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618 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

03 December 2017

Renaissance illumination at the Louvre

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Two Renaissance manuscripts from the British Library collections are currently on loan to the Louvre in Paris, where they are displayed in an exhibition devoted to King François I of France (r. 1515–1547) as a collector of Netherlandish art.

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François I pictured in a medallion above Julius Caesar, with his initials FM, from Les Commentaires de la guerre gallique (Book I), Paris or Blois, 1519: Harley MS 6205, f. 3r

François I was a great patron of the arts, fostering the ideals of the Renaissance and humanism in France during his reign and sponsoring artists, musicians and craftsmen. He is well-known for his love for — and acquisition of — things Italian, but his extensive purchases of tapestries, objets d’art, paintings and miniatures show that his taste extended to artworks in the Netherlandish style, equally important at this period. Bringing together many of these objects, the Louvre's exhibition focuses on the influence of Netherlandish artists in France in the first half of the 16th century and the king's patronage. Lesser-known Netherlandish artists brought to the fore include Godefroy le Batave, Jean Clouet and Noël Bellemare, who worked in the ateliers that produced our two manuscript treasures on show in the exhibition.

Les Commentaires de la Guerre Gallique

The first is a manuscript that was made specifically for François by his former preceptor and almoner, the Franciscan friar, François Desmoulins de Rochefort (d. 1526).

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A miniature of Caesar and his horse in the midst of a battle, with the dialogue between him (in blue) and François (‘Le Roy’, in red) beneath, from Les Commentaires de la guerre gallique (Book I), Paris or Blois, 1519: Harley MS 6205, f. 36v

In a famous victory, François I defeated the Swiss pikemen at Marignan in 1515. This work draws parallels between the Swiss campaigns of the French king and those of Julius Caesar in his ‘Gallic wars’, taking the form of conversations between the two conquerors.

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The Swiss villages burning, with soldiers and peasants dancing, from Les Commentaires de la guerre gallique (Book I), Paris or Blois, 1519: Harley MS 6205, f. 9v 

After the death of Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1519, François I’s candidacy for this crown was strongly promoted by those around him. The Harley manuscript is the first of a series of three volumes made with this aim, perhaps commissioned by his mother, Louise of Savoie, for her ‘petit cesar’ from the author, François Desmoulins. The Dutch astronomer and theologian, Albert Pigghe (b. c. 1490, d. 1542), supervised the creation of the maps and may also have been the scribe. The other two volumes survive as Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France MS fr. 13429 and Chantilly, Musee Conde, MS 764/1139. The miniatures were painted by Godefroy de Batave, a Dutch artist trained in Antwerp who worked under his supervision. The portrait medallions on f. 3r and also those in the BnF volume have been attributed to Jean Clouet, who painted the famous portrait of François I that is also in the exhibition.

François I’s hopes of winning the crown of the Holy Roman Empire were dashed when his rival, Charles V, was elected emperor in 1519. Further humiliation followed with his defeat at the hands of Charles at the Battle of Pavia in 1525, and he went so far as to form an alliance with the Turkish emperor, the fearsome Suleiman the Magnificent. This image in a manuscript made thirty or more years later glorifies the supposed triumphs of Charles V over his enemies, including François and Suleiman.

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A portrait of François I from after his death (third from left) in a miniature of a scene from the Triumphs of Emperor Charles V: the Emperor enthroned among his enemies, including Suleiman the Magnificent and Pope Clement VII, c. 1556–c. 1575: Additional MS 33733, f. 5r

Book of Hours attributed to the Bellemare group

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The Visitation, with St Anne and the Virgin, from a Book of Hours, Paris, between 1525 and 1530: Additional MS 35318, f. 32v

The second British Library manuscript on loan to the Louvre is an exquisite Book of Hours with fifteen full page miniatures, each embellished with a gold Italianate tabernacle frame. A group of illuminators who supplied decorated Books of Hours to the court of France at this time, known as the Bellemare Group after the artist Noël Bellemare, used a style reminiscent of the Antwerp Mannerists, characterised by brilliant, rather unnatural colours.

