17 November 2022
The British Library’s major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, gives an insight into the incredible spread of Alexander’s legends across time and across cultures. Central to the show is the legendary life of Alexander the Great, known as the Alexander Romance. Written in Greek around the turn of the 3rd/4th centuries AD, the Romance was a best-seller of its time, being translated into a number of Western and Eastern languages. This blogpost examines one of the most intriguing of these versions: the Slavonic Alexander Romance.
Alexander encountering the monsters of the East, in the Slavonic Alexander Romance (Russia, 17th century): courtesy of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, W 151, ff. 89v–90r
The Slavonic translation of the Alexander Romance was made from the fully-developed Greek-Byzantine version of the text, probably in the 14th century in what is today Serbia, before becoming popular not only in Serbia but also in Bulgaria and Russia. The British Library is fortunate to have a remarkable manuscript of this Slavonic version of the Alexander Romance displayed in the exhibition, on generous loan from the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.
Created in Russia in the 17th century, this manuscript is a fascinating testament to how Alexander’s legends were appropriated in medieval and early modern Russia. The 14th-century translators of the Slavonic Alexander Romance adapted both the text and the images of their Greek original. Just like the Western and Middle Eastern adaptations, the Slavonic versions of the Romance are richly illustrated. Although many of the illuminations in the Slavonic tradition go back to Greek and Byzantine models, some were devised by the Serbian, Bulgarian and Russian artists themselves.
One new illustration is the representation of Alexander’s horse, Bucephalas. Although the original Greek name of the famous stallion clearly means 'ox-headed', opinions vary about its actual meaning. Some sources say that the horse had an ox-head branding, others suggest it had a mark on its head that made it look like an ox’s head. The Slavic artists combined these two traditions, depicting the horse as bearing an ox-head mark (on its thigh), while painting on its head something resembling an ox’s horn, making the horse look like a unicorn.
Bucephalus in the Slavonic Alexander Romance (Russia, 17th century): Chester Beatty Library, W 151, f.110r
The Romance also records that Alexander encountered mythical sirens during his adventures, who were imagined as beautiful women living in the water. They would lure men with their singing, who would fall asleep in their reed-bed and then drown. In common with ancient Greek tradition, the Russian illustrators imagined the sirens as mythical birds with human heads, enchanting Alexander’s soldiers with their songs.
The sirens imagined as human-headed birds, in the Slavonic Alexander Romance (Russia, 17th century): Chester Beatty Dublin, W 151, f. 53r
Another interesting feature of the afterlife of the Slavonic Alexander in Russia is that it is often followed in the manuscripts by another Russian historical text. The History of the Rout of Mamai records the battle in 1380 between the Russians led by Grand Duke Dimitry and the Mongol invaders. There is clearly an agenda here to elevate this historical battle (a major turning point in the Russian revolt against the Mongol Khan Mamai) onto a par with Alexander’s mythological adventures.
Grand Duke Dimitry in battle with the Mongols, in The History of the Rout of Mamai (Russia, 17th century): Yates Thompson MS 51, ff. 38v–39r
Scholars have observed that the Chester Beatty manuscript looks remarkably similar to a 17th-century copy of The History of the Rout of Mamai at the British Library. They have in common the layout of the text, the decoration, a similar pattern of damage, and 19th-century attempts to redraw the outlines of the images in pencil. A conclusive factor is that the Slavonic page numbers in the right-hand corner of the leaves in the British Library manuscript continue the sequence of those found at the end of the Chester Beatty's Slavonic Alexander Romance.
The final leaf (f. 127r) of the Chester Beatty Slavonic Alexander Romance (left) is numbered '155'; the first leaf (f. 1r) of the British Library’s History of the Rout of Mamai (right) is '156'
Based on these observations, scholars have treated the two manuscripts as parts of a single original volume containing both the Slavonic Alexander Romance and The History of the Rout of Mamai. Further research has revealed that both manuscripts were purchased around 1921 from the same antiquarian dealer in Florence, who separated them into two parts, selling one to Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875–1968) and the other to Henry Yates Thompson (1838–1928), whose widow bequeathed it to the British Library in 1941.
The two halves of the original volume next to each other, the Chester Beatty Slavonic Alexander Romance on the left and the British Library’s History of the Rout of Mamai on the right
Although it is widely accepted that these manuscripts originally formed one volume, the two halves have never been compared side-by-side until the generous loan of the Chester Beatty Slavonic Alexander to the British Library’s Alexander exhibition. After more than a century apart, the two halves now stand proudly next to each other in the show.
We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.
