Medieval manuscripts blog

14 March 2013

A Pauper's Bible Fit for a Prince


Miniature of Abner visiting King David; miniature of the Adoration of the Magi; the miniature of the Queen of Sheba presenting gifts to Solomon, Northern Netherlands (The Hague?), c 1395-1400, Kings MS 5, f. 3r


The Biblia pauperum, or 'Paupers' Bible' is a continuation of the tradition of picture Bibles, related to the earlier Bible moralisée (see Harley MS 1526 and Harley MS 1527 for examples)Images, rather than text, are the focus of the Biblia pauperum, and follow a fairly standard layout. At the centre is usually a scene from the New Testament, flanked on either side by an Old Testament scene related to it by typology.  Typology was a brand of Biblical exegesis which was extremely popular in the medieval era, and centered on the belief that people and events in the Old Testament could be viewed as prefiguring or anticipating aspects of the life of Christ.  A common 'type' depicted in this period, for example, was that of Jonah; the three days and nights that Jonah spent in the belly of the whale were believed to prefigure Christ’s burial in the tomb prior to his resurrection (see below).



Miniature of Joseph's brothers deceiving Jacob about what happened to Joseph; miniature of the Deposition of Christ in the tomb; miniature of Jonah being thrown into the sea, Northern Netherlands (The Hague?), c 1395-1400, Kings MS 5, f. 19r


In the 15th century affordable versions of this text were created, printed and decorated with woodcuts; these were likely used by clergymen to instruct their largely illiterate congregations.  Despite the name, though, most early medieval Biblia pauperum were lavish and expensive productions, well beyond the reach of all but the most wealthy. 



Miniature of David beheading Goliath with a sword; miniature of Christ's descend into Limbo (the Anastasis); miniature of Samson killing the lion, Northern Netherlands (The Hague?), c 1395-1400, Kings MS 5, f. 21r


Kings MS 5, a recent upload to the Digitised Manuscripts site, is one such manuscript.  Also known as the 'Golden Pauper's Bible', it was produced in the last years of the 14th century, probably in the court of Margaret of Cleves (c 1375-1411).  Margaret was the second wife of Albrecht I, Duke of Bavaria and Count of Holland, and their court in The Hague became a centre for art and scholarship. Kings MS 5 contains 31 scenes from the life of Christ, each accompanied by two Old Testament prefigurations and portraits of apostles and prophets.  Originally each long leaf was folded into three parts, separating the miniatures, so that the manuscript would have looked much like a normal codex, but it was later rebound into its present oblong arrangement.  Kings MS 5 is the only known surviving manuscript in this format, and is also unusual in having fully-painted miniatures rather than pen and wash illustrations.



Miniature of the Judgement of Solomon; miniature of the Last Judgement; miniature of David's order to kill the Amalekite, Northern Netherlands (The Hague?), c 1395-1400, Kings MS 5, f. 29r


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- Sarah J Biggs


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