Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

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

21 October 2020

Angels in Manuscripts

Angels pop up all over the place in medieval manuscripts, from Books of Hours to handbooks on magic. They are key players in Old and New Testament stories and feature in decorative borders. Join us for a tour of some of the wonderful images of angels in British Library manuscripts and the many varied contexts in which they appear.

Angelology

An illustrated treatise by Francesc Eiximenis discusses the properties of angels, for instance ‘How an angelic spirit has no body and yet it can take on corporeal form by entering a body’ and the characteristics of good and bad angels. Each man and woman must choose between the angels’ path of goodness and the evil ways of the devil, as shown in this miniature below.

Illuminated manuscript with an picture of a guardian angel guiding a man away from the devil
A guardian angel guides a man away from the devil, in the Livre des anges, a French translation of Francesc Eiximenis, Llibre dels Àngels: Sloane MS 3049, f. 27r

The Breviari d’Amour, an encyclopaedic work in the Catalan language with the emphasis on theological and courtly traditions, contains a section on the offices or tasks of angels, which include seeing off the devil, interceding with Christ for humanity and carrying souls to Heaven. 

An angel brings food and a jug of wine to Ezekiel (above), and two angels carry the soul of a dying man to heaven while a devil retreats (below)
An angel brings food and a jug of wine to Ezekiel (above), and two angels carry the soul of a dying man to heaven while a devil retreats (below), Matfré Ermengau of Béziers's Breviari d'Amour: Yates Thompson MS 31, f. 40r

Angels in the Old Testament

Angels play a leading role in some of the best-known stories in both the Old and New Testaments. In Genesis, when Adam and Eve are banished from Paradise for eating the forbidden fruit, an angel with a flaming sword bars the gate to the garden and they are forced out into the world where they have to work hard for their livelihood.

The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden
Adam and Eve banished from Eden; an Angel stands, sword in hand, barring the gate; Adam digs and Eve spins, The Holkham Picture Bible: Add MS 47682, f. 4v

In the Old Testament story of Jacob, grandson of Abraham, he has a vision of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels climbing up and down, and he hears God’s voice blessing him from above. In his old age, returning home to the land of Canaan after a long exile, he wrestles with an angel all night, remaining unbeaten, and receives a blessing, being given the name ‘Israel’. These two episodes are illustrated as part of a prefatory set of images from the Bible in the Omne Bonum, an alphabetical encyclopedia of general knowledge written by James le Palmer, Clerk of the Exchequer in c. 1360.

Jacob's dream (above), and Jacob wrestling the angel (below)
Jacob's dream (above), and Jacob wrestling the angel (below), Omne Bonum: Royal MS 6 E VI/1, f. 3v

Angels and the Birth of Christ

The Feast of the Annunciation is one of the most important in the medieval church calendar. Pictures of the Angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary to announce that she will give birth to Christ are found in Books of Hours, Missals, Psalters and Bibles. A search using the term ‘Annunciation’ in the ‘Image description’ field of our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts produces 166 results, one of the earliest being the Echternach Gospels from the mid-11th century, where a full-page illumination of this scene precedes the Gospel of Matthew.

The Annunciation
The Angel Gabriel appears to Mary at the Annunciation, the Echternach Gospels: Egerton MS 608, f. 20r

Angels sometimes appear in scenes of the Nativity, including this charming depiction of a helpful angel preparing a bath for the newborn Christ in the stable, while the baby plays with the donkey, Mary rests, and Joseph looks on with his arms crossed. This is just one example of how useful angels can be to have around.

A Nativity scene in a Book of Hours
The Nativity, at the beginning of the prayers for the hour of Prime in the Hours of the Virgin: Sloane MS 2468, f. 51r

Angels in Revelation

Angels play a key role as the agents of God’s plan for the end of the world in Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. They guide John in his vision and bring about disasters on earth: seven angels are given seven trumpets to blow, causing a series of cataclysmic events, and later, seven angels use seven censers to pour out plagues on earth.

Two tiered manuscript illumination: Christ enthroned and the seven angels with trumpets (above); an angel with a censer (below)
Christ enthroned and the seven angels with trumpets (above); an angel with a censer (below) (Revelation 8:2-5), the Silos Apocalypse: Add MS 11695, f. 126r

In Revelation, a war takes place in heaven between the forces of good, led by the archangel Michael and the evil followers of the dragon, or the devil. The Tiberius Psalter from mid-11th century Winchester contains a colour outline drawing of St Michael defeating the dragon, as part of a series of scenes from the Bible.

