21 December 2022
Chi-rho pages for Christmas
It’s not something you’ll find on your average Christmas card, but the Chi-rho is a Christmas symbol that appears in some of the oldest surviving gospel-books. One of the most spectacular examples is the Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, which is now on display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery. But this is far from the only Chi-rho page in the Library’s collection. With Christmas just around the corner, we think it’s the perfect time to celebrate some of our festive Chi-rhos and their rich meanings.
What is a Chi-Rho page?
Chi-rho pages are a feature of Insular gospel-books. These are copies of the biblical accounts of the life of Christ in Latin, produced within the monastic culture that developed in Ireland, Britain and closely connected centres in the 7th-8th centuries (known as Insular in reference to ‘the Isles’).
The Chi-rho is the abbreviated name of Christ in Greek, spelled chi-rho-iota and written with the capital letters ‘X-P-I’. In Insular gospel-books there is a large decorated Chi-rho at the beginning of the account of the Incarnation at Matthew 1:18, ‘Christi autem generatio sic erat’ (Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this way). In the most magnificent examples like the Lindisfarne Gospels, made in Northumbria in the early 8th century, the letters fill almost the entire page with brilliant pattern.
History of the Chi-rho page
The practice of abbreviating divine names, or nomina sacra, goes back to at least the 2nd century, when letters representing the name of Christ were employed as Christian symbols. Nomina sacra were commonly abbreviated in early Greek bibles as a way of showing reverence and making them stand out visually. For example, in the 6th-century Greek gospel-book the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus (Cotton MS Titus C XV), the main text is written in silver ink while the nomina sacra are abbreviated and written in gold. Insular Chi-rho pages took this much older practice and expanded it to make the sacred name a major focus of decoration.
The earliest surviving Chi-rho pages date from around 700, and they appear in gospel-books from Ireland, England and areas where Insular scribes were working or had strong influence. By contrast, most gospel-books produced in continental Europe followed the late antique practice of placing no or very little emphasis on the text of Matthew 1:18.
An interesting example of a continental gospel-book which has a Chi-rho page is the Schuttern Gospels (Add MS 47673), made at the Benedictine abbey of Schuttern in southwest Germany in the early 9th century. Schuttern was one of many monasteries in the Upper Rhine and Lake Constance area founded by Irish monks in the 7th century. Liutharius, the deacon who wrote the Schuttern Gospels, was probably a local judging by his name, and he wrote in a Carolingian minuscule script. Nevertheless, the decoration of the manuscript is strongly Insular, suggesting that the monastery’s early history still held major influence in its scriptorium.
Although Chi-rho pages stopped appearing in English gospel-books after about the 8th century, they continued in other areas until much later. One of the latest surviving Chi-rho pages is in the Gospels of Máel Brigte (Harley MS 1802), made in Armagh, Northern Ireland, in 1138. You can read more about this fascinating manuscript, written by the 28-year-old scribe Máel Brigte and illuminated in an Irish-Scandinavian style, in our previous blogpost.
Symbolism of the Chi-rho page
Coming at the beginning of the narrative about Christ’s birth in the Gospel of Matthew, the Chi-rho is generally seen as a symbol of Christ’s Incarnation, or human conception and birth. In the Gospel of John the Incarnation of Christ is mystically described as the moment when ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). By emphasising the word ‘Christ’ at the beginning of the Nativity account, the Chi-rho can be seen to literally illustrate the idea of the Word becoming flesh, especially since Insular gospel-books were written on parchment made from animal skin.
Yet the Chi-rho is also particularly evocative because the letter chi is in the shape of a cross, so it could signify both Christ’s name as well as his Crucifixion and its redemptive power. For Christians, the human birth of Christ is significant because it meant that he could die a human death and so save humanity from sin. Through its shape the letter chi poignantly connects these two important events.
The idea that the Chi-rho symbolises the living Word and the life-giving Cross perhaps explains why Insular Chi-rhos are often teeming with life. For example, in this gospel-book, made in Brittany in the early 10th-century and digitised by the Polonsky Foundation England and France Project (Royal MS 1 A XVIII), animal heads with foliage sprouting from their mouths emerge from the end of each stroke of the letter chi. This gives the impression that the letter is bursting with life and abundance.