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David making a sacrifice, from a Book of Hours, Paris, between 1525 and 1530: Additional MS 35318, f. 69v

Although this work is not directly associated with François I, it is a further example of the influence of Netherlandish style on the artworks produced within his court circles.

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John the Evangelist pointing to the Vision of the Virgin, from a Book of Hours, Paris, between 1525 and 1530: Additional MS 35318, f. 13r

The British Library is delighted to be a lender to François Ier et l’Art des Pays-Bas, on at the Musee du Louvre until 15 January 2018.

                                                                                                                                                             

Chantry Westwell

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01 December 2017

A calendar page for December 2017

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Happy last month of 2017, dear readers! It’s hard to believe the year is nearly over — and we’re a bit sad to be leaving behind the fabulous characters in the calendar of Add MS 36684! As always, if you’d like to know more about the whole manuscript, see January’s post, and for more on medieval calendars, check out our calendar post from 2011. 

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Calendar pages for December, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Thérouanne, c. 1320: Add MS 36684, ff. 12v–13r

Our artist has pulled out all the stops for his last calendar pages. In addition to the fabulous birds and hybrid animals decorating the borders of the first folio, there are two fully nude men and one partially nude woman (our labour of the month — more on her in a minute). The nude man in the left margin (modesty protected by the bar border) is having his nose nibbled on by a small animal, whose body was sadly cut off when the manuscript’s leaves were cropped. A dragon roars angrily below, and farther below him — again cropped — is the backside of another nude figure. In the right margin stands another nude man, complete with doe-ears and antennae. The bas-de-page shows a woman’s head atop a long, orange neck extending from between two legs, which are topped with wings.  

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Details of marginal figures: Add MS 36684, f. 12v

In the calendar entries themselves, you will notice two days outlined in gold ink. These can be considered one step up from the feast days (shown in red letters), as they are connected to the life of Christ and his mother, the Virgin Mary. On the first page, on 8 December, is the celebration of the Virgin Mary’s conception; and on the second page, as is expected on 25 December, is the birth of Christ.  

December’s labour of the month is a partially nude woman baking bread in a brick oven. Baking and feasting are the traditional labours for the month of December; perhaps she has discarded some clothing because it’s hot in there!   

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Labour of the month for December: Add MS 36684, f. 12v

On the second page, we see the artist’s omission of the zodiac figure of Virgo, back in August, has left him without an established image to put in the niche. Having run through the rest of the zodiac figures a month early, either by choice or by mistake, he is left to make his own figure for December. Luckily for us, he presents a characteristically fantastic beast — green head, single orange horn, rose coloured body, and bright orange legs. For the first time in the calendar, there are not two heraldic hybrid figures on either side of the niche, but rather, a single creature with the head of a man and a long blue tail.   

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“Zodiac” figure for December: Add MS 36684, f. 13r

While our monthly discussion of Add MS 36684 is now at an end, remember you can go and look at the entire manuscript whenever you’d like on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Here’s to the end of a great year! 

Taylor McCall 

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30 November 2017

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition to open in 2018

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On 19 October 2018, our major exhibition on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will open. Ranging from the 5th to the 11th centuries, the exhibition will explore this long, dynamic period when the English language was used and written down for the first time and a kingdom of England was first created. Drawing on the British Library’s own outstanding collections and a large number of very significant loans, the exhibition will examine the surviving evidence for the history, art, literature and culture of the period, as preserved in books, documents and a number of related objects.

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Miniature of Ezra writing in Codex Amiatinus, written at Wearmouth-Jarrow before 716: Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1 (© Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence)

Codex Amiatinus, the earliest complete Latin Bible, will be returning to Britain for the first time in over 1,300 years ago for display in the exhibition. This giant illuminated Bible was made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in Northumbria in the early 8th century. Abbot Ceolfrith took it with him on his final voyage to Italy, as a gift to the Pope in 716. It is now held in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence which is generously loaning the manuscript next year. It will be shown with the St Cuthbert Gospel, the earliest intact European book, which was also made at Wearmouth-Jarrow and was acquired by the British Library in 2012. The two books are very different: while the St Cuthbert Gospel, which contains only the Gospel of John, can be held in one hand, the spine of Codex Amiatinus, containing the whole Bible, is nearly a foot thick. These two books will be exhibited alongside the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of Britain’s greatest artistic treasures, and other illuminated manuscripts of international significance made in the late 7th and 8th centuries.

