A Marvel in the British Library Bulgarian Collections
Headpiece of the Gospel of St Mark from the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander. In the red roundel a portrait of St Mark shown copying the Gospel surrounded by the young Christ (above), John the Baptist (left) and Isaiah (right). The design of all headpieces in the Gospels follows a circular pattern on a decorative floriated background.
A famous Bulgarian manuscript, the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (British Library Additional. MS. 39627) will be celebrated once again at a forthcoming seminar in the British Library. The manuscript will be discussed in the context of our shared European cultural heritage and as the cornerstone of literary and cultural developments in the Balkans. The Balkan Day seminar is at the British Library on 13 June 2014.
The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander – in Bulgarian Четвероевангелието на Цар Иван Александър, and also known in Bulgaria as the ‘London Gospel’ (Лондоското Евангелие на Цар Иван Александър) – is a manuscript of great importance and generally referred to as a masterpiece of Bulgarian, Slavonic and Byzantine medieval art. In Bulgaria the Gospels are celebrated as a national treasure and often seen as an important cultural link between Britain and Bulgaria.
During the rule of Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331-71), the Bulgarian medieval state was already past its height, but this period was marked by cultural revival before the country was finally subdued by the Ottoman Turks in 1396. The Gospels were made for the Tsar in 1355/56 at Tŭrnovo, the centre of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185–1396).
After the Ottoman conquest of Bulgaria, the manuscript was taken to safety first to Moldavia and afterwards to the monastery of St Paul on Mount Athos in Greece. Here the manuscript was presented to the Hon. Robert Curzon, fourteenth Baron Zouche of Harringworth (1810–1873), a traveller and collector of manuscripts. The manuscript was bequeathed to the British Museum Library (now the British Library) in 1917.
At the beginning or the end of each Gospel in this codex is an image of the Evangelist presenting his manuscript to Tsar Ivan Alexander. Here is image of from the Gospel of Mark, with a a scene from the Ascension of Christ depicted above. (Add.MS.39627 f.134v)
The Gospels were displayed and celebrated as an outstanding artistic treasure in at least nine major national and international exhibitions in five cities (Sofia in 1977 and 1996; London in 1977/78, 1994, 2007 and 2008/09; Liverpool 1989; Athens 2002 and New York 2004). They have also exhibited in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery several times, most recently in 2007 to celebrate the entry of Bulgaria into the EU and in 2012/13 to promote the publication of a full digital version of the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander, which is available on the British Library Digitised Manuscripts website.
The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander are written in Bulgarian Church Slavonic and were the work of a single scribe. The first pages of each Gospel display his calligraphic skills in ornamented initials, titles in gold and formal uncial letters in black:
Headpiece of the Gospel of Luke. In the vertical arrangement a roundel portrait of St Luke is in the centre. A bearded Christ (above) and Zachariah (below) are depicted in two smaller roundels. Add.MS.39627 f.137r
The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander have been a subject of scholarly interest ever since they were deposited on permanent loan to the British Museum Library in 1876. Since then a number of studies and catalogue entries have been written about the manuscript. In the 2000s Bulgarian scholars from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the University of Sofia and The St. Cyril and Methodius National Library in Sofia thoroughly researched the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander with the aim of providing a detailed codicological description of the codex.
The British Library holds over 70 Slavonic and East European Cyrillic medieval and early modern manuscripts (Russian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Macedonian, and Bosnian); some of them are of very fine workmanship. The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander constitute the first digitised manuscript in this collection.
For more images and description of the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander see the British Library Medieval manuscripts blog post of 17 September 2012.
Milan Grba, Lead Curator South-East European Collections
Ralph A. Cleminson, Union catalogue of Cyrillic manuscripts in British and Irish collections. The Anne Pennington catalogue. (London, 1988) 2725.e.600
Ekaterina Dimitrova, The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander. (London, 1994) YC.1995.b.3420
Slavianski rŭkopisi ot Britanskiia muzeĭ i biblioteka = Slavonic manuscripts from the British Museum and Library. (Sofia, ) 2719.e.11
Byzantium: treasures of Byzantine art and culture from British collections. (London, 1994) YC.1995.b.5285
Byzantium: faith and power (1261-1557). Edited by Helen C. Evans. (New York, 2004) LC.31.b.1397
Sacred: books of the three faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. (London, 2007) YC.2008.a.6318
Byzantium, 330-1453. (London, 2008) LC.31.b.5843