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21 October 2020

Angels in Manuscripts

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Angels pop up all over the place in medieval manuscripts, from Books of Hours to handbooks on magic. They are key players in Old and New Testament stories and feature in decorative borders. Join us for a tour of some of the wonderful images of angels in British Library manuscripts and the many varied contexts in which they appear.


An illustrated treatise by Francesc Eiximenis discusses the properties of angels, for instance ‘How an angelic spirit has no body and yet it can take on corporeal form by entering a body’ and the characteristics of good and bad angels. Each man and woman must choose between the angels’ path of goodness and the evil ways of the devil, as shown in this miniature below.

Illuminated manuscript with an picture of a guardian angel guiding a man away from the devil
A guardian angel guides a man away from the devil, in the Livre des anges, a French translation of Francesc Eiximenis, Llibre dels Àngels: Sloane MS 3049, f. 27r

The Breviari d’Amour, an encyclopaedic work in the Catalan language with the emphasis on theological and courtly traditions, contains a section on the offices or tasks of angels, which include seeing off the devil, interceding with Christ for humanity and carrying souls to Heaven. 

An angel brings food and a jug of wine to Ezekiel (above), and two angels carry the soul of a dying man to heaven while a devil retreats (below)
An angel brings food and a jug of wine to Ezekiel (above), and two angels carry the soul of a dying man to heaven while a devil retreats (below), Matfré Ermengau of Béziers's Breviari d'Amour: Yates Thompson MS 31, f. 40r

Angels in the Old Testament

Angels play a leading role in some of the best-known stories in both the Old and New Testaments. In Genesis, when Adam and Eve are banished from Paradise for eating the forbidden fruit, an angel with a flaming sword bars the gate to the garden and they are forced out into the world where they have to work hard for their livelihood.

The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden
Adam and Eve banished from Eden; an Angel stands, sword in hand, barring the gate; Adam digs and Eve spins, The Holkham Picture Bible: Add MS 47682, f. 4v

In the Old Testament story of Jacob, grandson of Abraham, he has a vision of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels climbing up and down, and he hears God’s voice blessing him from above. In his old age, returning home to the land of Canaan after a long exile, he wrestles with an angel all night, remaining unbeaten, and receives a blessing, being given the name ‘Israel’. These two episodes are illustrated as part of a prefatory set of images from the Bible in the Omne Bonum, an alphabetical encyclopedia of general knowledge written by James le Palmer, Clerk of the Exchequer in c. 1360.

Jacob's dream (above), and Jacob wrestling the angel (below)
Jacob's dream (above), and Jacob wrestling the angel (below), Omne Bonum: Royal MS 6 E VI/1, f. 3v

Angels and the Birth of Christ

The Feast of the Annunciation is one of the most important in the medieval church calendar. Pictures of the Angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary to announce that she will give birth to Christ are found in Books of Hours, Missals, Psalters and Bibles. A search using the term ‘Annunciation’ in the ‘Image description’ field of our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts produces 166 results, one of the earliest being the Echternach Gospels from the mid-11th century, where a full-page illumination of this scene precedes the Gospel of Matthew.

The Annunciation
The Angel Gabriel appears to Mary at the Annunciation, the Echternach Gospels: Egerton MS 608, f. 20r

Angels sometimes appear in scenes of the Nativity, including this charming depiction of a helpful angel preparing a bath for the newborn Christ in the stable, while the baby plays with the donkey, Mary rests, and Joseph looks on with his arms crossed. This is just one example of how useful angels can be to have around.

A Nativity scene in a Book of Hours
The Nativity, at the beginning of the prayers for the hour of Prime in the Hours of the Virgin: Sloane MS 2468, f. 51r

Angels in Revelation

Angels play a key role as the agents of God’s plan for the end of the world in Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. They guide John in his vision and bring about disasters on earth: seven angels are given seven trumpets to blow, causing a series of cataclysmic events, and later, seven angels use seven censers to pour out plagues on earth.