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The tiny St Cuthbert Gospel, British Library Add MS 89000 and the gargantuan Codex Amiatinus (image courtesy of Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana)

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Two other complete Bibles were made at the same time as Codex Amiatinus. Only a few leaves of one of the other Bibles survive; the third has been completely lost: British Library Add MS 45025, f. 2v.

The exhibition will include a number of outstanding objects, including key pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard discovered near Lichfield in 2009, and kindly loaned by Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils. Objects drawn from the unique array of military equipment which makes up the bulk of the hoard will be on display, as well as the pectoral cross and the gilded strip inscribed with text drawn from the biblical book of Numbers.

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The pectoral cross and an inscribed strip from the Staffordshire Hoard, to be loaned to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils (images courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust)

A key theme in the exhibition will be the development of the English language and the emergence of English literature. We will explore the use of writing on inscribed objects and in documents as well as in books, and will present highlights of the bilingual literary culture. The major works of Old English poetry survive in only four manuscripts, and all four will be brought together at the British Library next autumn for the first time. The unique manuscript of Beowulf, held in the British Library, will be displayed with the Vercelli Book on loan from the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli, the Exeter Book on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library, and the Junius Manuscript on loan from the Bodleian Library in Oxford. This will be the first time that the Vercelli Book has been in England in at least 900 years.

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Beowulf spoke … (‘Beoƿulf maþelode …’): British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 169r

All the items in the exhibition are remarkable survivals. Over the centuries they have lasted through wars, the Norman Conquest, the Dissolution of the Monasteries (and their libraries), natural disasters and fires. A significant number of the exhibits have never been seen together before, and some have not been reunited for centuries.

Far from being the ‘Dark Ages’ of popular culture, the kingdoms in this period included centres of immense learning and artistic sophistication, extensively connected to the wider world. The movement of artists, scribes, books and ideas between England, Ireland, continental Europe and the Mediterranean world was fundamental to the development of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and will be a key theme of the exhibition.

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The opening of St Mark’s Gospel, from the Cnut Gospels, southern England, before 1018: British Library Royal MS 1 D IX, f. 45r

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will be open at the British Library from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019.

Claire Breay and Alison Hudson

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24 November 2017

Gifts for manuscripts lovers

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Books make great presents — just ask Charlemagne, Alcuin, Anne of Burgundy, Henry VI, Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, all of whom gave or received manuscripts for Christmas or New Year. So, now that the Christmas shopping season is upon us, we would like to recommend some of our colleagues' wonderful recent publications as gifts for the historian/art-lover/calligrapher/bibliophile in your life.

Tudor Monarchs

This year saw the publication of Andrea Clarke’s fantastic Tudor Monarchs: Lives in Letters. This book contains transcriptions and translations, images and discussions of dozens of original documents. These include letters from Wolsey to Cromwell, a letter jointly written by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn to Wolsey, and the draft of Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech (‘I have the heart and stomach of a king ...’). For everyone who is interested in the Tudors, this beautifully written book is a wonderful way to get to know the people behind the portraits. It is an indispensable guide to some of the most significant surviving documents from the Tudor period, and you can buy it here.

Art of the Bible stack

For art lovers, there is Kathleen Doyle’s and Scot McKendrick’s The Art of the Bible. This gorgeously illustrated book explores 1,000 years of history. It examines the diverse ways in which scribes and artists from Iraq to Northumbria to Ethiopia have presented sacred texts. Each page is breath-taking. This book is also available in French, German, Dutch and Italian. Buy it here.

