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477 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

01 February 2016

Exploding Eyes, Beer from Bath-Water and Butter from Nettles: the Extraordinary Life of Brigid of Kildare

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Today, February 1st, is the feast day of saint Brigid of Kildare (d. c. 524).  Brigid or ‘Brigit’ or ‘Bride’ was a virgin and abbess, and is the patron saint of dairymaids, poets, blacksmiths and healers. She is one of the most popular medieval Irish saints, with numerous churches and shrines dedicated to her both in Ireland and elsewhere. Her iconographical emblem is the cow.

There are multiple versions of the life of Brigid in both Old Irish and Latin. The earliest, written in Latin, dates from around a century after her death. All the versions are hazy in their biographical detail, but what they lack in biography, they more than make up for with colourful miracle stories.

A lot of the stories about Brigid, in each of the versions of her life, or ‘hagiography’, revolve around food – we find miracles associated with milk, butter, bacon and also beer. The library holds a very early manuscript of one of the Latin versions of Brigid’s life, Additional MS 34124. It dates from 850 and comes from Benediktbeuren in Germany. There is a story in this manuscript about how one night Brigid was expecting guests and realised she was short of food. Fearing that the evening’s feast would be ruined, she was able to change nettles into butter and tree bark into ‘the richest and most delicious bacon’. (Chapter 119)

Many of these miracle stories mirror stories from the Gospels. In John 2:2-12, we find the story of how Christ turns water into wine at the Supper at Cana. In the earliest Latin life of Brigid, by Cogitosus, we find a similar story in which Brigid realises she has no beer to give to her guests, whereupon ‘with the power of her faith’ was able to turn bath-water into beer. (Chapter 8)

Alongside the miracles associated with food and beer, there are also miracles involving amorous misadventures. A story from the earliest Irish life, from a manuscript in the Bodleian library in Oxford (MS Rawlinson B. 512) describes how a man came to Brigid’s house and asked for her hand in marriage. Having sworn a vow of virginity, Brigid was not taken with the idea. She declined the offer, but - ever magnanimous – offered her suitor an alternative. The text relates how she instructed him to go to a wood to the west of his house. In the wood, she tells him, he will find a house in which there is a beautiful maiden – he will know her because she will be washing her father’s head. Perhaps fearing that the suitor’s charms might be lost on this maiden, Brigid tells him ‘I shall bless your face and your speech so that they shall take pleasure in whatever you will say’. (Chapter 15) Brigid might make a suitable patron saint for first dates as well.

One of the Latin lives has a different version of this story. In this version Brigid is encouraged to take the hand of her suitor by her father and brothers. Reluctant to do this, she prays to God to be afflicted with a bodily deformity, whereupon, the life describes how ‘one of her eyes burst and liquefied in her head’. (Chapter 19)

A much later writer, Gerald of Wales (d. c. 1220) in his topographical guide to Ireland, dedicated to Henry II, has extensive descriptions of Brigid’s abbey and shrine. He describes a fire kept burning at the shrine, which is tended by a small group of nuns. The fire never goes out, and despite burning for centuries, it never produces any ash. It is surrounded by a hedge, which no man is allowed to enter. Only women are allowed to tend to the fire and to blow on it. Gerald relates a story about how an archer lept over the hedge and blew on the fire. On jumping back over the hedge, the archer began to lose his senses and blow into the faces of everyone he met. Then, consumed by thirst, he begged his friends to take him to some nearby water, where he drank so much that he burst. (Chapter 77)

You can see an image of Brigid’s fire, from a manuscript of Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hiberniae (Royal MS 13 B VIII, f.23v) held at the library here. In the right of the image we can see the archer ill-advisedly blowing on the fire and then subsequently attempting to sate his thirst at a river.

Brigid's fire

Here you can see two of calendar pages from Books of Hours (prayer-books) for the month of February. In them, you can see saint Brigid’s name at the start, next to February 1st. This one (Additional MS 21114, f. 1v), produced in Northern France in the thirteenth century, shows a man cutting branches. The word ‘brigide’ is visible in the third line.  

Brigid calendar

In this one (Egerton MS 2076, f. 2r) produced in Germany in the early sixteenth century, the words ‘Brigide virginis’ are visible in the second line.   

Calendar page brigid

 

Mary Wellesley, Feast of Saint Brigid, 2016.

