étude sur les plus anciennes versions de la Bible écrites en prose de langue d’oïl (Paris, 1884), pp. 389–90.

Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick, Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe (Los Angeles, 2003), no. 82.

John Lowden, ‘Bible historiale: Tobit to Acts’, in Scot McKendrick, John Lowden and Kathleen Doyle, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination (London, 2011), no. 53.

Scot McKendrick, ‘The Manuscripts of Edward IV: The Documentary Evidence’, in 1000 Years of Royal Books and Manuscripts, ed. by Kathleen Doyle and Scot McKendrick (London, 2013), pp. 149–77.

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), no. 42.

 

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14 April 2018

Italian splendour now on display in Treasures

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During the second half of the 13th century the northern Italian city of Bologna became one of the most prolific and influential centres for the production of fine books. Here a succession of illuminators exercised their skills in many hundreds of copies of the Church law, liturgy and the Bible.

Whereas the law books reflected the city’s status as the principal place in Europe to study Church law, the Bibles arose from the presence in the city of one of the largest houses of the Dominican order in Europe. Founded by St Dominic (d. 1221), the Order of Preachers had quickly established a key role within the Church in the promotion of scholarship and countering of heresy. Together with the Franciscans (founded in 1209) they harnessed to these purposes the so-called Paris Bible, a single-volume copy of the Latin Vulgate of relatively small proportions. This Bible included a new sequence of biblical texts and aids to the reader that had emerged from the classrooms and bookshops of Paris in the first quarter of the 13th century. In mendicant hands such pocket Bibles became a potent instrument of the travelling preacher. At Bologna, the final resting place of St Dominic, the dominant influence of his Order led to the production of many more such Bibles than anywhere else in Italy.

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Christ’s genealogy, starting from Jesse, the Annunciation, Nativity and Presentation in the Temple, all at the opening of the Gospel of St Matthew: Additional MS 18720, f. 410r

The Bible now on display in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery is a closely related manifestation of Bologna’s important role in the production and dissemination of the Latin Bible, although it was produced in a much bigger format. But as in the pocket Bibles, the biblical text of the Old and New Testaments is contained within one volume and follows the same revised sequence, clearly highlighted by running titles in alternating red and blue ink.

Each book of the Bible is preceded by a preface and most notably, divided into the numbered chapters used by modern Bibles. Often ascribed to the commentator Stephen Langton (d. 1228), archbishop of Canterbury, this reference system is seen in its full maturity in the Bolognese manuscript, with each chapter starting on a new line and preceded on the previous line by the relevant Roman numbers penned in red and blue ink.

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Two Dominicans stands to the left and right of a seated figure reading from a roll, at the opening of St Jerome’s Letter to Paulinus: Additional MS 18720, f. 2r (detail)

Depictions of the friars also pervade the illumination. Two Dominicans in their distinctive white gowns and black hooded cloaks are depicted standing to right and left of Paulinus, bishop of Nola (d. 431), who was the recipient of the letter of St Jerome that recommended committed study of the Bible and came to form an overall preface to the Vulgate. Friars in the brown robes of the Franciscans also appear as the recipients of several of the Pauline and Catholic Epistles.

Yet, in its much larger scale and more lavish illumination, the Bolognese volume clearly differs from the average pocket Bible. As in a few other related Bibles produced in Bologna towards the end of the 13th century, its producers were responding to a different commercial market in which prospective owners were capable of paying for significantly greater investment of labour and talent. Most spectacularly they produced at the beginning of both the Old and New Testaments an opulent page in which the principal initial letter ‘I’ extends the full height of the page and encroaches into the text block to left and right.

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God creates the world; Adam and Eve are drive out of the Garden of Eden; Cain and Abel make their sacrifices to God; and Cain kills Abel, all at the opening of Genesis: Additional MS 18720, f. 5r

Here a richly coloured cascade of figures is offset against a ground of highly polished gold leaf and complemented by historiated and inhabited roundels in the upper and lower margins.

Elsewhere 103 historiated initials of remarkably uniform and high stylistic quality and accompanied by beautifully executed marginal decoration mark the beginning of prefaces and biblical books. The initials of the chronologically arranged historical books of the Old Testament include narrative scenes, those of the Prophets and Gospels are limited to fictive portraits of their authors and those of the Epistles depict both author and recipient.