A cryptic symbol
Greek was not widely known in western Europe in the early Middle Ages. Both the use of Greek letters and abbreviation made the Chi-rho difficult to understand. This cryptic quality was probably part of its appeal, suggesting the mysterious nature of God. The Chi-rho was not simply a word but a symbol of something inexpressible.
Nevertheless, the Chi-rho proved too enigmatic for some scribes and readers, as shown by the garbled Chi-rho in a gospel-book made in Northumbria in the first half of the 8th century (Royal MS 1 B VII). Here it seems that the scribe mistook the Greek letter rho for a Latin letter ‘P’, and transliterated it to the Greek letter pi (Π). They also wrote the letter ‘H’ instead of ‘A’ at the beginning of the Latin word autem, perhaps misunderstanding the Irish convention of spelling the word with an added ‘h’ at the beginning, as hautem. The result is that instead of ‘XPI AU/tem’, the scribe has written ‘XΠI HU/tem’ – a string of letters that make no sense.
The Chi-rho page also stars on the front cover of the newly published book about the Lindisfarne Gospels: Eleanor Jackson, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Art, History and Inspiration (London: British Library, 2022). Written by the British Library’s Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, the book is an accessible introduction to the production, decoration and history of the manuscript. It is fully illustrated in colour and is available from the British Library Shop.
Looking at these majestic Chi-rho pages, we can get a sense of some of the awe, mystery and joy with which monastic scribes and readers regarded the birth of Christ many centuries ago. From everyone in the Medieval Manuscripts team, we wish you a very Happy Christmas!
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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project
27 April 2020
Designing the Arnstein Bible
Following our blogpost on the Worms Bible earlier this month, today I focus on another remarkable German Romanesque Bible in the Library’s collection: the Arnstein Bible. Like the Worms Bible, it is enormous (540 x 355 mm), and now in two volumes. The first volume includes Genesis to Malachi, and the second Job to Revelation, with large illuminated and decorated initials at the beginning of the biblical books. The manuscript is fully digitised, and available to view online (Harley MS 2798 and Harley MS 2799).
The Bible was made at the Premonstratensian abbey of St Mary and St Nicholas in Arnstein, on the Lahn river about 30 kilometres east of Coblenz, which was founded in 1139 by the last count of Arnstein, Ludwig III (d. 1185), who became a lay brother there.
In date, the Arnstein Bible was produced around twenty-five years after the Worms Bible. Originally, the manuscript included historical annals recording important events related to the Abbey (now Darmstadt, Hessische Landesbibliothek, MS 4128), that reveal an approximate date for it of 1172. We also know the name of the man who wrote it, identified in the entry for that year as a brother called Lunandus.
Lunandus had a formidable task to undertake in planning out the design and layout of this enormous book. The text is written out in 39 lines to a page, with generous margins. Most of the biblical books and introductory material are presented in two columns of 130 mm in width.
An indication that this Bible is a great monastic book is the inclusion of not one, but rather three translations of the book of Psalms, arranged in three parallel columns, each of 80 mm width. This allowed the reader to study the variant Psalm texts across the page (see this previous blog post for more on St Jerome’s (d. 420) three translations of the Psalms in this Bible).
For Lunandus, planning the layout for the transition from two to three columns and back again presented particular challenges. The three comparable versions of the Psalms proper finish about three-quarters of the way down the page (f. 57r). The next texts that had to be included only required one version; however the rest of the page was still ruled for three columns. Lunandus had to signal that the reader must switch from comparing the variant Psalm translations across the page to reading one column and then going to the next, sequentially.
He did this by identifying the following texts with a series of rubrics, or headings in red ink (the term rubric is derived from the Latin 'rubrica', the name of the red ochre pigment used to make the colour red). Lunandus presented the short so-called Psalm 151 in the first column and started the prologue to the next biblical book in the second and third columns.
The rubric in the first column summarises the contents of Psalm 151: 'Hic p[salmu]s pr[opr]ie scriptus est David [et] extra numerum cum pugnaret cum gloria et in hebraicis codicibus non habetur' (This Psalm was written by David himself and is outside the number [of the Psalms] and is not contained in Hebrew bibles. It is about the time when David fought with glory.) The short text in seven verses follows below this heading.
The adjoining rubric, spread out over columns two and three, explains that the Psalms have ended, 'explicit libor psalmorum' (here ends the book of Psalms), and that the prologue to Proverbs is about to begin (incipit). The start of this prologue begins in the middle column. Here Lunandus left room for an enlarged initial letter on eight lines, the letter ‘C’ of the first word ‘Chromatio’, the name of the original addressee. The rest of the word is written in individual letters vertically to the right of the first letter. The initial itself is embellished with stylized acanthus leaf decoration punctuated with characteristically Germanic gold bands ornamented by small round dots that are cinched around the foliate form.
This sophisticated presentation of text and image represents a stunning achievement in scholarship and design. Like other great or giant Romanesque Bibles, the Arnstein Bible represents a testament to the commitment of its makers to the elegant presentation of the Word of God.
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Walter Cahn, Romanesque Bible Illumination (Cornell, 1982), pp. 26, 230, 253 no. 8, pls 157, 162.
Jeffrey F. Hamburger, 'The Hand of God and the Hand of the Scribe: Craft and Collaboration at Arnstein', in Die Bibliothek des Mittelalters als dynamischer Prozess, ed. by Michael Embach, Claudine Moulin and Andrea Rapp, Trierer Beiträge zu den Historischen Kulturwissenschaften, 3 (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2012), pp. 53-78 (p. 62, fig. 22, colour plate 17).
Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson and the British Library, 2016), no. 23.
20 April 2020
The Holy Helpers
Medieval men and women often sought help from saints — holy figures who were considered to be miracle workers. Thousands of saints were venerated across Europe, and some of the most popular were known as the Holy Helpers. Written accounts of their lives typically told that, just before they died, they had asked God to grant their future worshippers specific forms of protection or rewards, and that a voice from Heaven or an angel had confirmed their requests. Their legends suggested that venerating them was a sure-fire method to obtain divine aid.
A cult of ‘Fourteen Holy Helpers’ was founded in the 14th century. It originated in the Rhineland (western Germany), before spreading to other European regions. The group’s number and members varied regionally but often included early Christians who had been martyred during Roman persecutions, such as Saints Christopher, Dorothy, Blaise, Apollonia, and Cyricus and Julitta.
The Fourteen Holy Helpers with the Virgin Mary and Christ Child (south-western Germany, 1509): Add MS 24153, f. 190v
Groups of Holy Helpers were also venerated in England. In Harley MS 2255 (ff. 70r-71v), the poet John Lydgate (c. 1370–1449/50) praised ten of them for securing a special boon for their followers:
‘God granted you while that you were here
to each of you remarkable privileges:
whoever prays to you wholeheartedly and sincerely,
to hear all their requests graciously
[and] remedy worldly dangers and misfortunes
Because of this remember in your special prayers
all those who have you devoutly in memory’
(‘God grauntyd you whil that ye wer heere
to ech of you synguler prerogatives
who prayeth to you of hool herte and enteere
Alle ther requestys graciously to heere
Geyn worldly tempestis and troublys transitorye
For which rembemrith in your special prayeere
On alle that have you devoutly in memorye’ (f. 71r))
John Lydgate, Prayers to Ten Saints (Bury St Edmunds, c. 1460–c. 1470): Harley MS 2255, f. 70r
Late medieval English religious manuscripts often detailed how and what forms of protection could be obtained from individual Holy Helpers. An example of this is the prayer to St Christopher, patron saint of travellers, added to the 13th-century Mostyn-Psalter Hours (Add MS 89250). The prayer states that ‘wherever Christopher is venerated, snow, famine or plague, and evil death will not prevail there’ (‘ubi Christoforus memoratur / Vix fames aut pestis mala mors ibi non dominatur’ (f. 159v)). The 14th-century Neville of Hornby Hours (Egerton MS 2781) specifies that one needed to look at an image of St Christopher so as not to faint on that day:
‘Whoever shall behold the image of St Christopher shall not faint on that day’
(‘Christofori sanctam speciem quicumque tuetur / illo nempe die nullo languore tenetur’ (f. 37r))
St Christopher carrying the Christ Child in the Neville of Hornby Hours (London, 2nd quarter of the 14th century): Egerton MS 2781, f. 36v
St Dorothy, patron saint of gardeners, was believed to have secured protection for the homes of her followers. Those who wanted to gain her protection, according to a Latin poem added to a Middle English rendering of her life in Arundel MS 168, had either to write her name in or to place an image of her in their houses:
‘In whatever house the name or image of the excellent virgin Dorothy will be: no dead [or premature or stillborn] child will be born there, nor will the house experience fire, thievery or destruction, nor can anyone in there die from an evil death and the dying shall die with heavenly bread’
(‘In quacumque domo nomen fuit vel ymago / Virginis eximie dorothee virginis alme / Nullus abortivus infans nascetur in illa / Nec domus nec ignis furtique pericula sentit / Nec quisquam poterit ibi mala morte perire / Celestique pane moriens quin moriatur’ (f. 6v))
St Dorothy petitioning God for protection for her followers (south-western Germany, 1509): Add MS 24153, f. 117v
The protection of the Holy Helpers could also be invoked in medical contexts. St Blaise, according to the South English Legendary, had asked God that whoever venerated him and requested his help would be protected against obstructions in the throat. This explains why medical practitioners such as Thomas Fayreford (Harley MS 2558) added prayers for the saint to their recipes for throat ailments:
‘Lord Jesus Christ, true god, our father, through the virtue of the name and the prayer of St Blaise, your servant, deign to liberate your worthy male or female servant of the infirmity of the gullet, of the throat, of the uvula and of their other limbs, who lives and reigns, God throughout all ages. Amen. For this reason it is recited and say three Paternosters and Aves.’
(‘Dominus ihesus christus verus deus noster per virtutem nominis tui oracionem sancti blasii servi tui liberare digneris famulum tuum vel fa[mulam] tuam de infirmitate gule gutteris uvule et aliorum membrorum suorum qui vivis et regnas deus per omnia saecula · saeculorum · Amen [igi]tur dicatur et iij pater noster et Ave maria’ (f. 87r))
Thomas Fayreford’s prayer to St Blaise (South-West England, 1st half of the 15th century): Harley MS 2558, f. 87r
St Apollonia can also often be found in medical manuscripts. It was believed that, while her own teeth were being smashed by her persecutors, she requested God to give her followers relief from toothache. Her protection is invoked in a spell against toothache (‘charme for þe tothache’) in Harley MS 1600:
‘St Apollonia endured a grave martyrdom for the Lord by a tyrant who shattered her teeth with iron hammers and in this torment she prayed to the Lord, that whosoever will wear her name on him will have no toothache’
(‘Sancta Appollonia pro domino grave sustinuit martirium tyranni eius dentes cum malleis ferreis fregerunt et in hoc tormento oravit ad dominum ut quicumque nomen eius portaverit secum dolorem non habuerit in dentibus’ (f. 39r))
A charm for toothache invoking St Apollonia (England, 15th century): Harley MS 1600, f. 39r
St Jullita and St Cyricus, a mother and son who had been martyred together, were believed to offer protection for women in labour. Because of this, they were invoked on amulet rolls that pregnant women used as birthing girdles. Harley Ch 43 A 14 and Harley Roll T 11 both explain that the two saints had asked God to protect pregnant women who carried amulets of the Holy Cross on their bodies while giving birth:
‘þe childe schall have cristendom [be baptized] and þe moder schall have purificacion [be blessed] ffor Seynt Cerice and Seynt Julitt his moder desirid þise graciouse gyftis [gifts] of god which he grauntid un to þem’ (Harley Ch 43 A 14, f. 1br)
A birthing girdle invoking St Cyricus and St Julitta (England, 15th century): Harley Roll T 11, f. 1r
The requests for protection that the Holy Helpers were believed to have made to God for their followers formed the foundation for their joint cult. In England, it flourished during the 15th and 16th centuries when prayers dedicated to them identified more than 25 saints as Holy Helpers. This suggests that, whatever the effect of the prayers, spells and amulets that invoked them, their promises were important sources of hope, comfort and solace for those in need.
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25 December 2019
Christmas at Sainte-Chapelle
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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 six days of Creation, the seventh day of divine rest and 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).
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.
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!
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26 September 2019
Discovering Sacred Texts launch
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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