Further Reading:

For a translation of the earliest life of Brigid in Latin, by Cogitosus, see S. Connolly and J.M. Picard, ‘Cogitosus: Life of Saint Brigit’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 117 (1987), 5-27.

A translation of the earliest Old Irish life of Brigid can be found in M. A. O’Brien, ‘The Old Irish Life of Saint Brigit’, Irish Historical Studies, I (1938-9), 121-34.

A translation of another version of the Latin life, from a manuscript found in the library’s collection can be read in S. Connolly, ‘Vita Sanctae Brigitae: Background and Historical Value’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 118 (1988), 5-49.

A translation of Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hibernica can be read in Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, ed. and trans. by John J. O’Meara (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982).

A Calendar Post for February 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

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Calendar page for February from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 2r

The calendar pages for February are just as lavishly decorated as those for January, filled with coloured initials and gold foliage.  At the bottom of the first folio is a miniature of another pleasant winter labour, that of warming oneself before a fire.  The gentleman in this scene has just removed one of his boots and is extending his foot towards a roaring fire, presumably after coming in from the cold.

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Detail of the miniatures for warming oneself and the zodiac sign Pisces, from the calendar page for February, Add MS 18850, f. 2r

Alongside is a miniature of two fish connected by a single line, hovering above an ocean and below a star-studded sky – this for the zodiac sign, Pisces.

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Detail of a marginal roundel with Februa and flowers, from the calendar page for February, Add MS 18850, f. 2r

Above in a roundel is an elegantly-dressed lady in a red dress trimmed with ermine; she is holding a bunch of flowers close to her face.  This unusual scene is explained by the rubrics at the bottom of the folio, which describe how this month is named after a woman called ‘Februa’, who ‘according to the poets’ was the mother of Mars, the god of war.  Rather unusually, she is said to have conceived her son by ‘kissing and adoring a flower’.

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Calendar page for February, Add MS 18850, f. 2v

The remaining saints’ days are laid out in the following folio, with a bit of space left blank because of the shortness of the month.  The roundels once again illustrate the bottom verses, which describe a procession around the city and the annual February Festival of Fools.

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Detail of a marginal roundels of a city procession and the Festival of Fools, from the calendar page for February, Add MS 18850, f. 2v

-  Sarah J Biggs

29 January 2016

Caption Competition Number 4

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Sometimes we come across images that are just perfect for creative captions.  Here is one from an Apocalypse manuscript which has recently been fully digitised, Harley MS 4972.  It is filled with great images, including some weird hybrid concoctions.  So, over to you, dear, witty readers: how would you caption this image? The winner will be announced on the blog early next week.

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Detail from Apocalypse in Prose, South-east France (Lorraine), 4th quarter of 13th century- 1st quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4972, f. 14r

14 January 2016

A Belated Holiday Gift from Us: a Giant List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks!

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It's that time of year again, friends, and we're pleased to (belatedly) celebrate the holidays by giving you a magnificent gift.  This gift is certainly worth the wait, though - a massive list of Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks!  We're mixing it up a little bit this time, though, as the list is now a PDF, but fully searchable and with working hyperlinks.  You can download it here:  Download BL AMEM Digitised Manuscripts Master List.  There are 1429 manuscripts on this list now, we are staggered to report.

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Illuminated frontispiece of the marital arms of Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford (created 1st Duke of Somerset, and Lord Protector in 1547) and his second wife, Lady Anne Stanhope, with the Seymour family motto ‘Foy pour Devoir’, from the Taverner Prayer Book, England (London), c. 1540, Add MS 88991, f. 2v

In honour of our biggest ever list of hyperlinks, we're pleased to share one of our smallest manuscripts, the Taverner Prayer Book (see above), which recently went online.  We've also added quite a few manuscripts from our Anglo-Saxon project, along with many from the illuminated collections in general.  We have some big plans for the coming year and many more manuscripts to share with you, so watch this space!

-   Sarah J Biggs

09 January 2016

Until We Meet Again

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As my time here in the British Library ticks away, I have very much to be grateful for.  It has been a massive privilege and pleasure to work with my marvellous colleagues in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts department, and to be able to have daily contact with such a spectacular collection of manuscripts.  One of my greatest joys has been this blog, which I will continue to contribute to, albeit from across the pond.  But as a way to mark the end of this particular era, I thought I would share some of my favourite posts from the past 5 years.  Without further ado, the Sarah J Biggs Top Ten (chosen via the totally unscientific process of me picking what I liked):

 

10.  Erasing Becket:  a post spurred by a number of reader enquiries about the practice of removing references to St Thomas Becket from medieval manuscripts

Erasing Becket
Miniature of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, and excision of the suffrage of Thomas Becket, Book of Hours (Use of Sarum), South Netherlands, 3rd  quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2985, ff. 29v-30r

 

9.  An Old World View of the New: a rare opportunity for me to work on material concerning the Americas, based on a miniature fraught with a legacy of slavery and genocide.