Our other recent publications are the books associated with the exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic. One of these is intended for children (Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic) and the other for a general audience (Harry Potter: A History of Magic). Buy them here.

Harry Potter Book Cover

And don’t just take our word for it — the Guardian has recommended Harry Potter: A History of Magic as one of the top 10 books to buy this holiday season. Harry Potter: A History of Magic is currently the best-selling item in the British Library shop, so order it soon!

A range of other books relating to medieval manuscripts and magic are available in the British Library shop, including Sophie Page’s Magic in Medieval Manuscripts and Astrology in Medieval Manuscripts. There are also postcards and even Oyster Card holders featuring medieval manuscripts in the British Library's shop. So whether you are transfixed by the Tudors, enthralled by illuminations or fascinated by phoenixes, there is something for everyone this Christmas.

 

21 November 2017

The original Hermione

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Bushy hair, writing furiously — why, it must be Hermione! But this is not an early image of Hermione Granger. This is the Hermione of Greek mythology. She features in Greek and Latin writings about the Trojan War, from Homer’s Odyssey to the plays of Euripides and the poems of Ovid.


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Hermione writing a letter, from a copy of a French translation of Ovid’s Heroides, made in Paris at the end of the 15th century: Harley MS 4867, f. 60v

In classical mythology, Hermione was said to be the daughter and only child of Helen of Troy and Menelaus, king of Sparta. She was only a young girl when her mother ran off with (or was kidnapped by) Paris, starting the Trojan War. Hermione’s love life became just as complicated as her mother’s. She was initially engaged to Orestes, the son of Agamemnon. In some versions of the story she even secretly married him. However, Hermione’s oblivious father married her to Achilles’s son, Neoptolemus, also known as Pyrrhus. This wedding is one of the first events in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus’s son Telemachus travels to Sparta to ask Menelaus if he has heard any news about the missing Odysseus and

found [Menelaus] in his own house, feasting with his many clansmen in honour of the wedding of his son, and also of his daughter, whom he was marrying to the son of that valiant warrior Achilles … [Menelaus’s] son, Megapenthes, was born to him of a bondwoman, for heaven vouchsafed Helen no more children after she had borne Hermione, who was fair as golden Venus herself (translated by Samuel Butler).

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Beginning of Book IV in a 15th-century copy of Homer’s Odyssey: Harley MS 6325, f. 26r

There is magic in some of the stories about the mythological Hermione. After the sack of Troy, Hermione’s husband Neoptolemus/Pyrrhus was given Andromache, the widow of Hector, as a concubine. In Euripides’s play Andromache, Hermione accuses Andromache of putting a spell on her so she is unable to bear children. She tries to persuade her father, Menelaus, to kill Andromache and her child while her husband is away, but Andromache is protected by Neoptolemus's grandfather, Peleus.

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Epitomes of Euripedes's Andromache and other works, Egypt, c. 100-125 AD: Papyrus 3040

Meanwhile, Hermione's ex-fiancé Orestes arrives. He has killed Neoptolemus. Orestes declares that he is still in love with Hermione and takes her back to his kingdom.

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Andromache flees with her child while Hermione talks to Pyrrhus, from a copy of Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César, made in Naples, c. 1330–1340: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 187r

The love of Orestes and Hermione also inspired the Roman writer Ovid. She is one of the heroines of Ovid’s poems known as the Heroides. These 15 poems take the form of letters written by mythological heroines to the men in their lives who have let them down. Ovid portrayed Hermione as a woman who, against her will, had been dragged off by Neoptolemus/Pyrrhus. She writes to Orestes, begging him to come and rescue her.

Pyrrhus … holds me

prisoner here, contrary to the laws of both gods and men ...

Deafer to [my pleas] than the sea, he dragged me into his palace,

as I tore my hair in grief and shouted your name …

When the Greeks won the war and set wealthy Troy on fire,

they didn’t maltreat Andromache as badly as this ...

Follow my father’s example of claiming back an abducted wife …

[But] don’t muster a thousand ships with swelling sails

Or an army of Greek warriors — come yourself!’

