THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

494 posts categorized "Medieval"

17 March 2015

Irish Manuscripts in the British Library

Add comment Comments (0)

The British Library holds one of the great collections of Irish-language manuscripts in the world. While it is perhaps not as extensive a collection as those in Dublin or Oxford, and while most of the manuscripts are relatively recent in date, nonetheless the Library’s Irish manuscripts (over 200) contain much that is of considerable scholarly significance. In today’s post, we look at a few of the most important items in the collection.

Harley_ms_1023_f64v
Harley MS 1023, f 64v. Below the end of the prologue to John is a drawing of his evangelist symbol, the eagle. A later medieval reader has added John's name above the eagle's head: 'Ioh(ann)es'. Ireland, N. (Armagh?), 1st quarter of the 12th century.

The two Harley Gospel Books are perhaps the jewels of the collection. Harley MS 1802 was completed in Armagh in 1138, and Harley MS 1023 has been attributed to the same place and roughly the same time of origin. Both manuscripts contain the Gospels in Latin, and fine miniatures of Evangelist symbols in ink, along with typical zoomorphic initials. Harley 1802 contains partial commentary in Latin and Irish, and Irish poems and scribal notes. Harley 1023 contains only a few Irish glosses.

Harley_ms_1802_f61r
Harley MS 1802, f 61r. Decorated initial and letter 'In'(itium) with animal heads at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. Ireland, N. (Armagh), 1138.

The Library has a particularly strong collection of Irish medical texts, including many translations of classical or medieval Latin texts. The highlight is undoubtedly Harley MS 546, a collection of medical tracts in Irish and Latin, dated to 1459, and now digitised in full. It includes such joys as the following advice on how ‘to make the face fair’ (Do gelad na haghthi), including some rather unusual uses for bull’s blood and what is translated by O’Grady as bovinum stercus.

Harley_ms_546_f039v
Harley MS 546, f 39v. Treatise on how to make the face fair. Ireland, c 1459.

Other key medical items available online include a fragment in Add MS 39583 of a 16th-century manuscript containing a translation of Hippocrates’ Aphorisms into Middle Irish, and a longer version of the same text from another 16th-century manuscript, Harley MS 4347.

Egerton_ms_88_f65r
Egerton MS 88, f 65r. Zoomorphic initial. Ireland, c 1564.

The Irish collections also include many important poetic and legal texts, but we finish with the famous Egerton MS 88, a legal and grammatical miscellany produced by the school of Domhnall Ó Duibhdábhoirenn in around 1564. This manuscript is not only important for its contribution to the study of Irish legal history, but also for the many scribal notes found throughout the manuscript, which give a vivid insight into the everyday lives (and sufferings!) of 16th-century scribes. Many of these complain about the poor working conditions in which Domhnall’s scribes have to work, and we can quote only one here: "Is fuar mairt cin dinér a Domnaill .i. ria nodlaig" (A dinnerless Tuesday is a cold thing, Donall, and before Christmas too). And it would be hard to argue with that! The later history of Egerton MS 88, including the unusual box it was housed in when it arrived at the British Museum, is another story altogether, and one that will have to wait for another day. (Parts of the manuscript are now also to be found in the Copenhagen, Kongelige Bibliotekat MS 261B, and Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, MS 23 Q 6.)

There are great riches to be found by dipping into the printed Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts, which contains transcriptions of many of the annotations and colophons, as well as some of the shorter poems, to be found in the Irish collections. There remains a great deal of work to be done on the collections, particularly on the 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts.

Further resources for the collections:

At present the online catalogue does not include most of the Irish manuscripts. Only a few have been digitised either in full or in part, and these can be viewed on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts or on Digitised Manuscripts. Updated bibliography by shelfmark can be found on the Bibliography of Irish Linguistics and Literature housed at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies.