Two tiered manuscript illumination: Christ enthroned and the seven angels with trumpets (above); an angel with a censer (below)
Christ enthroned and the seven angels with trumpets (above); an angel with a censer (below) (Revelation 8:2-5), the Silos Apocalypse: Add MS 11695, f. 126r

In Revelation, a war takes place in heaven between the forces of good, led by the archangel Michael and the evil followers of the dragon, or the devil. The Tiberius Psalter from mid-11th century Winchester contains a colour outline drawing of St Michael defeating the dragon, as part of a series of scenes from the Bible.

St Michael defeats the devil in the Tiberius Psalter
St Michael defeats the dragon (Revelation 12), the ‘Tiberius Psalter’: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 16r

Angels in saints lives

Two of the leading English saints, Cuthbert and Guthlac, were visited by angels, as shown in their illustrated hagiographies. According to the Venerable Bede’s account of his life, St Cuthbert, who became bishop of Lindisfarne, was visited in his youth by an angel disguised as a weary traveller. In this scene, Cuthbert has seated the traveller at his table and is washing his feet, showing Christ-like humility. Here the artist has cleverly dressed the figure in the hooded cloak of a traveller or pilgrim, but has included angels’ wings to show his true nature.

Cuthbert washes the feet of an angel in disguise
Cuthbert washes the feet of an angel in disguise, from Chapter 7 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert: Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 17v

The life of Guthlac, the Mercian hermit-saint, is told in a series of roundels on a parchment roll produced in Lincolnshire in c. 1200. He builds a cell on the island of Crowland, where he is visited by an angel and St Bartholemew.

An angel and St Bartholomew speaking to St Guthlac
An angel and St Bartholomew speaking to St Guthlac, The Guthlac Roll: Harley Roll Y 6

Good and Bad Angels

As Revelation shows, not all angels are benign. In the Divine Comedy, when Dante reaches paradise with Beatrice, they see the Archangels Michael and Raphael battling the bad angels (who fell from grace with Lucifer) and casting them into hell.

Beatrice, hovering above a kneeling Dante, gestures towards the Trinity, while the Archangels fight the fallen angels
Beatrice, hovering above a kneeling Dante, gestures towards the Trinity, while the Archangels fight the fallen angels, Divina Commedia: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 181r

Beliefs about angels were not always sanctioned by the Church as they could sometimes cross over into the occult. A book of magic from the 16th century known as the Sworn Book of Honorius has a section on how to summon heavenly intermediaries so that they will impart knowledge of all things to the user. Both good and bad angels are pictured and named on this page. The images themselves were believed to have magical properties.

The red angels of Mars and the golden angels of the sun
The red angels of Mars, Samahel, Satyhel, Ylurahyhel and Amabyhel and the golden angels of the Sun, Raphael, Cashael, Daryhel and Haurathaphel, in The Sworn Book of Honorius: Royal MS 17 A XLII, f. 68v

Good and bad, useful and militant, it's clear that angels hold an important place in medieval illumination. Explore more amazing images on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts and Digitised Manuscripts sites.

Chantry Westwell

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06 October 2020

Early medieval interlace – a distinctive or ubiquitous feature?

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Regular readers of this blog are likely familiar with splendid examples of ‘Insular’ art — the art of the islands of Britain and Ireland from the 7th to 9th centuries. The iconic Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the most well-known, but you can also admire several examples on the webspace for the recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

Manuscript page in two columns with large decorated initial A in black, red, and green ink.
Decorated initial ‘A’ at the beginning of Book 3 of Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum; Southern England (Canterbury?), c. 800-850; Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 60v.

As is clear from this initial from the Tiberius Bede, one of the main decorative elements of Insular art is the incorporation of delicately drawn interlacing knotwork designs. The inside of the letter is decorated with interlacing ribbons on a black ink background. The tongue of the beast’s head at the top of the letter also interweaves with itself. Patterns like this are still closely associated with Irish, Scottish, and Welsh cultural identity, often called ‘Celtic knotwork’.

Intricate interlace designs are also an important element of the style of manuscript art known as ‘Franco-Saxon’. ‘Franco’ refers to Francia (the kingdom of the Franks), where this style originated. The ‘Saxon’ part of the term refers to the incorporation of Insular decorative motifs (when this term was coined in the late 19th century Insular art was often called ‘Hiberno-Saxon’). In general, the Franco-Saxon style is characterised by a fusion of motifs based on Insular models and features of layout, decoration, and script of the Carolingian manuscript tradition. The Carolingian dynasty seized control over the area roughly corresponding to modern-day France from 751, expanded the kingdom, and ruled (intermittently) until 987.

