THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

3 posts categorized "Sacred texts"

25 December 2019

Christmas at Sainte-Chapelle

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It is midnight on 24th December in the great city of Paris, sometime in the last quarter of the 13th century. Paris is the most populous city in Europe with around 200,000 residents, and it is the centre of learning, government and commerce in France. Tonight all is quiet in the city's many ports, markets, workshops, lecture halls and council chambers, but the sound of chanting is rising from the churches, filling the cold night with warm music. Within the walls of the royal palace on the Île de la Cité, the clergy of the royal chapel of Sainte-Chapelle are celebrating the feast of the Nativity from a beautiful new book.

A page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of text. In the lower half of the left column is a large decorated initial 'I'.
The reading for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10r

The book is a Gospel Lectionary, a collection of the Gospel passages to be read during the mass throughout the year. They are arranged in calendar order, beginning with the season of Advent. The Gospel readings for each day of the year were established in the early Middle Ages and, with a few local variations, were traditional throughout the churches of Western Europe. Like the entire service, the readings are all in Latin.

At Christmas, three masses are performed throughout the day. The reading for Midnight Mass is Luke 2:1-14, which tells how Joseph and Mary travelled to the city of Bethlehem, where Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable and laid him in a manger. Meanwhile, shepherds watching their flocks were visited by an angel, who announced to them the birth of Christ and explained where to find him.

As the deacon reads the words, he can see the events delicately illustrated in the decorated letter that opens the reading. Almost every one of the readings in this luxurious lectionary begins with an illustrated letter, 262 in total. The letters, known as ladder initials, are slender and towering, divided into horizonal tiers and topped with gothic architectural features, much like the magnificent building for which the manuscript was made.

A close-up of the decorated initial from the last picture. It contains a Nativity scene in the upper half and the annunciation to the shepherds in the lower half.
Decorated initial for the reading for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10r (detail)

The upper level of the letter shows the Nativity scene—Mary reclining in bed, Joseph sitting behind, the baby Jesus lying in a high altar-like manger being nuzzled by the ox and the ass. The lower level shows the surprised shepherds and equally surprised sheepdog encountering the angel, who points urgently up to the Nativity above. The top of the initial features alternating Gothic pinnacles and gables, similar to the distinctive exterior of Sainte-Chapelle (below).

The exterior of Sainte-Chapelle, a magnificent chapel with elaborate Gothic architecture.
Sainte-Chapelle, north facade with alternating pinnacles and gables. (François Deneux / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0)
A page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of text. The right column contains a large decorated initial 'I'.
The reading for Dawn Mass on Christmas Day, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10v

After Midnight Mass, the clergy and congregation of Sainte-Chapelle go to bed, their heads filled with the joyful words and bright images. Later, the community returns to the church for the second service of the day, the Dawn Mass. The reading continues with Luke 2:15-20, in which the shepherds go to Bethlehem, find the Holy Family and glorify God.

A close-up of the initial from the previous image. The upper half shows the Nativity scene and the lower half shows the shepherds praising God.
Decorated initial for the reading for Dawn Mass on Christmas Day, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 10v (detail)

The decorated letter shows the Nativity in the upper scene, almost but not quite the same as before. Mary has now crossed her arms, and with her wistful expression she seems to illustrate the line of Luke 2:14, 'Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart'. She is also now covered by a blue quilt with a red lining, perhaps Joseph's cloak from the previous scene. On the lower level, the shepherds are praising God, two of them reverently raising their arms and one clutching his hands to his heart. Their arrival is signified by the gothic architectural structure under which they now stand. With its pointed arch containing two trilobe arches and a quatrefoil medallion, the structure closely resembles a design that is repeated along the lower walls of Sainte-Chapelle's upper chapel (below).

An interior wall of Sainte-Chapelle decorated with a row of pointed arches.
Sainte-Chapelle, upper chapel, dado of pointed arches each containing two trilobe arches and a quatrefoil medallion (Guilhem Vellut / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0)
A page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of text. The entire height of the right column is filled with a large decorated initial 'I'.
The reading for Christmas Day Mass, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 11r

The third and most important mass of Christmas, distinguished with the largest and most elaborate decorated initial in the lectionary, was celebrated during the day. The reading is John 1:1-14, 'In the beginning was the Word', which describes how the Word of God created the world and then became flesh in the person of Christ.

In the decorated initial, the seven days of Creation followed by the Crucifixion are represented inside barbed quatrefoils. The scenes emphasise the message of the Gospel reading, adding the solemn reminder that Christ's human birth meant that he could die a human death, and so achieve salvation for humanity. The slender column of quatrefoil medallions is reminiscent of Sainte-Chapelle's soaring windows with their panels of geometric glasswork (below).

Interior view of Sainte-Chapelle, a magnificent gothic chapel with very high windows featuring geometric stained glass.
Sainte-Chapelle, interior facing east with soaring windows (Pierre Poschadel / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

As the service comes to an end, the clergy and congregation of Sainte-Chapelle gaze around the chapel. The winter sunshine is streaming through the stained-glass windows and the lofty vaults are pointing the way to heaven. Those within sight of the book can see sacred history minutely represented inside letters that echo the architecture of the building. For a moment, the events of the Christmas story seem be to present within the gothic splendour of Sainte-Chapelle. Everyone is filled with wonder as they leave the chapel and head to their Christmas feasts.

