14 April 2018
Italian splendour now on display in Treasures
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.
Christ’s genealogy, starting from Jesse, the Annunciation, Nativity and Presentation in the Temple, all at the opening of the Gospel of St Matthew: Add MS 18720/2, 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.
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: Add MS 18720/1, 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.
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: Add MS 18720/1, 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.
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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