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19 June 2018
The reign of Ivan Alexander (r. 1331–71) was a high point in the cultural history of Bulgaria, and the Tsar’s personalised copy of the Gospels translated into the Slavonic language is the most celebrated surviving example of Bulgarian medieval art. In 2017, the book was added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. As part of the celebration of Bulgarian National Day of Culture on 24 May, the manuscript was also featured on Bulgarian television. The Gospel-book has been fully digitised, and is available on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.
Tsar Ivan Alexander, his wife and two sons, all blessed by God: Add MS 39627, f. 3r
The makers of this book, who probably worked at the Tsar’s capital, Turnovo, drew on the long tradition of Byzantine book production and more recent Slavonic practices. They also conceived it as part of the Tsar’s revival and championing of Christian culture in the Balkans as the power of the Byzantine emperor ebbed and that of the Ottoman Turks grew.
In the words of its scribe Simeon, the volume was created ‘not simply for the outward beauty of its decoration … but primarily to express the inner Divine Word, the revelation and the sacred vision’. It now retains an extraordinary 367 ‘life-giving images of the Lord and his glorious disciple Jesus’. Once also richly decorated on the outside, bound within silver-gilt boards, the manuscript was probably displayed during services on major feast days attended by the Tsar and his family and intended to commemorate them in perpetuity after their deaths.
The Tsar’s three daughters and son-in-law: Add MS 39627, f. 2v
At the opening of the volume, an imposing double-page portrait contrived in the tradition of Byzantine imperial portraits reflects both the artistic heritage of its creator and the imperial ambitions of the Tsar. In this image Tsar Ivan Alexander and his family together receive God's blessing. The Tsar is depicted dressed in imperial regalia and accompanied by his second wife, Theodora, a converted Jew, and by their two sons Ivan Shisman (r. 1371–1395) and Ivan Asen (d. 1388?). On the left-hand page are the Tsar’s three daughters, the eldest of whom, Kera Thamara, stands beside her husband, Despot Konstantin.
Christ ascends to Heaven above his disciples and Mary; Tsar Ivan Alexander receives the blessing of St Mark, all at the end of St Mark’s Gospel: Add MS 39627, f. 134v
Ivan Alexander is also shown in the company of each of the Evangelists at the end of their Gospels and between Abraham and the Virgin Mary in a large illustration of the Last Judgment prompted by St Mark’s account of Jesus’s prophecy to his disciples. These portraits promote the full integration of the secular and religious roles of the Tsar.
Christ on the Cross before and after his death, mocked by the crowd (below) and bleeding from the lance wound, with the dead raised from their graves by the ensuing earthquake (above), in St Matthew’s Gospel: Add MS 39627, f. 84r
The biblical text of the volume is equally lavishly decorated. Within the text several hundred illuminated miniatures illustrate the life and teachings of Christ in the sequence narrated by each of the Evangelists, focusing on his infancy, miracles, parables and Passion. Given the fourfold narrative of the Gospels and the profuse illuminations in the volume, many episodes common to more than one of the Gospels are illustrated several times. Most of these scenes are contained within one relatively shallow, horizontal strip, but some are extended to two or three such strips stacked vertically up the page or restricted to a smaller box within the text block.
None of these choices were the original idea of the makers of the Tsar’s book. They were instead based on the illuminations of an equally extraordinary Byzantine manuscript (untraced). In their frieze format and choice of subjects the miniatures correspond most closely to a remarkable 11th-century manuscript of the Gospels now in Paris that was produced at the Studios Monastery in Constantinople and possibly made for the Emperor Isaac I Comnenus (r. 1057–1059) (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS grec 74). Only one other contemporary Byzantine Gospels, now in the Laurenziana Library at Florence, presents a similarly extended sequence of nearly three hundred frieze miniatures (Florence, Bibioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 6.23).
The individual portraits of the Tsar in his volume replace those of an abbot in the Studios Gospels; the opening family portrait may have been modelled on a now-lost imperial family portrait at the opening of the Byzantine manuscript from which it drew its other illustrations. Later Slavonic manuscripts of the Gospels that incorporate similar portraits and frieze miniatures reflect continued respect for this type of Gospels into the 17th century.
Bogdan D. Filov, Miniaturite na Londonskoto Evangelie na Tsar Ivan Aleksandra / Les miniatures de l'évangile du roi Jean Alexandre à Londres (Sofia, 1934).
Ekaterina Dimitrova, The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (London, 1994).
Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), ed. by Helen C. Evans (New York, 2004), no. 27.
Cynthia Vakareliyska, ed., The Curzon Gospel, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), no. 35.
The manuscript has also been reproduced in a new facsimile edition.
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