A detail of the previous decorated initial, showing a barbed quatrefoil medallion containing a Crucifixion scene.
The Crucifixion in the decorated initial for the reading for Christmas Day Mass, Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 11r

The Sainte-Chapelle Gospel lectionary is currently on view as part of the Sacred Texts display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery, open on the readings for the dawn and daytime masses on Christmas Day. Visit us to see this festive treat in person (check our seasonal opening hours).

Merry Christmas from the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Section of the British Library!

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

26 September 2019

Discovering Sacred Texts launch

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This week the British Library has launched its latest online learning resource, Discovering Sacred Texts, which invites visitors to explore the world’s major faiths through the Library’s extensive collections. The new website includes over 250 digitised collection items, teachers’ resources, short films and articles. Nine faiths are featured: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, the Baha’i Faith and Zoroastrianism.

Discovering Sacred Texts also includes many spectacular medieval manuscripts. For our readers, here’s a handy guide to some of the specially written articles focusing on pre-1600 western manuscripts on the site.

A page from the Codex Sinaiticus with four columns of stately Greek script.
The Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest surviving copy of the complete New Testament, Eastern Mediterranean, early 4th century: Add MS 43725, f. 244v

The Christian Bible is formed of numerous books that were written over hundreds of years. Early Christians adopted the Jewish scriptures, which they characterised as the Old Testament, and added to them a collection of texts recounting the lives and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and his early followers, called the New Testament. At first, the Christian Bible circulated in Greek but before long it was translated into a wide variety of languages: Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic and Latin.

Find out more about the formation and spread of the Christian Bible in The Christian Bible, by Scot McKendrick.

A page from a Greek manuscript with dashes and other small lines around the words
Gospel lectionary with ekphonetic notation, Eastern Mediterranean or Southern Italy, late 10th century: Arundel MS 547, f. 9r

Copies of the entire Bible were rare for much of the ancient and early medieval period. Portions of the Bible, such as the Gospels, Psalms and Apocalypse, were regularly produced as separate volumes. The text was often shaped to suit the readers’ needs. For example, passages might be re-ordered to form a lectionary, combined to produce a harmonised text, or paraphrased as a summary version.

Explore the different contents and uses of biblical manuscripts in Manuscripts of the Christian Bible, by Scot McKendrick.

A decorated manuscript showing scenes of Christ and the Apostles
The Holkham Bible Picture Book, England, c. 1327-1335: Add MS 47682, f. 28r

Unlike in other Abrahamic religions, Christian sacred texts were often produced with extensive illustrations. The Church justified images as a useful tool for teaching people about scripture. Rich decoration could also emphasise the importance of the biblical text itself, with shimmering gold evoking the glory of heaven. Decorated letters, either with abstract or figurative designs, might also serve the practical purpose of marking the beginnings of texts.

Learn more about the development and functions of images in medieval biblical manuscripts in Biblical Illumination, by Kathleen Doyle.

A decorated page with a picture of the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel, and below inside the decorated intial, a picture of a woman praying
The Annunciation with a patron portrait, the Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours, 15th century, England: Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 34r

The most popular book of the late Middle Ages was the Book of Hours, a type of prayer book for the laity. While their contents vary, the prayers often focus on the Virgin Mary and the Passion of Christ, with shorter prayers included for a wide variety of saints. Many Books of Hours also include images, both to appeal to the eye and to deepen the spiritual experience of prayer. Often, they were carefully customised to reflect their owner's personal interests.

Discover the different texts and images that appear in Books of Hours in Medieval prayer-books, by Eleanor Jackson.

A text page with large initials and a border decorated with flowers and vines
Wycliffite Bible, England, Early 15th century: Arundel MS 104, f. 251r

The Bible was translated into a wide range of languages from an early date. The oldest known translation of a biblical text into English is the Old English translation of the Psalms added between the lines of the Vespasian Psalter in the mid-9th century. The entire Bible was first translated into English by the followers of the reformer John Wycliffe in the last decades of the 14th century, at which point it provoked considerable controversy.

Find out more about medieval translations of the Bible in The importance of translation in the diffusion of Christianity, by Annie Sutherland.

The Virgin Mary seated on a throne with the baby Jesus on her lap. On the lower right a monk kneels in prayer.
Coldingham Breviary, England, 1270-80: Harley MS 4664, f. 125r

Women played an important role in Christianity from the time of Christ and throughout the Middle Ages. The Virgin Mary and three women who were the first witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ served as exemplars of holiness and were often depicted in medieval manuscripts.

Learn more about attitudes to women in Women and Christianity, by Christine Joynes.

Medieval manuscript with a picture of Christ, covered in bloody wounds, kneeling before his tomb. In the lower margin there is a handwritten note.
Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours, Kings MS 9, f. 231v

King Henry VIII formally broke with the Roman Church after Pope Clement VII refused to grant him an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. In the decades that followed, the dissolution of the monasteries and programmes of Protestant reform led to the widespread destruction of medieval manuscripts. Yet Henry himself remained devoted to medieval religious traditions and he owned a large number of Latin devotional manuscripts.

Learn more about Henry’s manuscripts and the consequences of his break with the Roman Church in Henry VIII and the Reformation, by Susan Doran.

A group photo, standing outside the Library's Treasures Gallery
Some of the British Library's curators at the Discovering Sacred Texts launch event on Monday

As well as these ancient and medieval-focused articles, there are lots of other fascinating articles about the Library’s diverse collection on the Discovering Sacred Texts web-space. We hope you enjoy exploring!

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

17 September 2019

Medieval sacred texts on display

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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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval