Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

07 June 2022

Golden scenes from the Life of Christ

Eight leaves with narrative scenes from the Life of Christ on gold grounds feature in our Gold exhibition. They are now separated from any text, but it is very likely that originally they formed part of a prefatory cycle of images appearing before the book of Psalms. Because they have been de-contextualised, the leaves’ origin is uncertain and has been much debated. Suggestions range from centres in Denmark, Germany, northern France and Flanders, around 1200. The figures are rendered in bold primary colours, with thick black lines creating their features and outlining their clothing, made more vivid by the contrasting incised gold surface on which they are placed.

Miniature showing the Nativity of Christ, with Mary in bed holding the baby, and Joseph seated nearby. In smaller scenes below, two maids bathe the Christ Child, and the ox and ass watch over him as he sleeps
The Nativity: Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 5r

All of the figures appear on burnished gold grounds, which have been incised with different patterns, including diamonds and swirling foliage. Hints of how the paintings were made are apparent in the glimpses of the reddish gesso, the base on which the gold leaf was laid, in the Annunciation to the Shepherds image. The gesso has been exposed in places due to damage of the gold. This aspect of their production is explored in more detail in the Library’s Gold exhibition, where these two leaves are featured in a section focused on technique.

The Annunciation to the shepherds, with a large angel gesturing to a group of shepherds, and a row of angels in the sky
The Annunciation to the Shepherds: Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 6v

The leaves are now kept separately, but until the 1930s they were bound together with a rare copy of the Heliand, a 9th-century poem in which the Four Gospels are combined into a single narrative account in Old Saxon (Cotton MS Caligula A vii). They were probably bound together by Robert Cotton (b. 1571, d. 1631), whose vast collection of manuscripts was one of the foundation collections of the British Library.

The beginning of the Heliand, a text page with a decorated initial letter
Beginning of the poem Heliand, an account of the life of Jesus in Old Saxon epic verse: Cotton MS Caligula A VII, f. 11r

These leaves were digitised as part of the Polonsky Medieval England and France 700-1200 project. For another example of a prefatory cycle in a Psalter digitised as part of the same project, see our previous blogpost on Prefacing the Psalms.

The Library’s Gold exhibition is a feast for the eyes, with 50 manuscripts and books from many different cultures, languages and time periods, all illuminated or bound in gold. It runs from Friday 20 May - Sunday 2 October 2022, and you can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Kathleen Doyle

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Supported by:

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The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.