THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

19 January 2021

Merovingian illumination in a manuscript of Gregory's Moralia

The British Library holds one of the earliest surviving copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s (d. 604) Moralia in Job, a highly influential commentary on the Old Testament book of Job. It was made only about a century after St Gregory’s death, possibly in Laon during a period of Merovingian rule. The Merovingians were a dynasty that ruled over the Franks in the territory similar to Roman Gaul from the time of Merovech (or Merovich), by tradition the father of Childeric I (d. 481) and grandfather of Clovis I (d. 511).

A detail view of an initial ‘I’ in the shape of a fish
Initial ‘I’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 5v (detail)
Full page of text with an initial ‘I’ in the shape of a fish
Full page with an initial ‘I’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 5v

The decoration of Merovingian manuscripts is distinctive. It features a limited palette of brown, green and yellow, and the use of zoomorphic initials (as the name suggests, where animals form all or part of the letter). Some letters, such as ‘I’ are formed of just one animal, like the fish of ‘I’(nter) (among) at the beginning of the first book, while other letters are more composite. The beginning of the third book of the commentary is a letter ‘B’ for Beatus Iob (blessed Job), made up of a fish and two birds.

A detail of an initial 'B' in the form of two birds and a fish
Initial ‘B’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 55v (detail)
A full page of text with an initial 'B' in the form of two birds and a fish
Full page with an initial ‘B’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 55v

Another characteristic feature of these manuscripts is the display script – enlarged coloured letters typically used to delineate important divisions, such as the beginning of new sections of text. The first book of the text begins with a heading ‘In expositione Beati Iob’ (An Exposition of the Blessed Job). Similarly, the beginning of the third book (incipit liber [tertius]) is announced in capital letters of alternating colours.

Detail of an uncoloured initial ‘Q’ in the form of two birds and a fish
Initial ‘Q’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 78v (detail)
Full page with an uncoloured initial ‘Q’ in the form of two birds and a fish
Full page with an initial ‘Q’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 78v

Something of the way in which these manuscripts were made is revealed by the letter and display script at the beginning of the fourth book: ‘Q’(ui) (who), formed of two facing birds and a fish, and ‘Incipit liber quartus’ (beginning of the fourth book). Both are carefully drawn in ink but left without any added colours. This suggests that the writing and drawing were done first and the colours were added later, but in this case not completed.

You can read more about Gregory the Great in our article on the works of the Church Fathers, and find out more about Merovingian art in our article on French manuscript illumination, both on the Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website.

Kathleen Doyle
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