Interlace is usually described as one of the most defining Insular components of the Franco-Saxon style. Interlace decoration has also been seen as evidence of the spread of this style to the scriptorium of Saint-Martin of Tours during the second half of the 9th century. The Benedictine abbey of Saint-Martin of Tours was one of the most influential centres of manuscript production in the Carolingian empire in the early decades of the century. However, in 853 Tours was attacked by one of the Norse war bands who carried out raids along the rivers of France. To help restore the Abbey’s destroyed library, books from other Carolingian centres were sent to the monks of Tours. We know that at least one of those manuscripts was a Franco-Saxon manuscript from Saint-Amand, one of the main centres of the Franco-Saxon style.

Opening page of the Gospel of Matthew, with a large ligature LI in gold and colours and the rest of the text written in gold.
Decorated ligature ‘LI’, (Liber), beginning of the Gospel of Matthew; Tours, c. 850-900; Add MS 11849, f. 27r.

Consequently, the decoration in manuscripts made at Tours in the decades after the attack of 853 has been described as incorporating the Franco-Saxon style into the diverse and well-developed Tours style. This Gospel book from Tours, digitised as part of the Polonsky project (Add MS 11849), is one example of this. The golden ribbons that both form the outline of the ligature ‘LI’ (Liber) (book) as well as interlaced designs within the letter and at their terminals, have been compared to decorated initials in well-known Franco-Saxon manuscripts.

But there is a problem with using the presence of interlace as a distinguishing feature of an early medieval style. When you start to look at early medieval manuscripts from across northern Europe, you quickly notice that interlacing knotwork decoration is an omnipresent decorative element.

Detail of the top of a manuscript page with a initial D in red and brown ink.
Detail of decorated initial ’D’ (Dixit), Cassiodorus, Expositio psalmorum; Southern Netherlands, Stavelot (now in Belgium), c. 850-875; Add MS 16962, f. 55v.

For example, in the area that is now Belgium and the Southern Netherlands, interlace in a slightly different variant was also common during this period. Here it is incorporated within the stem of the initial ‘D’ as well as in a design within the letter, in red and brown ink.

Detail of the top of a manuscript page with a large initial D with interlace and beasts’ head decoration with details in green.
Detail of decorated initial ‘D’ (Disciplina), Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae; Western France, c. 800-900; Harley MS 2686, f. 5r.

Similarly, interlace is also present in contemporary manuscripts that were most likely made in Brittany, which was never incorporated fully into the Carolingian empire. Perhaps that is why manuscript art from this area often continued to resemble Frankish manuscripts created before the spread of Carolingian influence (i.e. before c. 750).

Detail of the top of a manuscript page with a large initial D in brown ink with some black or dark blue details.
Detail of decorated initial ‘D’ (Dominus) (Lord), at beginning of Liber Scintillarum (Book of Sparks) by the so-called Defensor of Ligugé; Northern Italy, c. 775-825; Cotton MS Nero A II, f. 45r.

Further south, in Northern Italy, early medieval manuscripts also feature interlace in their decorated initials. This is apparent in a late 8th-early 9th manuscript (now Cotton MS Nero A II), which has a large initial ‘D’, with its ascender swooping to the left. The letter incorporates knotwork patterns within its rounded bowl, while another interlace design of thicker ribbons continues and reaches inside the bowl.

Insular artists, responsible for creations like the Lindisfarne Gospels, undeniably mastered the basic principles of interlacing knotwork and created incredibly intricate and imaginative designs. As a type of pattern in itself, however, it was such a ubiquitous feature of early medieval European art that its presence in a manuscript does not necessarily indicate specifically Insular influence.

Emilia Henderson

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03 October 2020

The Bamberg Book of Relics

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The Bamberg Book of Relics (Add MS 15689) represents the medieval treasure trove of Bamberg Cathedral. It contains more than 100 illustrations of highly decorated containers with the physical remains of holy men and women, fragments of the sites they visited, and the objects they touched. The relics and their containers (reliquaries) are organised by shape, and include banners, vestments, vessels (monstrances), busts, caskets and crosses. Among the most prized relics are those associated with the life of Christ, such as hair of the Virgin Mary, pieces of the Holy Cross, one of the nails from the Crucifixion, and incense that the Three Magi presented to the infant Christ.