Old World
Miniature of cannibals attacking the members of a Spanish expedition to America in 1530, from the Triumphs of Charles V, Italy or the Netherlands, c. 1556-c. 1575, Add MS 33733, f. 10r

 

8.  The Burden of Writing: Scribes in Medieval Manuscripts: what it says on the tin.  Although now that I think about it I never did write the promised follow-up about medieval artists.

Burden
Detail of a miniature of a hermit at work on a manuscript, from the Estoire del Saint Graal, France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), c. 1315 – 1325, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 6v

 

7.  ‘Virile, if Somewhat Irresponsible’ Design: The Marginalia of the Gorleston Psalter and More Gorleston Psalter ‘Virility’: Profane Images in a Sacred Space:  this glorious two-part post was great fun for me to research and even more fun to write, and firmly established my interest in rude medieval monkeys.

Gorleston
Detail of a marginal creature pulling a face, from the Gorleston Psalter, England, 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 123r

 

6.  Marginali-yeah! The Fantastical Creatures of the Rutland Psalter:  Marginalia, monsters, and monkeys!  How could anything be better?

Rutland
Bas-de-page scene of a grotesque hybrid with a panotii (a monstrous race of men with enormous ears), from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 88v

 

5.  The Anatomy of a Dragon: another examination of fantastical medieval creatures (a bit of a theme here); this post was apparently very popular amongst video game aficionados and developers, for some reason.

Dragon
Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great battling against two-headed, eight-legged, crowned dragons with multiple eyes along their torsos, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 78v

 

4.  Dress Up for Halloween, Medieval Style: I actually attempted a memento mori costume the year I wrote this post.  It was not entirely successful.

Memento
Detail of an historiated initial 'D'(ilexi) with a woman (Duchess Dionora?) with a skull for a face admiring herself in a hand mirror, from the Hours of Dionora of Urbino, Italy (Florence or Mantua), c. 1480, Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 174r

 

3.  Bugs in Books: I’ll just quote Pliny here on the subject of insects: ‘Nature is nowhere to be seen in greater perfection than in the very smallest of her works.  For this reason then, I must beg of my readers, notwithstanding the contempt they feel for many of these objects, not to feel a similar disdain for the information I am about to give relative thereto, seeing that, in the study of Nature, there are none of her works that are unworthy of our consideration.’ 

Bugs
Detail of a miniature of bees guarding their hives against a marauding bear, from Flore de virtu e de costumi (Flowers of Virtue and of Custom), Italy (Padua?), 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 3448, f. 10v

 

2.  Knight v Snail: a casual conversation in our manuscripts store led to one of the most popular blog posts across the British Library, and a lot of interest in this enduring mystery. 

Snail
Knight and snail from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), with marginal scenes added in England (London), c. 1300-c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 107r

 

1.  Unicorn Cookbook Found at the British Library:  there's nothing else that deserves the number one spot!

Unicorn
Detail of a unicorn on the grill in Geoffrey Fule's cookbook, England, mid-14th century (London, British Library, MS Additional 142012, f. 137r)

Thank you all for everything, and here’s to many more happy years exploring medieval manuscripts!

-  Sarah J Biggs

07 January 2016

The Case of the Disappearing Ships

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In 2013 we were pleased to tell you about a ‘new life’ for one of our Royal manuscripts:  a banner-sized detail of a 15th century mappa mundi, which originally greeted visitors to our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, was repurposed to brilliant effect by Turner prize-winning artist Mark Leckey.

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Installation View:  detail of a Mappa mundi from Bartholomaeus Angelicus' De proprietatibus rerum, Royal MS 15 E III, f. 67v, behind Double Dome, 1967 by Derek Boshier, courtesy the Arts Council Collection from The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things curated by Mark Leckey, a Hayward Touring exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary 27 April – 30 June 2013. Photo: Andy Keate

But the story doesn’t end there.  Following its sojourn in the heady realm of contemporary art, the banner came home with me.  It made its way onto the wall of my infant daughter’s nursery, so that from a very early age she would be able to contemplate the important things in life (mappae mundi and medieval manuscript illumination, basically). 