(Ovid’s Heroides translated by Paul Murgatroyd, Bridget Reeves and Sarah Parker, pp. 89–90).

The sense of these verses is similar in the later medieval French translation, see in the first image in this post. This translation was made by Octavien de Saint-Gelais for King Charles VIII between 1490 and 1493. 

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Paris and Helen writing to each other, from a copy of a French translation of Ovid’s Heroides, made in Paris at the end of the 15th century: Harley MS 4867, f. 115r

In Ovid’s poem, Hermione then wonders whether the women in her family have been struck with a curse ‘that makes all us female descendants of Tantalus ripe for the ravishing’, citing the examples of her mother Helen and her grandmother Leda. Ovid’s Hermione is not entirely sympathetic to her mother, however. Part-way through the letter, Hermione addresses her mother directly, allowing Ovid to give a haunting, child’s eye-view of the start of the Trojan War:

‘I tore my girlishly short hair and kept on shouting:

“Are you going away without me, mother?” …

I went to meet you when you came home, and — honestly —

I didn’t know what my mother’s face looked like.

I realized you were Helen because you were so beautiful.’

(Ovid’s Heroides translated by Paul Murgatroyd, Bridget Reeves and Sarah Parker, p. 92).

Hermione was a fascinating character who continued to inspire writers, musicians and artists in the Middle Ages and beyond, as Greek and Latin texts were recopied, rewritten and reintepreted. The manuscripts featured here are only a small sample of the books that feature the original Hermione.

Alison Hudson

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19 November 2017

Happy birthday, Statute of Marlborough!

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Earlier this month, we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Forest Charter, Magna Carta’s little sibling. It inspired a new Tree Charter, with accompanying events ranging from bike rides to pole launches. Today, we commemorate the Statute of Marlborough. At 750 years old, issued on 19 November 1267, it’s one of the the oldest pieces of legislation in England still in force today.

The Statute of Marlborough almost didn’t make it to this day. Only four of its twenty-nine sections are still in force. In 2014, the Law Commission made plans to scrap it altogether. The surviving sections are now known as the Distress Act and the Waste Act. The Distress Act states that anyone seeking reimbursement for damages must do so through the courts, while the Waste Act ensures that the tenants do not lay waste, sell or ruin their lands and other resources without special permission. This is still a concern in modern agriculture:

Fermors, during their Terms, shall not make Waste, Sale, nor Exile of House, Woods, Men, nor of any Thing belonging to the Tenements that they have to ferm, without special Licence had by Writing of Covenant, making mention that they may do it; which thing if they do, and thereof be convict, they shall yield full Damage, and shall be punished by Amerciament grievously.

The closing page of the Statute of Marlborough: Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 131r
The closing page of the Statute of Marlborough: Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 131r

There are eight pieces of English legislation from the 13th century that have not been repealed. One of those is Magna Carta, which was originally issued by King John in 1215; the earliest versions were repealed, with the version now in force dating from 1297.

One of the two sources for the official Latin text of the Statute of Marlborough is held at the British Library (Cotton MS Claudius D II). It forms part of a book collecting English laws — the medieval version of legislation.gov.uk, you might say. You can see the Cotton manuscript of the Statute of Marlborough right now in our free Treasures Gallery, alongside a copy of the Forest Charter that was narrowly saved from destruction and a plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey

A plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey: Harley MS 391, ff. 5v–6r
A plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey: Harley MS 391, ff. 5v–6r

The plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey is further evidence of how the environment shaped the medieval world. Medieval monasteries aimed to be self-reliant, and water was key to this. This plan of a conduit built in 1220–22 at Waltham Abbey is one of the earliest surviving English maps. The water flows from three round sources at the top, through a filtration system, and into a pipe towards the abbey. It is found in a cartulary made for the abbey, a collection of charters copied into a single volume for reference and preservation. The agreements in this book show that the monks had to negotiate with several different landlords to build across their land.