Within these figurative illuminations the artists adopted an eclectic artistic style fusing Italian elements with those of Byzantine art. The panoply of archangels accompanying the Days of Creation are clad in Byzantine court costume. Crouching men reading from rolls draped over their knees evoke even older traditions. For some of these features the illuminators may have drawn, like other contemporary Bolognese artists, directly on works of art recently created by Byzantine artists.

This manuscript may be viewed in full on Digitised Manuscripts (Add MS 18720/1 and Add MS 18720/2).

 

Further Reading


Alessandro Conti, La miniatura Bolognese: Scuole e botteghe, 1270–1340 (Bologna, 1981), pp. 45–47.

Larry Ayres, ‘Bibbie italiane e bibbie francesi: il XIII secolo’, in Il Gotico europeo in Italia, ed. by Valentino Pace and Martina Bagnoli (Naples, 1994), pp. 361–74 (pp. 370–71).

Ducento: Forme e colori del Medioevo a Bologna, ed. by Massimo Medica and Stefano Tumidei (Venice, 2000), no. 114.

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), available here.

 

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04 January 2018

Glimpses of early Christian splendour in Constantinople

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For over one thousand years Constantinople (now Istanbul) was a byword for awe-inspiring splendour. Named after the Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337), who transferred the capital of the Roman Empire there in 324, the city also became the Christian capital of the world.

The Golden Canon Tables (British Library Add MS 5111/1 [ff. 10–11]) are spectacular witnesses to the remarkable quality of painting undertaken in Constantinople to embellish Christian texts. For one modern authority, they are ‘perhaps the most precious fragments of any Early Christian manuscript’ (Kurt Weitzmann, Late Antique and Early Christian Book Illumination, p. 116). Now mere fragments, they both hint at what fine early manuscripts of the Bible we might have lost and caution against rash generalisations based merely on those that have survived. The Canon Tables are now available on our Digitised Manuscripts website to view in glorious detail with the zoom feature.

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The Golden Canon Tables: Add MS 5111/1, f. 10r

As we mentioned in a blogpost several weeks ago, as a text the canon tables are ubiquitous and fundamental to Christian copies of Scripture over many centuries. Of the two thousand or so manuscripts that each contains the Four Gospels in Greek (literally, the Tetraevangelion), the vast majority begin with these tables. Devised by the early Church Father Eusebius (d. 340), bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, these tables formed a unifying gateway to the fundamental but multiple narratives of the Evangelists Sts Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Canon 1 lists passages common to all four Gospels, Canons 2–9 different combinations of two or three Gospels and Canon 10 those passages found only in one Gospel. Building on a system of dividing up the text of the Gospels into verses that he attributed to Ammonius of Alexandria, Eusebius assigned consecutive numbers to sections in each Gospel and used these numbers within his tables to correlate related passages. The present leaves are rare witnesses of an early revision of Eusebius’s tables.

The Golden Canon Tables are a chance survival. Separated from the text of the Four Gospels that they once prefaced, they were added to a Greek Gospels written sometime before 1189. As they survive, the tables comprise the end of Eusebius’s letter, part of Canon 1, all of Canons 8–9 and part of Canon 10. Originally each of the two leaves would have been around twice as large. Both letter and tables are written in an imposing majuscule, or upper case, script on parchment previously painted entirely with ‘shell’ gold, that is powdered gold suspended in a binding medium so-called because this pigment was often kept in a shell in the early Christian and medieval periods.

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The Golden Canon Tables: Add MS 5111/1, f. 10v

Each is framed by magnificently illuminated columns and arches that distinctively combine rigorous geometric and linear forms with remarkable naturalistic features. Carefully drawn outlines and regularly applied paint stress the surface qualities of the overall architectural scheme. Elsewhere lavish and energetic brushwork emulate three-dimensional, natural forms, including lushly growing flowers and colourful birds. The letter is enclosed by one wide arch that once extended to the full width of the page and the tables by two narrower arches on each page.