BA Map in Eleanor's room
Over the course of the many many hours I spent in the nursery, I spent a lot of time staring at this vastly magnified painting.  And I soon noticed something interesting. 

But first a bit of background.  This miniature can be found at the beginning of Book 15 of a French translation of Bartholomaeus Angelicus’ encyclopaedia, De proprietatibus rerum.  Angelicus’s text, a compliation of theology, natural history, and science, was a bestseller, by medieval standards.  A century after it was written, De proprietatibus rerum  was translated into French, and illuminated copies began to be produced.  Royal MS 15 E III is a lavish copy, produced in Bruges in 1485, which may have once belonged to Edward IV.

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Detail of a tripartite mappa mundi, from a French translation of Bartholomaeus Angelicus’ De proprietatibus rerum, Bruges, 1482, Royal MS 15 E III, f. 67v

Book 15 of Angelicus’s text is called ‘On the provinces and countries’ and discusses Isidore of Seville’s division of the world into three parts: Asia, Africa, and Europe.  Most maps depicting this division show east at the top of the map (the origins of our term ‘to orient’), but the miniature above is interesting in that Asia shares the top space with Africa.  It is also unusual amongst maps of its type by depicting the three lands as mountainous landscapes, full of castles and rivers. 

It is in these rivers, though, that we can begin to see something odd – at least, the rivers in the Africa section.  At first glance it appears that there are no ships to be found in Africa, unlike Asia and Europe.  But a closer inspection reveals that there are ships, or rather, there were ships at one time.

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Detail of the Africa section of the tripartite mappa mundi, with ‘disappearing’ ships circled in red.

Three of these ships are visible (circled in red above), ghostly and barely present.  Examining the manuscript itself indicates that what we are seeing are most likely the original underdrawings, which were strangely emphasised in pigment but never fully painted.  The outlines of these ‘disappearing’ ships were painted over with the river landscapes, but are now visible. 

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Detail of the Africa section of the tripartite mappa mundi, with two black figures.

Also of interest in the Africa section are the only two inhabitants of the map: the outsized figures of two black men standing against a rocky outcrop.  Both figures appear to have been repainted (at least in part) to alter their positions; this is particularly visible in the way their arms are depicted.  It is possible, though far from certain, that these two men were not part of the original design but were added when the miniature was painted.

It is always a challenge to interpret such manuscript mysteries.  Were the Africa ships included in the original design in error and then corrected by the painter?  Was this only a simple design change?  Or were the ships removed at some point during the design process as part of an effort to make Africa appear more foreign, less civilised?  And how do the figures of the two black men – the only humans in evidence on the map – relate?

As always, we’re grateful for any ideas or suggestions you may have.  You can comment below, or reach us at Twitter @BLMedieval

-   Sarah J Biggs

01 January 2016

A Calendar Page for January 2016

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Many thanks to all of you who voted to help us choose our 2016 calendar; we are pleased to present you with the winner – the Bedford Hours.   The Bedford Hours is a particularly apt choice for the beginning of the year, as it was originally intended as a Christmas gift; on 24 December 1430, the manuscript now known as Add MS 18850 was presented to the newly-crowned king of England, the 8-year-old Henry VI, by his aunt, Anne of Burgundy, the duchess of Bedford. 

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John of Lancaster, duke of Bedford, before St George, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 256v

It was indeed a magnificent gift for the young king, containing 38 large miniatures and more than 1,200 smaller paintings, produced by the best Parisian workshops of the day.   We have highlighted this glorious manuscript before on our blog; more information on the Bedford Hours can be found in our posts A Royal Gift for Christmas and What a King Should Know.

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Calendar page for January, from the Bedford Hours, Add MS 18850, f. 1r

The calendar in the Bedford Hours is suitably sumptuous.  The saints’ days for each month stretch across two pages, which are surrounded by lush foliage and ornately decorated letters.  At the beginning of each month are two miniatures that indicate the labour of that month, as well as the relevant sign of the zodiac.  But the Bedford calendar doesn’t stop there; also included on each folio are one or two medallions, which contain very unusual paintings for a calendar.  At the bottom of each folio are verses, written in blue and gold, which explain the scenes above.