The most important resource remains the Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts in the British Museum, the third volume of which contains a history of the collection and its formation. Some information on the collectors whose activities contributed to the formation of the collections now in the British Library (including Cotton, O’Curry, and Hardiman) can be found in Nessa Ní Shéaghdha, ‘Collectors of Irish manuscripts: motives and methods’, Celtica 17 (1985), pp. 1–28 (also published separately, Dublin: DIAS 1985, BL shelfmark 2702.b.93).

The composition of the Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts is a tale unto itself, as it is the work of three major figures in Celtic scholarship spanning three generations: Standish Hayes O’Grady (who compiled Volume I), Robin Flower (Volume II and III), and Miles Dillon (who revised Volume III after Flower’s death). The story can be found in the prefaces to the individual volumes of the Catalogue, while for a richer picture, a brief biography of Standish O’Grady can be found in Seán Ua Súilleabháin, ‘Standish Hayes O’Grady’, in Caithréim Thoirdhealbhaigh: Reassessments, ed. by Liam P. Ó Murchú, Irish Texts Society Subsidiary Series 24 (London: Irish Texts Society, 2012), pp. 77-98. (BL Shelfmark YK.2014.a.9606). An obituary of Robin Flower by H. I. Bell was published in Proceedings of the British Academy 32 (1946) pp. 353-79.

- Cillian O'Hogan

05 March 2015

Collaboration and Customisation: The Evolution of a Royal Book

Add comment Comments (0)

As we draw to the end of Paris fashion week, let us turn to a manuscript that exudes the best of Parisian style. The haute couture of book illumination, this glorious Book of Hours showcases the work of the French capital’s most in-demand fifteenth-century illuminators. 

Egerton_ms_1070_f029v
Miniature of the Visitation by the Egerton Master, from ‘The Hours of René of Anjou’, France (Paris), 15th century, Egerton MS 1070, f. 29v

It is the eponymous manuscript of the Egerton Master, whose mastery is elsewhere illustrated in the stunning two-volume Bible historiale that starred in our exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. The Egerton Master collaborated on several occasions with other fashion­able painters of the day. These included the Mazarine Master, who helped to complete the miniatures and decoration towards the end of this lavish manuscript, along with two lesser-known Parisian artists.

Egerton_ms_1070_f113r_detail
Detail of a miniature of The Last Supper by the Mazarine Master, Egerton MS 1070, f. 113r

One of the more unusual characteristics of Egerton MS 1070 is the unique border decoration. Angels carry freshly unearthed branches of acanthus, roots intact, which extend up the vertical margins.

Egerton_ms_1070_f090v
Miniatures of Saint Denis and his companions, and Saint George, with border decoration of angels carrying branches of acanthus by the Egerton Master, Egerton MS 1070, f. 90v

A book fit for a king? Well, it was actually owned by several…

Following the original commission, this exceptional Book of Hours passed into the hands of a number of monarchs, including Henry VII, before entering the British Library’s collection (via a short residency at a Jesuit College in Krakow). Today the manuscript is identified by the name of one of its fifteenth-century owners, René of Anjou. ‘Le bon roi René’ (‘good king René’) was an influential European leader, patron of the arts and occasional author, whose many titles included duke of Anjou, duke of Lorraine and Bar, and count of Provence, as well as king of Naples, Sicily and Jerusalem.

Egerton_ms_1070_f004v
Full-page miniature of René’s coat of arms, Egerton MS 1070, f. 4v

Egerton_ms_1070_f005r
Full-page miniature of Jerusalem with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock, Egerton MS 1070, f. 5r

When the book came into René’s possession, it was carefully customised to suit its new owner and assert his status. This is evident from the beginning of the book: two full-page miniatures depict firstly René’s coat of arms and, on the facing page, Jerusalem, the capital of his kingdom in the Holy Land. Painted by Netherlandish artist Barthélemy d'Eyck, they reflect the early stages of the close relationship between this artist and his patron.