 

Andrew Dunning (@anjdunning)

 

16 November 2017

Boccaccio’s Venus in Cyprus

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A new exhibition, The Venus Paradox, opened this September in Nicosia in Cyprus. It celebrates Venus, goddess of love, and the stories she has inspired through the ages. According to legend, Venus — or Aphrodite as she was called by Greek authors from Hesiod onwards — rose from the sea foam wearing a golden crown and was wafted over the waves to the island of Cyprus, where she was clothed with heavenly garments. The exhibition focuses on Venus’s place in the western artistic tradition, in both image and text, and her significance for the island of her birth.

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Venus as Queen of Cyprus, from Des cleres et nobles femmes, Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century: Royal MS 20 C V, f. 16v

One of the British Library's exquisite Boccaccio manuscripts is part of this show. On display is an image of Venus as she appears in a 15th-century volume that has links to another very strong woman (see below). In the image, Venus is depicted as the Queen of Cyprus, wearing a crown (the rubric reads, ‘tres ancienne royne des cipriens’). This is one of 106 glorious illustrations of Des cleres et nobles femmes, an anonymous French translation of ‘De mulieribus claris’ (Concerning famous women). Considered the first collection of biographies in western literature devoted exclusively to women, this popular work, first completed in 1361, provides a fascinating insight into medieval attitudes to women, in a time of changing attitudes. In the section on Venus, Boccaccio discusses various beliefs about her, including her disputed origins (was her father a king of Cyprus or Jupiter himself?), and the assertion that Cupid was her son. Her great beauty is compared to the planet, Venus, but she is harshly judged for her licentiousness; having been unfaithful to both husbands, Vulcan and Adonis, she is accused of the ‘shameful madness’ of founding the first public brothels in Crete.

This precious and beautiful volume is already a celebrity: the opening page with a four-part image and a gorgeous rinceaux border was displayed in our 2011 exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination.

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A frontispiece in four panels of Boccaccio reading a book, Boccaccio presenting the book to Andrea Acciaivoli, countess of Altavilla, a messenger presenting a letter to Semiramis and a queen with four female musicians, Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century: Royal MS 20 C V, f. 5r

It is no surprise that its former owner of this manuscript was wealthy and powerful, a member of the illustrious Beaufort family, probably Lady Margaret Beaufort, one of Britain’s earliest ‘tiger mothers’. She was determined her son, Henry, would become King of England, even if she had to found a new dynasty in the process! She achieved her aim in 1485, when he was crowned King Henry VII aged 28, the first of the Tudors. Perhaps she was inspired by some of the stories in this work, though she is known to have been extremely devout, so it is unlikely Venus was a role model for her.

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Table of chapters in Des cleres et nobles femmes, with added Beaufort arms: Royal MS 20 C V, f. 1r

The opening folio has an added initial 'D' containing the Beaufort badge of a portcullis and chains surmounted by a coronet. James Carley has suggested that this manuscript is 'possibly to be identified as the "greatte volume of velom named John Bokas lymned" owned by Lady Margaret Beaufort' (The Libraries of King Henry VIII (2000) p. xxiv).

Venus is described on the Pafos website as ‘mother, woman, mistress, huntress and seductress’. Here are a variety images from our manuscripts depicting the goddess in her many guises, as she was seen in the Middle Ages.

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Venus with a mirror, emerging from the sea, from Matfre Ermengaud, Breviari d'Amor, France, S. (Toulouse?); 1st quarter of the 14th century: Royal MS 19 C I, f. 41v (this manuscript was recently featured in a blogpost on Occitan manuscripts)


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Venus, Vulcan and Mars, from the Roman de la Rose, France, Central? (Paris?); c. 1380: Egerton MS 881, f. 141v

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Venus as the huntress, from the Roman de la Rose, Paris, c. 1400: Egerton 1069, f. 140v

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Venus presiding over a group of men and women, who are presenting their hearts to her, in Christine de Pizan’s 'L'Épître Othéa', Paris, c. 1410–c. 1414: Harley 4431, f. 100r