A container with blue, green and red colours, containing incense that the Three Magi presented to Christ

A reliquary containing incense that the Three Magi presented to Christ: Add MS 15689, f. 6r

Prominent in this manuscript are the relics of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II (973–1024) and his wife Cunigunde of Luxembourg (975–1040). Henry, the last monarch of the Ottonian dynasty, and Cunigunde, a descendant of Charlemagne, were strongly connected to Bamberg. Upon their marriage, Henry gave Cunigunde his land in Bamberg as a wedding gift. In 1002, he founded Bamberg Cathedral, which was consecrated on his birthday in 1012, and in 1007 he established the new bishopric of Bamberg. As founders and patrons, Henry and Cunigunde were buried inside Bamberg Cathedral. Their shared tomb, made by the famous German sculptor Tilman Riemenschnieder (c. 1460–1531), can still be seen today.

Henry and Cunigunde were canonised in 1146 and 1200 respectively, which makes them the only saintly imperial couple in history. Among their relics are Henry’s banner that he took with him in his various wars; according to this manuscript, he was carrying it with him when St Lawrence, St Adrian and St George appeared to aid him in battle.

The banners of St George and Henry II. The latter’s banner, on the right, features a flag with red and yellow. Below is a blue mantle with gold embroidery, representing the Star Mantle

The banner and Star Mantle of Henry II: Add MS 15689, f. 2r

The manuscript testifies to the veneration of Henry and Cunigunde's garments. A blue mantle may represent Henry's Star Mantle (‘Sternenmantel’), which features astrological signs and images of Christ, saints, and the symbols of the four Evangelists, in gold embroidery. Henry or Cunigunde donated the mantle to Bamberg Cathedral where it is kept today in the Diocesan Museum, making it the oldest surviving European cope. Another blue mantle seems to represent the Cope of Cunigunde, which features gold-embroidered scenes relating to the life of Christ and the martyrdoms of St Peter and St Paul, the patron saints of Bamberg Cathedral. These are also the main subjects of Cunigunde’s Great Mantle, another important garment that is perhaps depicted below the Cope.

Cunigunde’s mantles, one in blue and another in red, both featuring gold embroidery

The Cope and Great Mantle of Cunigunde: Add MS 15689, f. 3r

Other relics that are associated with Henry and Cunigunde concern contact relics — objects they touched during their lives — and physical remains. An example of the first category is the sword of St Adrian, an early Christian military officer and martyr, and which was used by Henry to fight ‘unbelievers’ (‘unglaubigen’).

A knife-like object, representing the sword of St Adrian

St Adrian's sword: Add MS 15689, f. 3v

Another contact relic is Cunigunde’s glove, still featuring her wedding ring. According to medieval legend, she once dropped it while praying in Bamberg Cathedral, but it was miraculously caught and returned to her by a ray of sunlight.

A vessel with a glove in it, with the glove featuring a gold ring with a blue stone, representing Cunigunde’s wedding ring

Cunigunde’s glove and marriage ring: Add MS 15689, f. 20r

Several of the reliquaries contained physical remnants of the imperial couple, including monstrances with fragments of Henry’s lower jaw and throat, and a crystal jug with a lock of Cunigunde’s hair.

Two containers with bone fragments, representing the reliquaries with the lower jaw and throat of Henry II

Reliquaries with the lower jaw and throat of Henry II: Add MS 15689, f. 4r

A crystal vessel (left) with a lock of Cunigunde’s blond hair sticking out of it

A reliquary with Cunigunde’s hair: Add MS 15689, f. 20v

Since the 14th century, Bamberg Cathedral has presented its relics in public. The Book of Relics was used for announcing the various objects as they were displayed, sometimes from an elevated location, to Bamberg’s citizens. Like the cathedral’s relics of Christ and the Virgin Mary, those of Henry and Cunigunde were given an important sacred status, with the citizens believing that they could gain absolution of sin by beholding them. 