Within the tables each of the arches is inscribed at the top with the canon number and subdivided below into further smaller arches, each of which is headed by the abbreviated name of the relevant Evangelist. Below each of these smaller arches are the parallel lists of section numbers for each Gospel, written in Greek letters and in groups of four.

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The Golden Canon Tables: Add MS 5111/1, f. 11r (detail)

Within the surviving arches are four complete medallions with male bust portraits, three of which bear haloes. Each of these medallions emulates an ancient Roman form of portraiture known as the imago clipeata (shield portrait) which honoured the dead by a bust set within a round, shield-shaped form. The Christian symbol of the fish is included in the decorated arch directly above the bust portrait heading Canons 8 and 9. When complete the Golden Canon Tables probably contained twelve bust portraits. It has been argued that these memorialised the Apostles and were inspired by similar busts set in the arcades of the rotunda mausoleum of Constantine the Great located beside the Church of the Apostles at Constantinople.

For more information about Greek illuminated Gospels in general, including the Golden Canon Tables, please see our webspace dedicated to Greek manuscripts.

 

Further reading

Carl Nordenfalk, Die spätantiken Kanontafeln (Göteborg, 1938), pp. 127–46.

Carl Nordenfalk, ‘The Apostolic Canon Tables’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 62 (1963), 17–34 (pp. 19–21).

Kurt Weitzmann, Late Antique and Early Christian Book Illumination (London, 1977), pp. 19, 29, 116, pl. 43.

Byzantium: Treasures of Byzantine Art and Culture from British Collections, ed. by David Buckton (London, 1994), no. 68.

John Lowden, ‘The Beginnings of Biblical Illustration’, in Imaging the Early Medieval Bible, ed. by John Williams (University Park, PA, 1999), pp. 9–59 (pp. 24–26).

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), available here

 

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27 September 2017

Fifty shades of grisaille

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The medieval period had a fascinating relationship with colour, producing beautifully illuminated manuscripts, vibrant stained glass and other richly decorated artworks. It is surprising then, that during the later Middle Ages a new highly prized art form developed almost entirely in shades of grey. From the French word gris (‘grey’), the technique of grisaille was only used in luxury manuscripts and signified the wealth and social status of their owners.

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Miniature of Philosophy holding the planetary spheres, in a French translation of Augustine’s De civitate Dei, last quarter of the 15th century, from Royal MS 14 D I, f. 337v

The use of grisaille possibly originated in the 12th century, following an attempted ban on the use of colour in stained-glass painting made by the Cistercian Order. During the 12th and 13th centuries, windows decorated in grisaille rose in popularity and were installed in medieval churches alongside coloured glass portraits of figures. The Italian artist Giotto (c. 1267–1337) is credited with the first use of grisaille in wall painting in the early 14th-century allegorical fresco of the Seven Virtues and Vices. Featuring on the north and south walls of the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, the monochrome figures of the Virtues and Vices are painted to resemble stone and marble sculpture.

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Details of Charity and Envy, from the Seven Virtues and Vices fresco cycle, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy, c. 1303–1306

Manuscript illuminations began to feature grisaille painting from the first half of the 14th century onwards, and the art technique was used to indicate the manuscript’s status as a luxury product. The British Library houses several examples of the grisaille style of illumination, including a French Bible historiale in two volumes produced for Charles V of France in 1357 before his coronation as king in 1364. Both volumes (now Royal MS 17 E VII vol 1 and vol 2) open with large miniatures partially in grisaille. The second volume opens with scenes from the life of Solomon with a playful bas-de-page scene underneath of a lion, Charles V’s symbol.

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Opening page of Guyart des Moulins, Bible historiale with miniature of scenes from the life of Solomon and bas-de-page below of lion and monkeys, France, 1357, from Royal MS 17 E VII vol 2, f. 1r

Grisaille continued to be used in manuscript illuminations into the 15th and 16th centuries, as seen in a French translation of Augustine’s De civitate Dei (now Royal MS 14 D I) made for an unknown noble patron and featuring 11 miniatures in grisaille at the beginning of each book,  and containing a depiction of Philosophy holding the planetary spheres. Similar illuminations appear in a later copy of Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War (now Harley MS 6205) produced for Francis I in 1519. The manuscript’s decoration was completed by a Flemish artist, Godefroy le Batave, including a dramatic night scene illustration of Caesar in battle.