St Michael defeats the devil in the Tiberius Psalter
St Michael defeats the dragon (Revelation 12), the ‘Tiberius Psalter’: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 16r

Angels in saints lives

Two of the leading English saints, Cuthbert and Guthlac, were visited by angels, as shown in their illustrated hagiographies. According to the Venerable Bede’s account of his life, St Cuthbert, who became bishop of Lindisfarne, was visited in his youth by an angel disguised as a weary traveller. In this scene, Cuthbert has seated the traveller at his table and is washing his feet, showing Christ-like humility. Here the artist has cleverly dressed the figure in the hooded cloak of a traveller or pilgrim, but has included angels’ wings to show his true nature.

Cuthbert washes the feet of an angel in disguise
Cuthbert washes the feet of an angel in disguise, from Chapter 7 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert: Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 17v

The life of Guthlac, the Mercian hermit-saint, is told in a series of roundels on a parchment roll produced in Lincolnshire in c. 1200. He builds a cell on the island of Crowland, where he is visited by an angel and St Bartholemew.

An angel and St Bartholomew speaking to St Guthlac
An angel and St Bartholomew speaking to St Guthlac, The Guthlac Roll: Harley Roll Y 6

Good and Bad Angels

As Revelation shows, not all angels are benign. In the Divine Comedy, when Dante reaches paradise with Beatrice, they see the Archangels Michael and Raphael battling the bad angels (who fell from grace with Lucifer) and casting them into hell.

Beatrice, hovering above a kneeling Dante, gestures towards the Trinity, while the Archangels fight the fallen angels
Beatrice, hovering above a kneeling Dante, gestures towards the Trinity, while the Archangels fight the fallen angels, Divina Commedia: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 181r

Beliefs about angels were not always sanctioned by the Church as they could sometimes cross over into the occult. A book of magic from the 16th century known as the Sworn Book of Honorius has a section on how to summon heavenly intermediaries so that they will impart knowledge of all things to the user. Both good and bad angels are pictured and named on this page. The images themselves were believed to have magical properties.

The red angels of Mars and the golden angels of the sun
The red angels of Mars, Samahel, Satyhel, Ylurahyhel and Amabyhel and the golden angels of the Sun, Raphael, Cashael, Daryhel and Haurathaphel, in The Sworn Book of Honorius: Royal MS 17 A XLII, f. 68v

Good and bad, useful and militant, it's clear that angels hold an important place in medieval illumination. Explore more amazing images on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts and Digitised Manuscripts sites.

Chantry Westwell

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06 October 2020

Early medieval interlace – a distinctive or ubiquitous feature?

Regular readers of this blog are likely familiar with splendid examples of ‘Insular’ art — the art of the islands of Britain and Ireland from the 7th to 9th centuries. The iconic Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the most well-known, but you can also admire several examples on the webspace for the recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

Manuscript page in two columns with large decorated initial A in black, red, and green ink.
Decorated initial ‘A’ at the beginning of Book 3 of Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum; Southern England (Canterbury?), c. 800-850; Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 60v.

As is clear from this initial from the Tiberius Bede, one of the main decorative elements of Insular art is the incorporation of delicately drawn interlacing knotwork designs. The inside of the letter is decorated with interlacing ribbons on a black ink background. The tongue of the beast’s head at the top of the letter also interweaves with itself. Patterns like this are still closely associated with Irish, Scottish, and Welsh cultural identity, often called ‘Celtic knotwork’.

Intricate interlace designs are also an important element of the style of manuscript art known as ‘Franco-Saxon’. ‘Franco’ refers to Francia (the kingdom of the Franks), where this style originated. The ‘Saxon’ part of the term refers to the incorporation of Insular decorative motifs (when this term was coined in the late 19th century Insular art was often called ‘Hiberno-Saxon’). In general, the Franco-Saxon style is characterised by a fusion of motifs based on Insular models and features of layout, decoration, and script of the Carolingian manuscript tradition. The Carolingian dynasty seized control over the area roughly corresponding to modern-day France from 751, expanded the kingdom, and ruled (intermittently) until 987.