A procession of people carrying a reliquary casket into a religious building with a dome with a red roof and two large towers with green roofs, representing Bamberg Cathedral

A public presentation of Bamberg Cathedral’s relics: Add MS 15689, f. 36r

You can now follow in this medieval tradition by seeing some of the most splendid relics from the Bamberg Book of Relics on display at Bamberg Cathedral. The Diocesan Museum is currently showing the manuscript in an exhibition on the imperial garments, that runs until 1 November 2020.


Clarck Drieshen

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03 September 2020

The Holy Kinship

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The brief references to the family of the Virgin Mary and Christ in the Bible inspired the development of extra-biblical traditions that were popular in the Middle Ages. In his account of the birth of the Virgin Mary in The Golden Legend, the Dominican Jacobus de Voragine described the Virgin’s immediate family in some detail, in relationships that have come to be known as the Holy Kinship.

One of the most intriguing and rare depictions of these connections occurs in the extensive prefatory material to the Queen Mary Psalter (Royal MS 2 B VII). In a recent study, only four other Gothic manuscript images of the Kinship were identified (Stanton 1996). This lavish manuscript was made probably in London in the first quarter of the 14th century, and illustrated by one very talented artist.

A page from the Queen Mary Psalter, featuring an illustration of the Holy Kinship on multiple registers.
The Holy Kinship in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r

According to Voragine’s account, the Virgin Mary’s mother, St Anne, had three husbands, Joachim, Cleophas and Salome, and had a daughter with each of them, all called Mary. In the Psalter, Anne with each of her husbands appears in the lowest register of the image.

A detail from the Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter, showing St Anne and her husbands.
Detail of St Anne and her husbands, Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r (detail)

Directly above are the daughters of each marriage together with their husbands, in this case identified with their names written in the bar below that separates the two registers. Here St Joseph and the Virgin Mary are on the left, Alphaeus and the second daughter Mary (known as Mary Cleophas) in the centre, and Zebedee and the third Mary (known as Mary Salome) are the right.

A detail from the Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter, showing the daughters of St Anne and their husbands.
Detail of the daughters of St Anne and their husbands, Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r (detail)

The figures in the top two registers are the sons of these unions. In the second, the Virgin is shown again, holding the Christ Child on her lap. Next to them is St James the Less, one of the four sons of Mary Cleophas, and next to him St James the Great, the son of Mary Salome.

A detail from the Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter, showing the figures of the Virgin and Child, St James the Less and St James the Great.
Detail of the Virgin and Child, St James the Less and St James the Great, Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r (detail)

In the top register Christ appears on his own to the left, here in Majesty, holding a globe of the world. Next to him are Sts Simon and Jude, two further sons of Mary Cleophas who became apostles, and St John the Evangelist, the other son of Mary Salome.

A detail from the Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter, showing the figures of Christ and Sts Simon, Jude, and John the Evangelist.
Detail of Christ, Sts Simon, Jude, and John the Evangelist, Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r (detail)

The caption written in Anglo-Norman French below confirms the relationships:

Seint anne fu mariez a iii mariz a Joachim a Cleophe a Salomee. E ele enfaunta les iii maries. Joseph out la p[ri]mère. Alpheus la ii Zebedeus la iii. La p[ri]mère marie aporta ih[esu] c[ri]st. La secu[n]de porta seint Jake alphei e sent symo[n]. e seint Jude la iii porta seint Jake de galice Zebedeie seint Johan evvangeliste.

Saint Anne was married to three husbands: to Joachim, to Cleophas and to Salome. And she bore children, the three Marys. Joseph married the first [Mary], Alpheus the second, Zebedee the third. The first Mary carried Jesus Christ. The second carried St James the son of Alphaeus [the Less] and St Simon and St Jude. The third carried St James of Galicia [the Great] by Zebedee and St John the Evangelist.

(Transcription and translation by Chantry Westwell)

This French summary is similar to a Latin poem given in the Golden Legend:

Anna solet dici tres concepisse Marias,
Quas genuere viri Joachim, Cleophas, Salomeque.
Has duxere viri Joseph, Alpheus, Zebedeus.
Prima parit Christum, Jacobum secunda minorem,
Et Joseph justum peperit cum Simone Judam,
Tertia majorem Jacobum volucremque Johannem.