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Miniature of Caesar in battle, in Commentaires de la Guerre Gallique, France, 1519, from Harley MS 6205, f. 21v

Monochrome painting techniques soon developed beyond the colour grey. A 16th-century luxury Book of Hours features beautiful examples of camaïeu decoration, that is, single-colour painting in any colour other than grey. This Book of Hours (now Add MS 35313) was possibly produced for Joanna ‘The Mad’ I, Queen of Castille and Aragon, and illustrated by two Ghent master artists known as the Master of James IV of Scotland and the Maximilian Master. The calendar pages at the beginning of the manuscript are accompanied by illustrations of the labours of the months and zodiac signs completed in colour, as well as medallions in camaïeu of imitation gold. These medallions illustrate the lives of saints that have feast days listed in the calendar. The November page medallions depict All Saints; the soul in purgatory; St Martin of Tours; St Clement; St Catherine; and St Andrew. They are ordered by appearance in the calendar page from earliest (top) to latest (bottom), and the feast days are written in red ink to highlight them. The medallions also appear to imitate wood panel and the careful highlighting and shadow provides a 3-D relief effect, much like Giotto’s earlier fresco panels. These medallions are best seen close up: you can zoom in on their fascinating detail on our Digitised Manuscripts site here.

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Calendar page for November bordered by medallions in camaïeu depicting saints’ lives, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Add MS 35313, f. 6v

 

Alison Ray

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05 April 2017

An illustrated Old English Herbal

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Plant-based remedies were a major feature of Anglo-Saxon medicine. Thanks to our current digitisation project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, funded by The Polonsky Foundation, one of the British Library’s earliest illustrated collections of such remedies has just been digitised.

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Entries for chamomile and ‘hart clover’, from an illustrated Old English Herbal, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), c. 1000–1025, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 29v

This manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) is the only surviving illustrated Old English herbal, or book describing plants and their uses. (There are other, non-illustrated manuscripts of the same text, for example in Harley MS 585.) The text is an Old English translation of a text which used to be attributed to a 4th-century writer known as Pseudo-Apuleius, now recognised as  several different Late Antique authors whose texts were subsequently combined. The manuscript also includes Old English translations of Late Antique texts on the medicinal properties of badgers (framed as a fictional letter between Octavian and a king of Egypt) and another on medicines derived from parts of four-legged animals. Together, the herbal and the text on four-legged animals are now known as part of the so-called 'Pseudo-Apuleius Complex' of texts.

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A man and a centaur presenting a book to a figure in a blue veil or hood, captioned 'Escolapius Plato Centaurus', from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 19r

Each entry features an illustration of a plant or animal; its name in various languages; descriptions of ailments it can be used to treat; and instructions for finding and preparing it. Remedies for poisonous bites were marked out with drawings of snakes and scorpions. For instance, a snake appears near the entry for sweet basil, called ‘snake plant’ (naedderwyrt), because it was reported to grow where snakes were found and to be useful against injuries caused by snakes. 

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‘Snakeplant’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57r

Although it might seem like a practical guide to finding plants and preparing remedies, this manuscript's uses are debated. First, the illustrations are not always very useful for identifying plants and animals in the wild: take, for example, these depictions of strawberries and elephants.

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‘Streawberian’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 33v

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A monkey and elephant, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 82r

Secondly, the texts include plants and animals from Mediterranean regions and beyond which are not known to be native to the British Isles, such as cumin and licorice. Scholars debate whether the Anglo-Saxons knew these plants through trade or whether the early medieval climate could have permitted such plants to grow in England. Alternatively, the scribes and artists could simply have copied them from their Mediterranean source. The text sometimes explicitly acknowledges that plants are best found in distant regions. For example, ‘dragonswort… is said that it should be grown in dragon’s blood. It grows at the tops of mountains where there are groves of trees, chiefly in holy places and in the country that is called Apulia’ (translated by Anne Van Arsdall, in Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 154). The Herbal also includes mythical lore about some plants, such as the mandrake, said to shine at night and to flee from impure persons. To pick it, the text claimed you needed an iron tool (to dig around it), an ivory staff (to dig the plant itself up), a dog (to help you pull it out), and quick reflexes.