Interlace is usually described as one of the most defining Insular components of the Franco-Saxon style. Interlace decoration has also been seen as evidence of the spread of this style to the scriptorium of Saint-Martin of Tours during the second half of the 9th century. The Benedictine abbey of Saint-Martin of Tours was one of the most influential centres of manuscript production in the Carolingian empire in the early decades of the century. However, in 853 Tours was attacked by one of the Norse war bands who carried out raids along the rivers of France. To help restore the Abbey’s destroyed library, books from other Carolingian centres were sent to the monks of Tours. We know that at least one of those manuscripts was a Franco-Saxon manuscript from Saint-Amand, one of the main centres of the Franco-Saxon style.

Opening page of the Gospel of Matthew, with a large ligature LI in gold and colours and the rest of the text written in gold.
Decorated ligature ‘LI’, (Liber), beginning of the Gospel of Matthew; Tours, c. 850-900; Add MS 11849, f. 27r.

Consequently, the decoration in manuscripts made at Tours in the decades after the attack of 853 has been described as incorporating the Franco-Saxon style into the diverse and well-developed Tours style. This Gospel book from Tours, digitised as part of the Polonsky project (Add MS 11849), is one example of this. The golden ribbons that both form the outline of the ligature ‘LI’ (Liber) (book) as well as interlaced designs within the letter and at their terminals, have been compared to decorated initials in well-known Franco-Saxon manuscripts.

But there is a problem with using the presence of interlace as a distinguishing feature of an early medieval style. When you start to look at early medieval manuscripts from across northern Europe, you quickly notice that interlacing knotwork decoration is an omnipresent decorative element.

Detail of the top of a manuscript page with a initial D in red and brown ink.
Detail of decorated initial ’D’ (Dixit), Cassiodorus, Expositio psalmorum; Southern Netherlands, Stavelot (now in Belgium), c. 850-875; Add MS 16962, f. 55v.

For example, in the area that is now Belgium and the Southern Netherlands, interlace in a slightly different variant was also common during this period. Here it is incorporated within the stem of the initial ‘D’ as well as in a design within the letter, in red and brown ink.

Detail of the top of a manuscript page with a large initial D with interlace and beasts’ head decoration with details in green.
Detail of decorated initial ‘D’ (Disciplina), Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae; Western France, c. 800-900; Harley MS 2686, f. 5r.

Similarly, interlace is also present in contemporary manuscripts that were most likely made in Brittany, which was never incorporated fully into the Carolingian empire. Perhaps that is why manuscript art from this area often continued to resemble Frankish manuscripts created before the spread of Carolingian influence (i.e. before c. 750).

Detail of the top of a manuscript page with a large initial D in brown ink with some black or dark blue details.
Detail of decorated initial ‘D’ (Dominus) (Lord), at beginning of Liber Scintillarum (Book of Sparks) by the so-called Defensor of Ligugé; Northern Italy, c. 775-825; Cotton MS Nero A II, f. 45r.

Further south, in Northern Italy, early medieval manuscripts also feature interlace in their decorated initials. This is apparent in a late 8th-early 9th manuscript (now Cotton MS Nero A II), which has a large initial ‘D’, with its ascender swooping to the left. The letter incorporates knotwork patterns within its rounded bowl, while another interlace design of thicker ribbons continues and reaches inside the bowl.

Insular artists, responsible for creations like the Lindisfarne Gospels, undeniably mastered the basic principles of interlacing knotwork and created incredibly intricate and imaginative designs. As a type of pattern in itself, however, it was such a ubiquitous feature of early medieval European art that its presence in a manuscript does not necessarily indicate specifically Insular influence.

Emilia Henderson

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03 October 2020

The Bamberg Book of Relics

The Bamberg Book of Relics (Add MS 15689) represents the medieval treasure trove of Bamberg Cathedral. It contains more than 100 illustrations of highly decorated containers with the physical remains of holy men and women, fragments of the sites they visited, and the objects they touched. The relics and their containers (reliquaries) are organised by shape, and include banners, vestments, vessels (monstrances), busts, caskets and crosses. Among the most prized relics are those associated with the life of Christ, such as hair of the Virgin Mary, pieces of the Holy Cross, one of the nails from the Crucifixion, and incense that the Three Magi presented to the infant Christ.

