Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

17 September 2012

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander


Detail of a headpiece of the Gospel of Matthew: roundel portrait of the Evangelist, with five smaller roundels arranged around him, depicting ‘the ancient of days’ (top), two six-winged cherubim, Abraham (lower left), and Isaac (lower right), from the Gospels of Ivan Alexander, Bulgaria, 1355-1356,  Add MS 39627, f. 6r


On Wednesday, 5 September, the Bulgarian Embassy and His Excellency Mr Konstantin Dimitrov, the Ambassador of the Republic of Bulgaria to the United Kingdom, hosted a private view of the display of two Bulgarian manuscripts that are now on display in the Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures gallery.

At the reception Caroline Brazier, Head of the British Library’s Scholarship and Collections directorate, announced that the whole of the Gospels of Ivan Alexander may now be viewed on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website (click here for the fully-digitised Gospels). На тази електронна страница можете да разгледате Четириевангелието на цар Иван Александър, най-богато украсеният средновековен български ръкопис.

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (Additional MS 39627) is the most celebrated surviving example of Bulgarian medieval art.  Written over 650 years ago, in the middle of the fourteenth century, the manuscript contains the Four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  It was copied by a monk named Simeon, whose identity we know from a long inscription that he appended to the biblical text. Accompanying and fully integrated into the text are no fewer than 366 illustrations – one for each day of the year – that illustrate an extensive range of events from the narrative of the four Evangelists.  Every opening of the book thus sparkles with colour and visual interest. However, as Simeon himself makes clear in his account of the making of the volume, the Gospel book was created 'not simply for the outward beauty of its decoration, of colours, gold, precious stones and diamonds, but primarily to express the inner Divine Word, the revelation and the sacred vision'.



Royal portraits: f. 2v: Constantine, the son-in-law of Ivan Alexander, flanked by three daughters of the tsar: Kerathamar (Constantine's wife), Keratsa and Desislava; f. 3r:  Ivan Alexander in imperial garb, accompanied by his wife Theodora, his son Ivan Shishnan in imperial garb, and another son Ivan Asen. Above, two hands emerge from a cloud, making gestures of blessing over the Tsar and his wife, from the Gospels of Ivan Alexander, Bulgaria, 1355-1356,  Add MS 39627, ff. 2v-3r


At the front of the volume is the most famous image painted in the Gospels (above).  Here we meet face-to-face the ruler of the Bulgarian empire and the person who ordered the book to be made, Tsar Ivan Alexander.  Also shown is the Tsar’s then wife, as well as his two sons by her, his three daughters by his first wife, and lastly his son-in-law.  

On display in the Treasures gallery is one of the five other portraits of the Tsar included in the manuscript. In this miniature Ivan Alexander is depicted, not with his earthly family, but in Paradise between Abraham and the Virgin Mary, and within the overall context of a magnificent depiction of the Last Judgement. The starting point for this large illumination is Mark's account of Jesus's prophecy of the end of time. The end result is perhaps the finest of what the volume’s scribe, Simeon, called its 'life-giving images'.



Miniature of the Last Judgement, with Tsar Ivan Alexander in conversation with the Virgin Mary, from the Gospels of Ivan Alexander, Bulgaria, 1355-1356,  Add MS 39627, f. 124r


The manuscript is a remarkable survival.  Within forty years of the completion of the Gospels of Ivan Alexander, its patron was dead and his empire destroyed.  Unlike many other artistic treasures of this remarkable period in Bulgarian history, the Gospels escaped destruction, finding its way north across the Danube.  Here it came into the possession of the ruler of Moldavia, also called Ivan Alexander.  For several centuries the history of the Gospels is unclear. By the 17th century, however, it appears to have reached the monastery of St Paul on Mount Athos. There it remained until its presentation in 1837 by the abbot of St Paul's to the young English traveller the Honourable Robert Curzon. Brought by Curzon to England, it was later presented to the British Library by his daughter.

The other manuscript on display beside the Gospels of Ivan Alexander is a fitting companion: the Vidin Gospels (Additional 39625). This important copy of the Gospels was also made in Bulgaria during the reign of Tsar Ivan Alexander. It was produced at Vidin and for the Metropolitan of that city, Daniel. Later in its history it too was presented to Curzon on Mount Athos, this time at the monastery of Caracalla, and subsequently by his daughter to the Library.


Ivan Alexander in Treasures


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