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Miniature of Venus arming Aeneas in the foreground, and on the right, Aeneas meeting Evander, at the beginning of book VII of Virgil's Aeneid, Italy, Central (Rome); between 1483 and 1485, King’s MS 24, f. 164r

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Miniature of the Judgement of Paris, with Pallas Athena, Juno and Venus sitting at a table, and Paris giving an olive branch to Venus, in the Convenevole da Prato, Italy, Central (Tuscany); c. 1335–c. 1340: Royal MS 6 E IX, f. 22r

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Venus playing a musical instrument with her ruling Zodiac signs, from a treatise on astrology by Albumazar, Netherlands, S., 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century: Sloane MS 3983, f. 42v

The Venus Paradox exhibition is open at the A.G. Leventis Gallery in Nicosia from 29 September 2017 until 15 January 2018.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Chantry Westwell

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14 November 2017

Canon tables in the Lindisfarne Gospels now on display

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As a text, the canon tables are ubiquitous and fundamental to Christian copies of scripture. Over many centuries copies of the Gospels in Latin, Greek, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Gothic, Syriac, Georgian or Slavonic begin with these tables. Devised and created in Greek by the early Church Father Eusebius (d. 340), bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, these tables formed a unifying gateway to the fundamental, but multiple narratives of the Evangelists Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As Eusebius explained in a prefatory letter to his friend Carpianus, he compiled the ten tables (or canons, in Greek) to help the reader ‘know where each of the Evangelists was led by the love of truth to speak about the same things’.

Canon 1 lists passages common to all four Gospels, Canons 2-9 different combinations of two or three Gospels and Canon 10 those passages found only in one Gospel. Building on a system of dividing up the text of the Gospels into verses that he attributed to Ammonius of Alexandria, Eusebius assigned consecutive numbers to sections in each Gospel and used these numbers within his tables to correlate related passages. By this means he adduced the unity of the four narratives without attempting to harmonise them into a single text.

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Codex Sinaiticus, the folio currently on display at the British Library: Add MS 43725, f. 201r

The earliest known evidence for the use of the tables occurs in Codex Sinaiticus, an extraordinary 4th-century Greek manuscript that is also the earliest surviving complete New Testament. In Codex Sinaiticus the tables themselves do not survive, but the Ammonian section numbers are included throughout the Gospels. These can be seen in the Gospel of St Matthew currently on display in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, or viewed in detail on our Digitised Manuscripts website. In Codex Sinaiticus, the section numbers (in Greek characters) are added on the left-hand side of each column in red ink, with the number of the canon table that needs to be consulted for parallel texts of that section.

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Section 16, canon 5: a note in the Gospel of St Matthew, a detail from Codex Sinaiticus (Add MS 43725, f. 201r column 2)

For example, in the right-hand page on display in the Gallery, the third number in the second column (in the account of one of Christ’s temptations) is marked as section 16, in Canon 5. Further information about the manuscript is available on the Codex Sinaiticus website, including a full transcription and translation, and in this previous blogpost.

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The Golden Canon tables, Constantinople, 6th–7th century (Add MS 5111/1)

One of most splendid illuminated examples of the Canon Tables in Greek are the leaves now known as the Golden Canon Tables, because they are written on parchment previously painted entirely with gold. Made in Constantinople in the 6th or 7th century, the tables are now fragmentary but nevertheless betray a very sophisticated artistic style. They are a rare witness of an early version of these tables.

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The pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels currently on display at the British Library: Cotton MS Nero D IV, ff. 14v–15r

Canon tables are also included in the Latin copy of the Gospels known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, which was probably made on the island of Lindisfarne in Northumbria in around 700. The fifth canon, which lists texts that are common in the two Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke, is now on display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery. This is the same canon as that referred to in Codex Sinaiticus, several centuries earlier. The canons in the Lindisfarne Gospels are surrounded by intricately designed micro-architectural decoration, with wonderful intertwined biting birds. You can view them in more detail with the zoom function on the Digitised Manuscripts website, or visit the Treasures Gallery in the coming months.