THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

17 September 2019

Medieval sacred texts on display

Biblical manuscripts were essential to all aspects of Christian religious life in the Middle Ages. They were studied as the cornerstone of education, read aloud from the altar, carried in processions and displayed as emblems of the Word of God. Often they are exceptionally beautiful, with the finest artisans, best materials and most reverent care devoted to their creation.

In the run up to the launch of the Library’s new Discovering Sacred Texts resource later this month, we have put some of our stunning biblical manuscripts on display in the Treasures Gallery. Let us take you on a virtual tour to explore the variety and sophistication of these medieval sacred texts.

A text page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, beginning with the decorated initials ‘MAT’ made up of twisting animal forms, and continuing in a bold rounded script.
The prologue (argumentum) to the Gospel of St Matthew, the Lindisfarne Gospels: Lindisfarne, England, c. 700, Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 18v

In the early Middle Ages, copies of the entire Bible were rare. A church’s most sacred manuscript was more usually a Gospel Book, a copy of the Four Gospels written by the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. One of the most famous of these is the Lindisfarne Gospels. It was probably created by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721, as a solitary work of painstaking devotion. The Gospel text is a particularly accurate version of the Latin Vulgate Bible produced by St Jerome, copied from an exemplar that was probably brought from Italy by the monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow. But the Lindisfarne Gospels’ text is doubly special. In the 10th century a priest called Aldred added an Old English translation above the words of the Latin, providing the oldest known translation of the Gospels into English.

An opening in the Cologne Gospels. On the left page is a frame containing silver writing on a purple background; on the right page is a picture of a seated man with a beard, long robe and large halo, holding a pen and a book, looking at an open book on a stand.
Evangelist portrait of St Matthew, the Cologne Gospels: Cologne, Germany, last quarter of the 11th century, Harley MS 2820, f. 14r

Medieval artists experimented with different ways of decorating the Gospels. Often each Gospel text opened with an ‘Evangelist portrait’ of its writer, based on the Classical author portraits sometimes included in ancient manuscripts. This magnificent example belongs to the ‘Cologne school’ of manuscript illumination, which was characterised by rich painterly decoration. St Matthew is depicted pen in hand, writing his Gospel. On the opposite page, a biographical poem about the Evangelist is written in silver on purple-stained parchment and surrounded by an acanthus-leaf border in imitation of imperial books from ancient Rome.

The beginning of a text with a miniature of three scenes contained inside a tall arched frame. The upper scene shows Christ’s empty tomb, the middle scene shows three women kneeling before Christ, the lower miniature shows a lion with its cubs flanked by two prophets holding scrolls.
Opening to the Gospel of Mark, the Floreffe Bible: Floreffe, modern Belgium, c. 1170, Add MS 17738, vol. II, f. 179v

In the monasteries and great churches of the 11th and 12th centuries, there was a revived interest in giant multi-volume copies of the entire Latin Bible. The monumental format of these manuscripts made them impressive symbols of the Word of God. This Bible from the Premonstratensian abbey of Floreffe in south-eastern Belgium measures 480 x 335 mm and fills two heavy volumes.

The Floreffe Bible takes an allegorical approach to illustrating the Gospels. Each Gospel text begins with a series of images exploring the relationship between the symbol of its Evangelist and an aspect of Christ’s life. Here at the opening of St Mark’s Gospel, two scenes from Christ’s Resurrection—the Three Marys discovering the empty tomb and then encountering the risen Christ—are depicted along with St Mark's lion symbol, who is shown guarding three small lion cubs. This pairing emphasises the theological link between St Mark’s lion and Christ’s Resurrection, since it was traditionally believed that lion cubs are brought to life when their father roars over them, just as God the Father resurrected Christ.

Opening to a text with a large letter I containing eight medallions, the first seven showing scenes from the Creation of the world and the eighth showing the Crucifixion.
Opening to the reading for the Mass on Christmas Day: Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, France, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 11r

Passages from the Gospels were read every day in church services, with particular readings assigned for the feasts throughout the year. In Gospel Lectionaries, Gospel passages are arranged in the order they were read in the Church calendar, rather than in chapter order. This exquisite Gospel Lectionary comes from Sainte-Chapelle, the royal palace chapel in Paris. This page shows the beginning of the Gospel of John which was read during the Mass on Christmas Day. The decorated letter I (for In principio, ‘in the beginning’) depicts God creating the world and Christ dying on the Cross. As such, it illustrates the opening words of the Gospel which describe how the Word of God created all things and became flesh in Christ.

You can come and admire all these spectacular manuscripts for free in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery or explore them online on our Digitised Manuscripts website. And watch this space for more content about our medieval sacred texts coming soon.

Eleanor Jackson

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