Texts were also added to personalise the manuscript for René’s own private devotion, such as the prayer below which incorporates his name.  

Egerton_ms_1070_f043v_detail
Detail of added prayer including René’s name [Renatum], Egerton MS 1070, f. 43v

The additions also permeate into the borders: many of the angels find the burden of their flight eased by billowing sails, which carry René’s motto 'En Dieu en soit' (‘in accordance with God’s will’). As well as furthering his devotional appropriation of the book, they function as a graffiti artist’s tag, stamping René’s ownership in his own distinctive manner.

Egerton_ms_1070_f016r_detail
Detail of border decoration including the addition of René’s motto
'En Dieu en soit', Egerton MS 1070, f. 16r

Why not delve deeper into this fascinating codex by exploring it in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

- Hannah Morcos

01 March 2015

A Calendar Page for March 2015

Add comment Comments (1)

To find out more about the London Rothschild Hours, take a look at our post A Calendar Page for January 2015

Add_ms_35313_f002v
Calendar page for March, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, architectural column and suspended roundel, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 2v 

In this month’s border decoration, a roundel for the Feast of the Annunciation is suspended from a perpendicular gothic column. This elaborate architectural design itself encloses a scene showing the Mass of St Gregory, who died on 12th March 604. According to Paul the Deacon’s 8th-century biography of Gregory, the Man of Sorrows appeared as Gregory celebrated mass as Pope, in response to his prayers to convince someone of the doctrine of transubstantiation – that is, Christ’s physical presence in the consecrated host. 

At the top of the page, there is the Zodiac sign for March: Aries the Ram. At the bottom, there is another scene of agricultural industriousness. Three peasants labour in a fenced-off garden: the men digging and planting fruit trees, the woman pulling up weeds. They are overseen by a gentlewoman, who is holding a small lapdog in her arms, and her female attendant. A large and imposing building, presumably the woman’s residence, stands in the background. 

Add_ms_35313_f002v_labour
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of peasants labouring in a garden,
Add MS 35313, f. 2v 

Add_ms_35313_f002v_gregory
Detail of an architectural column enclosing the scene of the Mass of St Gregory,
Add MS 35313, f. 2v 

- James Freeman

10 February 2015

Magna Carta Under The Proverbial Microscope

Add comment Comments (1)

Last Wednesday, a select group of scholars and other interested observers were the first people in 800 years to compare the four surviving 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts side-by-side. This one-off event was held at the British Library, and was part of the Magna Carta unification, sponsored by the global law firm Linklaters. Everyone involved was thrilled to be a part of history and, equally importantly, great strides were made towards learning more about the production and later ownership of these four manuscripts, held respectively by Lincoln Cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral and the British Library. More details will doubtless be published in due course on the Magna Carta Project website. In the meantime, here are some photos of our special day (you get a bonus point if you can identify all of the participants).

Magna_carta_academics-22

Chris Woods (Lincoln and Salisbury conservator), Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia), Tessa Webber (Trinity College, Cambridge) and David Carpenter (King's College, London)

Magna_carta_academics-36

Edward Probert (Salisbury Cathedral), Louise Wilkinson (Canterbury Christ Church University), Philippa Hoskin (University of Lincoln)

Magna_carta_academics-56

Tessa Webber, Nicholas Vincent and David Carpenter

Magna_carta_academics-37

David Carpenter getting to grips with the Lincoln Magna Carta

Magna_carta_academics-64

Trying to identify the inscription on the back of the 'London' Magna Carta

Magna_carta_academics-72

The examination continues ...

Magna_carta_academics-78

The lucky few!

05 February 2015

The Legend of Troy in Medieval Manuscripts

Add comment Comments (0)

Currently on display in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library are two superb images of the legend of Troy in medieval manuscripts from our collections – Stowe MS 54 and Harley MS 4376 – both shown below. We thought this would be a good opportunity to re-discover how the familiar stories of the Greek and Trojan wars, the abduction of Helen by Paris, the Trojan horse and the Odyssey were viewed in the Middle Ages.