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Detail of the miniatures for feasting and the zodiac sign Aquarius, from the calendar page for January, Add MS 18850, f. 1r

On the bottom of f. 1r we can see two adjacent miniatures.  On the left is the standard ‘labour’ for January, that of feasting – although in this case the gentleman is able to utilise his triple face for maximum eating and drinking.  Next to this is a nude figure of a man pouring out water, corresponding to the zodiac sign for Aquarius.

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Detail of a marginal roundel  with January opening the door to the year, from the calendar page for January, Add MS 18850, f. 1r

To understand the roundel on the middle right we must turn to the rubrics (and here I am indebted to our resident expert in medieval French, Chantry Westwell).  The two lines at the bottom of the folio explain how January ‘holds the key to daylight’, opening the door to the four seasons.  This is, of course, exactly what we can see happening above. 

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Calendar page for January, Add MS 18850, f. 1v

The following folio continues the saints’ days for the month, and include two additional roundels.  These illustrate how we are to greet the first day of the year, giving our hands to one another ‘as a sign of love’. 

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Detail of a roundel with figures greeting the new year, Add MS 18850, f. 1v

Happy New Year!

-  Sarah J Biggs 

29 December 2015

Abraham and the Angels: The Cotton Genesis at the British Museum

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The miniature of Abraham and the angels from the Cotton Genesis is one of the first items on display in the exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs currently taking place at the British Museum. The Cotton Genesis is a landmark in the history of biblical illustration. Produced probably in Egypt during the 5th or 6th century, it contains a copy of the Book of Genesis written in Greek. This extensively illuminated codex once contained a sequence of over 300 illustrations, but tragically it was severely damaged in the fire of 1731 at Ashburnham House, where it was stored together with the rest of the library of Sir Robert Cotton. In the fierce heat of the fire, the parchment leaves shrank and were partly burned or charred. Despite its poor state of preservation, the Cotton Genesis remains an exceptional witness of early biblical illustration and of the highly accomplished technique of late antique book painting.

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Fragment of a miniature of Abraham and two angels, from the Cotton Genesis, Egypt(?), 5th or 6th century, Cotton MS Otho B VI, f. 26v

In this scene, Abraham greets, or possibly pleads with, the angels sent by God to destroy Sodom. Parts of the Greek text are legible above and below the image.

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Fragment of the miniature of the butler before Pharaoh (Genesis 41:9-13), Cotton MS Otho B VI, f. 87r

Here the butler with knees bent extends his arms towards the enthroned Pharaoh, and recounts how Joseph interpreted his dreams when he was in prison.

The two miniatures on the page below depict more unusual scenes. The first miniature probably features the Death of Shelah. The second miniature has been interpreted as portraying the Death of Eber or the Begetting of Peleg, or perhaps both.

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Fragmentary miniatures of the Death of Shelah and the Death of Eber and/or the Begetting of Peleg (Genesis 11:14-17), Cotton MS Otho B VI, f. 16v

The figure of Abraham from the Cotton Genesis introduces the three religions at the centre of the British Museum exhibition, as the shared ancestor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The exhibition tells the complex story of religious co-presence and conflict in Egypt from 30 BC under the rule of the Roman Empire up to the decline of the Islamic Fatimid dynasty in 1171. Yet, the exhibition looks beyond these twelve centuries, recognising the reverberations of the Pharaonic past on this period. At the same time it provides a broader context for understanding life in Egypt today.

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Codex Sinaiticus, Luke 3:21-4:18, on display at the British Museum from 29 October 2015 to 7 February 2016 (British Library Add MS 43725, f. 230v)

The miniature of Abraham from the Cotton Genesis is displayed opposite copies of the three great books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, including the New Testament volume of Codex Sinaiticus on loan from the British Library. For the next few months, both volumes of Codex Sinaiticus are on display in London: one in the exhibition, and the other in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery. Read more about Codex Sinaiticus here.

Other British Library loans to Egypt: faith after the pharaohs include a papyrus in Greek with the manumission of a 40-year-old female slave and her children, dated 14 April AD 291. There is also a number of Arabic, Coptic and Hebrew items from the British Library’s African and Asian collections. These include the First Gaster Bible (Or MS  9879) , a Coptic spell to cast out demons (Or 6796), and a 14th-century illuminated copy of Abu Al Qasim Al-'iraqi’s Kitab al-aqalim Al-saba'ah (Add MS 25724).

The British Museum exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is open until 7 February 2016.

-  Hannah Morcos