A container with blue, green and red colours, containing incense that the Three Magi presented to Christ

A reliquary containing incense that the Three Magi presented to Christ: Add MS 15689, f. 6r

Prominent in this manuscript are the relics of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II (973–1024) and his wife Cunigunde of Luxembourg (975–1040). Henry, the last monarch of the Ottonian dynasty, and Cunigunde, a descendant of Charlemagne, were strongly connected to Bamberg. Upon their marriage, Henry gave Cunigunde his land in Bamberg as a wedding gift. In 1002, he founded Bamberg Cathedral, which was consecrated on his birthday in 1012, and in 1007 he established the new bishopric of Bamberg. As founders and patrons, Henry and Cunigunde were buried inside Bamberg Cathedral. Their shared tomb, made by the famous German sculptor Tilman Riemenschnieder (c. 1460–1531), can still be seen today.

Henry and Cunigunde were canonised in 1146 and 1200 respectively, which makes them the only saintly imperial couple in history. Among their relics are Henry’s banner that he took with him in his various wars; according to this manuscript, he was carrying it with him when St Lawrence, St Adrian and St George appeared to aid him in battle.

The banners of St George and Henry II. The latter’s banner, on the right, features a flag with red and yellow. Below is a blue mantle with gold embroidery, representing the Star Mantle

The banner and Star Mantle of Henry II: Add MS 15689, f. 2r

The manuscript testifies to the veneration of Henry and Cunigunde's garments. A blue mantle may represent Henry's Star Mantle (‘Sternenmantel’), which features astrological signs and images of Christ, saints, and the symbols of the four Evangelists, in gold embroidery. Henry or Cunigunde donated the mantle to Bamberg Cathedral where it is kept today in the Diocesan Museum, making it the oldest surviving European cope. Another blue mantle seems to represent the Cope of Cunigunde, which features gold-embroidered scenes relating to the life of Christ and the martyrdoms of St Peter and St Paul, the patron saints of Bamberg Cathedral. These are also the main subjects of Cunigunde’s Great Mantle, another important garment that is perhaps depicted below the Cope.

Cunigunde’s mantles, one in blue and another in red, both featuring gold embroidery

The Cope and Great Mantle of Cunigunde: Add MS 15689, f. 3r

Other relics that are associated with Henry and Cunigunde concern contact relics — objects they touched during their lives — and physical remains. An example of the first category is the sword of St Adrian, an early Christian military officer and martyr, and which was used by Henry to fight ‘unbelievers’ (‘unglaubigen’).

A knife-like object, representing the sword of St Adrian

St Adrian's sword: Add MS 15689, f. 3v

Another contact relic is Cunigunde’s glove, still featuring her wedding ring. According to medieval legend, she once dropped it while praying in Bamberg Cathedral, but it was miraculously caught and returned to her by a ray of sunlight.

A vessel with a glove in it, with the glove featuring a gold ring with a blue stone, representing Cunigunde’s wedding ring

Cunigunde’s glove and marriage ring: Add MS 15689, f. 20r

Several of the reliquaries contained physical remnants of the imperial couple, including monstrances with fragments of Henry’s lower jaw and throat, and a crystal jug with a lock of Cunigunde’s hair.

Two containers with bone fragments, representing the reliquaries with the lower jaw and throat of Henry II

Reliquaries with the lower jaw and throat of Henry II: Add MS 15689, f. 4r

A crystal vessel (left) with a lock of Cunigunde’s blond hair sticking out of it

A reliquary with Cunigunde’s hair: Add MS 15689, f. 20v

Since the 14th century, Bamberg Cathedral has presented its relics in public. The Book of Relics was used for announcing the various objects as they were displayed, sometimes from an elevated location, to Bamberg’s citizens. Like the cathedral’s relics of Christ and the Virgin Mary, those of Henry and Cunigunde were given an important sacred status, with the citizens believing that they could gain absolution of sin by beholding them. 

A procession of people carrying a reliquary casket into a religious building with a dome with a red roof and two large towers with green roofs, representing Bamberg Cathedral

A public presentation of Bamberg Cathedral’s relics: Add MS 15689, f. 36r

You can now follow in this medieval tradition by seeing some of the most splendid relics from the Bamberg Book of Relics on display at Bamberg Cathedral. The Diocesan Museum is currently showing the manuscript in an exhibition on the imperial garments, that runs until 1 November 2020.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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