K005865
The Greeks attacking Troy from the Sea, with the Greek and Trojan soldiers equipped as medieval chivalric knights from the ‘Histoire Ancienne jusqu’à César’, France (Paris), 1st quarter of the 15th century, Stowe MS 54, ff. 82v-83r

History mingled with chivalric romance was a very popular subject with medieval aristocrats, and they were fascinated by accounts of the heroes of ancient world, some of whom were real, like Alexander the Great, some fictional, like Oedipus and Ulysses. Fact and legend became entangled in works such as the Histoire Ancienne jusqu’à César, an account of the history of the ancient world from Genesis to the Roman empire, including the stories of Jason and the Golden Fleece, tales of Thebes and the adventures of Aeneas.

E104368
Paris and Helen meeting Priam outside Troy from the ‘Chronique d’Histoire Ancienne’, France, N. W. (Normandy, Rouen),
3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 4376, f. 90r

The later Chronique d’Histoire Ancienne or Chronique de la Bouquechardière was written by the Norman knight Jean de Courcy just after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. His aim was to entertain and instruct his audience, while emphasising the moral lessons to be gained from history, at a time when Normandy was being conquered by the English under Henry V.

20687_2
Theseus and Hercules jousting against the two sisters of Queen Antiope, from the ‘Histoire Ancienne jusqu’à César’, Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Acre), before 1291, Add MS 15268, f. 103r

The British Library has nine out of a total of almost forty surviving manuscripts of the different versions of  the Histoire Ancienne jusqu’à César. The work was first compiled and adapted from Latin into French in the early thirteenth century. One of the earliest copies in our collections was made in the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, perhaps for Henry II de Lusignan as a gift for his coronation in 1286. Medieval knights far from home in the Holy Land must have identified with these ancient heroes and studied the accounts of their military campaigns. This glorious image on a gold background shows Theseus and Hercules jousting against women. Yes, two of our most illustrious ancient heroes took on Queen Antiope and the Amazon women in order to seize the royal girdle. They arrived with nine warships and captured two of Antiope’s sisters, Melanippe and Hippolyte, along with the girdle.

K148499
Detail of a column miniature of the Greeks attacking Troy, with the rubric 'Ci commance la vraie hystoire de troies' from the ‘Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César’, France (Paris), 1340-1350, Add MS 12029, f. 22v

A version of the text omitting Genesis and beginning with the history of King Ninus and Queen Semiramis of Persia was copied in Paris about 50 years later, and contains 46 framed miniatures by four different artists. This image is at the beginning of the Troy legend, and shows the Greeks attacking Troy for the first time.

Add MSS 15268 and Add MS 12029 have recently been catalogued and are now online with a selection of the images in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

C13558-77
Detail of a four-part miniature of (1) the death of Hector, (2) Achilles and Polyxena on Hector's grave, (3) Achilles with Hecuba in the temple, and (4) the death of Achilles, from the ‘Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César’, France, N., 1250-1275, Add MS 19669, f. 84r

The earliest French Histoire Ancienne manuscript in our collections – Add MS 19669 – was made in Northern France in the mid-thirteenth century. It contains a series of miniatures in three or four parts, including this one of the deaths of Hector and Achilles. In the first scene (top left), Hector, the Trojan prince, is killed by the Greek hero Achilles as he bends to retrieve a jewelled helmet from a fallen knight; in the second (bottom left), Achilles visits Hector's grave, catches sight of Hector’s sister, Polyxena, and falls in love; in the third (top right), Hecuba tricks Achilles into coming to the Trojan temple to marry Polyxena; finally (bottom right), he is killed by Paris, Hector’s brother.