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A mandrake, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57v

However, while this manuscript’s exact uses are debatable, it continued to be used into the 16th century: later users added numbers to the table of contents, some recipes and variants of plants' names in Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and English. Eventually, a later copy of Peter of Poitiers’ Chronicle and a 9th-century copy of Macrobius’s Saturnalia were bound with the herbal. The volume may once have belonged to William Harvey (b. 1578, d. 1657), who discovered the circulation of blood. Some of his own recipes — featuring ‘licoris’, ‘cinemon’ and opium — are found at the end of the volume.

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Recipe for ‘A Diet Drinke’ in the hand of William Harvey, 1624, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 140v

__________

Le printemps s'annonce et en Angleterre les jardins commencent à renaître. La British Library vient de numériser un manuscrit rempli d’images de plantes (et d’animaux). Ce manuscrit (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) contient des textes médicaux attribués à Pseudo-Apulée: un herbier, qui précise les usages médicaux des plantes, et aussi un texte qui concèrne les usages médicaux des animaux. Tous ces textes sont traduits en vieil anglais.

Ce manuscrit est le seul exemple d’un herbier anglo-saxon illustré. Les images dépeignent les plantes et les animaux décrits dans le texte.  Cependant, les images des fraises et de l’éléphant révèlent un certain manque de vraisemblance de la part de l’artiste.

Malgré cela, plusieurs lecteurs ont utilisé ce manuscrit: il y a des additions dans des mains datant de l'onzième jusqu’au seizième siècle. Il est possible que William Harvey, le médecin qui a découvert les lois de la circulation du sang, l’ait possédé : des recettes médicales, dans sa propre main, se trouvent maintenant à la fin du manuscrit. Aujourd’hui, ce volume contient aussi une copie du Compendium historiae de Pierre de Poitiers.

 

Alison Hudson

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25 February 2017

The Art and History of Calligraphy

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On Thursday, 2 March (19.00–20.30), professional calligrapher Patricia Lovett will be giving a talk at the British Library, entitled 'The Art and History of Calligraphy'. Patricia will be drawing from the Library’s rich collections of manuscripts to tell us about the art and history of calligraphy from her own practitioner’s perspective. Not only will her talk be accessible for a lay audience, but it will also offer insights that should interest experienced book historians. Patricia is able to identify in manuscripts aspects of the historical processes of writing that may not be obvious to academic audiences, such as when the quill was refilled, when it needed to be cut, how it was cut, and the relationship of the lettering to illumination.

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Detail of a miniature of Prudence writing at her desk, with pupils before her, from Laurent d’Orleans, La somme le roi, France (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 19 C II, f. 48v

In her talk, Patricia Lovett will be showing some of the most extraordinary examples of historical scripts found in British Library manuscripts. She will illustrate how, from Roman times until the present day, different writing styles and materials have changed the ways in which letters were formed, and how this resulted in a range of scripts that men and women used to express their ideas and beliefs. (Her talk features the earliest example of a British woman’s handwriting!) Patricia will explain how the scribe of the Lindisfarne Gospels, writing around the year 700 at the monastery of Lindisfarne, created his beautifully decorated Insular script; how the approximately 20 scribes of the Moutier-Grandval Bible, working in 9th-century Tours, executed the then recently-developed Caroline minuscule; how scribes in subsequent centuries developed the much more narrow and angular Gothic script in some of the most sumptuous late medieval manuscripts (such as the Luttrell Psalter and the Bedford Hours); and how changes in writing style in Renaissance Italy resulted in the so-called humanistic script.

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The Evangelist Matthew writing his Gospel, England, c. 700, Cotton MS Nero D IV, the Lindisfarne Gospels, f. 25v (left). St Jerome writing the Vulgate, France, c. 1410 – 1430, Add MS 18850, the Bedford Hours, f. 24r (right).

You also get a chance to see Patricia at work: after her talk she will be signing copies of her new British Library book calligraphically!

 

Patricia Lovett, 'The Art and History of Calligraphy'

The British Library

Thursday, 2 March 2017, 19:00–20:30

 

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