Royal_ms_20_d_i_f169r
Miniature of the Sack of Troy, from the ‘Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César’, Naples, 1330-1340, Royal MS 20 D I, f. 169r

Different scenes from the Iliad and the Odyssey are portrayed in a series of tinted drawings and illuminations in a copy of a later version of the text of the Histoire ancienneRoyal MS 20 D I – produced by Italian artists for the French monarchs of the house of Anjou, who ruled Naples from 1266-1435. The Trojan Horse is shown in this extravagant full-page depiction of the sack of Troy, reminiscent of a large wall-painting. The 297 images are all available online in Digitised Manuscripts.

Royal_ms_20_d_i_f181v
Detail of a bas-de-page miniature of Ulysses in Crete, from the ‘Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César’, Naples, 1330-1340, Royal MS 20 D I, f.181v

Here, Ulysses is shown arriving in Crete on his homeward journey from Troy, as related in the accompanying text, though this is not in the original version of the Odyssey.

Do you have any favourite scenes from these manuscripts?  Let us know on Twitter @BLMedieval!

- Chantry Westwell

01 February 2015

A Calendar Page for February 2015

Add comment Comments (0)

To find out more about the London Rothschild Hours, take a look at our post A Calendar Page for January 2015

Add_ms_35313_f002r
Calendar page for February, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, four roundels and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 2r 

For this month, the bas-de-page scene is an appropriately wintry and barren one. In the foreground, two ruddy-faced labourers prune back vines, while another carries off the trimmings for firewood in a bundle on his back (note how he is wearing medieval mittens against the cold!). A female figure is following in his footsteps in the background, and to the right a team of oxen draw a plough through a frosty field. The Zodiac sign for this month is Pisces, shown at the top of the page. The border contains four roundels for the key religious festivals of the month, which are picked out in red in the calendar.  These are the feast days of the Purification of the Virgin Mary (also known as the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, or Candlemas), Saints Vedastus and Amandus (two bishops from northern France/Belgium, close to where the manuscript originated), the Chair of St Peter, and St Matthias. 

Add_ms_35313_f002r_labour
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of men pruning vines and gathering firewood,
Add MS 35313, f. 2r 

Add_ms_35313_f002r_purification
Detail of a roundel illustrating the Purification of the Virgin Mary,
Add MS 35313, f. 2r 

- James Freeman

23 January 2015

Hereford Writ to be displayed at the British Library

Add comment Comments (0)

The British Library's major Magna Carta exhibition opens in less than two months. We're delighted to announce that Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy will feature a very important medieval document, on loan from Hereford Cathedral. On 20 June 1215, just a few days after Magna Carta had been granted, King John of England wrote to all of his sheriffs, commanding them to have the Great Charter read out in public. Only one of those documents — known as a royal writ — still survives, the letter sent to the sheriff of Gloucestershire and today kept at Hereford. The British Library is extremely grateful to the Dean and Chapter of Hereford Cathedral for so kindly agreeing to lend us this precious document for the duration of our exhibition, where it will be on display alongside other books and artefacts relating to the history and legacy of Magna Carta.

Hereford_DSC6528
The Hereford writ, a unique survival of the letter commanding that Magna Carta be read out in public in 1215

Magna Carta was granted by King John (1199–1216) at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. Its most controversial feature was the condition that 25 barons be elected to oversee the implementation of the charter, or to seek immediate redress from the king if its terms were being ignored. The Hereford writ is hugely significant: it demonstrates that the sheriffs were commanded to restore the peace, and that they were ordered to swear obedience to the 25 barons. This particular writ is addressed to the sheriff of Gloucestershire — similar documents would have been sent to the other sheriffs, but this is the only one to have survived — and asks that 'you inviolably observe and cause to be observed, by everyone, everything contained in the charter, lest the peace of our kingdom should happen to be troubled again'.

There is a certain irony here, however. The sheriff of Gloucestershire in 1215 was none other than Engelard de Cigogné (d. 1244), and he was named specifically in Magna Carta as one of the king's evil advisers, who the barons demanded be dismissed from office. The writ's stipulation that Engelard investigate his own malpractices must surely have been difficult to enforce! Engelard also held the post of sheriff of Herefordshire, which may explain how this writ came to be preserved at Hereford Cathedral. It's also interesting to note that the only bishop who joined the baronial rebellion in 1215 was Giles de Briouze, Bishop of Hereford (1200–1215): he was excommunicated by the papal commisioners in September of that year.

Hereford
Hereford Cathedral, where the writ has been kept since the Middle Ages

You can read a translation of the Hereford writ below. It will be on display in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy at the British Library from 13 March to 1 September 2015, and tickets are already on sale. Once again, we are indebted to Hereford Cathedral for its generosity in kindly agreeing to lend us this item, so that it can be shown with other items relating to the granting of Magna Carta in 1215. You can read more here about Hereford's participation in the celebration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.

'John by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine and Count of Anjou to the sheriff of Gloucestershire, foresters, wareners, custodians of rivers and all his other officials in the same county, Greeting.

Know that to restore by the grace of God firm peace between us and the barons and free men of our kingdom, just as you will be able to hear and see by our charter, which we accordingly caused to be made, which likewise we order to be read publically throughout the whole of your bailiwick and to be held firmly; willing and strictly enjoining that you, the sheriff, cause all men of your bailiwick or the majority of them according to the model of the aforementioned charter to swear obedience to the twenty-five barons of whom mention is made in the aforementioned charter to the same command, in their presence or the presence of those assigned to this by their letters patent, and at the day and place which for this purpose the aforementioned or assigned barons established from them for this.

We also wish and order that the twelve knights of your county, who shall be elected by the county in its first session that will be held after receipt of these letters in your parts, swear an inquiry into the corrupt customs of as much the sheriffs as of their agents, of forests, foresters, warrens, warreners, riverbanks and their wardens, and the destruction of the same, as is contained in the charter itself.

Therefore you all, as you love us and our honour, and the peace of our kingdom, inviolably observe and cause to be observed, by everyone, everything contained in the charter, lest for want of you or by your digression, the peace of our kingdom should happen to be troubled again, God forbid. And you, sheriff, cause our peace to be proclaimed through the whole of your bailiwick and order it to be firmly held.

And these our letters patent we send to you thence in testimony of this. Witness myself at Runnymede, the twentieth day of June, in the seventeenth year of our reign.'

 

21 January 2015

Das Ende der Welt: An Overlooked German Apocalypse

Add comment Comments (0)

‘Bad work’: that is how M.R. James described an unusual German Apocalypse at the British Library, in his 1927 Schweich Lectures on The Apocalypse in Art. The full-page illustrations in Add MS 15243 – which was published on Digitised Manuscripts at the end of 2014 – may lack some of the finesse of those found in English or French Apocalypses, but a closer look reveals plenty of interest in this manuscript. 

Add_ms_15243_f003r - detail
Detail of large pen flourished initial with zoomorphic grotesques at the beginning of the Book of Revelation, Germany (?Erfurt), c. 1350-c. 1370, 
Add MS 15243, f. 3r 

As followers of this blog will know already, the particular fashion for Apocalypse manuscripts in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century France and England is illustrated by the numerous copies that survive from those countries. Many in the British Library’s collections have been digitised and have featured in such blog posts as Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Then, Fire and Brimstone, and Visions of the Apocalypse. 

Add_ms_15243_f031r
Full-page illuminated miniature depicting an angel casting a millstone into the sea,
Add MS 15243, f. 31r 

How common were German Apocalypse manuscripts? James’s survey – acknowledged at the time as being incomplete – gives a slightly misleading impression of the manuscript’s rarity. Of the 92 Apocalypses he listed, a mere six were from Germany, and only Add MS 15243 among them contained the text in German. Further surveys in the journal Traditio in 1984-86 and the Katalog der deutschprachigen illustrierten Handschriften des Mittelalters have increased the numbers, and Carola Redzich’s 2010 study of the language, transmission and reception of German Apocalypses has revealed a lively tradition in that country as well. (All bibliographical references may be found in full in the catalogue entry). 

Add_ms_15243_f004r
Full-page illuminated miniature depicting the beginning of John’s visions,
Add MS 15243, f. 4r 

The manuscript dates to around 1350-1370 and is possibly from Erfurt in Thuringia, Germany: blind-stamped motifs on the pig-skin binding match those used by a workshop there around 1490-1520. It contains a series of fourteen full-page, unbordered, illuminated miniatures. How closely these illustrations relate to the text varies from image to image. Some are very close to what John described, while others are not, owing to idiosyncratic inclusions or omissions by the artist. The book opens with a miniature of John in a cave on the island of Patmos (which featured in our most recent hyperlinks announcement). This is followed by another that depicts the beginning of his visions (shown above). Here, the artist has compressed two narrative stages together into a single scene: the appearance of Christ with various accoutrements (Rev. 1:12-16), and John’s falling ‘at his feet as dead’ and Christ laying his right hand upon him and saying ‘“Fear not”’ (Rev. 1:17). 

Add_ms_15243_f012r
Full-page illuminated miniature depicting the appearance of the four horsemen,
Add MS 15243, f. 12r 

The miniature illustrating the appearance of the Four Riders diverges from the text (Rev. 6:1-8). The first two Riders are as described in the Book of Revelation: the first on a white horse, wearing a crown and carrying a bow; the second on a red horse and wielding a large sword. Differences emerge thereafter. The third Rider is on a white, rather than a black, horse. Most strikingly, the fourth Rider – an emaciated figure with a skull-head, representing Death – is mounted on a winged lion. According to the text, Death is mounted on a ‘pale horse’. Why does the decorative scheme deviate here, and how common was this in Apocalypse manuscripts? Lion-hybrids are described elsewhere in the Apocalypse text, the closest but by no means exact match being the first of the ‘four living creatures’ described in Rev. 4:7-8. This lion was accompanied by a calf, a man and an eagle, each furnished with six wings and ‘full of eyes’, which are immediately recognisable as the symbols of the Evangelists. A winged lion is also mentioned in the Old Testament, in the first of Daniel’s apocalyptic visions (Daniel 7:4). Their relevance to this particular part of the Book of Revelation, and the reasons for the artist’s choice, are unclear, however, as are the reasons for the artist’s deviation from the text. 

Add_ms_15243_f019r
Full-page illuminated miniature depicting the Woman and the Beast,
Add MS 15243, f. 19r 

The complexity of John’s visions, and the obscurity of the language in which they are expressed, presented obvious challenges to the manuscript illuminator. Here, the artist has included certain elements from the text: the moon being under the Woman’s feet, her bringing forth a child that is delivered up to God, and the Beast with seven heads and crowns that drew stars from the heavens and cast them down to earth. Others he has abandoned: the ten horns on the Beast (Rev. 12:3) and the Woman being ‘clothed with the sun’ (Rev. 12:1). According to the text, the Woman is also ‘crowned with twelve stars’ (Rev. 12:1), which the artist has interpreted as ‘crowned, with twelve stars’, placing the twelve stars around her head like a nimbus or halo. That three are meant to be hidden behind the child is cleverly indicated by the twelfth star emerging from behind his back as the Woman lifts him up to God.

Download Add MS 15243 collation

The collation of this manuscript is highly irregular. Each of these illustrations, as well as two leaves of text, are on single leaves of parchment that have then been inserted into the manuscript. The order in which they have been stitched in is unusual in places, and to add to the complexity in a few instances parchment strips have been added to reinforce the leaves against the sewing. We have provided a detailed description of the collation in the record, but this seems an instance where a visual aid might be helpful!  

- James Freeman