Anna is usually said to have conceived three Marys,
Whom her husbands Joachim, Cleophas, and Salome begot.
These [Marys] the men Joseph, Alpheus, and Zebedee took in marriage.
The first bore Christ; the second bore James the Less,
Joseph the Just, with Simon [and] Jude;
The third, James the Greater and the winged John.

(Translation by Ryan 1993, II, chapter 131, p. 150)

An opening from the Queen Mary Psalter, featuring illustrations of the Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinship.
The Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinsip miniature, the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, ff. 67v-68r

This diagrammatic presentation emphasises the importance of the Virgin and Christ by picturing each twice. Perhaps this also relates to the image on the facing page, which is a large Tree of Jesse. The four registers of the Holy Kinship correspond with the levels of the Tree. At the bottom the recumbent Jesse, the ancestor of David, is at the same level as Anne, the ancestor of the Virgin. Unlike most representations of the Tree of Jesse, this one doesn’t feature the Virgin or Christ who appear instead in the Kinship diagram.

A page from a 12th-century English miscellany, featuring he earliest known account of the Holy Kinship written in Old English.
The earliest known Old English account of the Holy Kinship: Cotton MS Vespasian D XIV, f. 157v

The text of the Golden Legend as it relates to the Holy Kinship is derived from earlier commentaries. The earliest known account in Old English is included in a 12th-century copy, now Cotton MS Vespasian D XIV:

Anna 7 Emeria wæron gesustre. Of Emeria wæs geboren Elisabeth, Johannes moder þæs fulhteres. Of Anna wæs geboren Maria Cr[is]tes moder. 7 þa þa hire were Joachim wæs forðfaren, þa genam Anna æfter Moyses æ oðerne were, þe wæs genæmd Cleophas. Of þan heo hæfde an oðre dohter, seo wæs eac genæmd Maria æfter þære ærre dohter, þas man cleopeð Maria Cleophe for heo wæs his dohter. Ða beweddede Cleophas Iosephe his broðre Marian þæs hælendes moder þe wæs his steopdohter. 7 his age ne dohter Mariæn he geaf Alpheon, of þære wæs geboren Jacob se læsse, 7 se oðer Joseph. Ðes Jacob wæs geclypod Jacobus Alphei for he wæs Alphees sune. Ðaget æfter Cleophas deaðe Anna æft[er] þære lage genam þone þridde were, þan wæs to name Salomas, of him heo hæfde þa þridde dohter, 7 þa heo genæmden eac Marien, for þære deorewurðnysse of þære forme dohter, 7 forþan þe se ængel brohte þone name. Seo wæs bewedded Zebedeo, of þære wæron geborene Jacob se mycele, 7 Joh[ann]es se godspellere. Maria wæs læsse Jacobes moder, 7 Maria wæs mare Jacobes moder 7 Joh[ann]es þæs gospelleres, 7 Maria seo Magdalenissce sohton urne Drihten mid smerigeles inne his þruge þa þa he bebyriged wæs.

Anna and Emeria were sisters. Of Emeria was born Elisabeth, mother of John the Baptist. Of Anna was born Mary, mother of Christ. And when her husband Joachim had passed on, then Anna according to the law of Moses, took another husband, who was named Cleophas. From him she had another daughter, who was also named Mary after the older daughter, whom her husband called Mary Cleophas because she was his daughter. Then Cleophas married Mary, mother of the Saviour, who was his step-daughter, to his brother Joseph. And he gave his own daughter Mary to Alpheus, from whom was born James the Less, and another Joseph. This James was called James Alpheus, because he was Alpheus’ son. After the death of Cleophas, Anne following the law took a third husband, who was named Salome, from whom she had a third daughter, and she was also named Mary, because of the preciousness of her first daughter, and because an angel brought her the name. She was married to Zebedee, from whom were born James the Great and John the Evangelist. Mary was the mother of James the Less, and Mary was the mother of James the Greater and John the Evangelist, and Mary Magdalene sought our Lord with ointment inside his tomb when he had been buried.

(Transcription and translation by Calum Cockburn)

A page from a 12th-century commentary, featuring marginal drawings of three pairs of busts of the Holy Kinship.
Busts of the Holy Kinship, Arundel MS 36, f. 13r

The earliest English depiction of the Kinship has been identified by Park and Naydenova-Slade as marginal drawings in a 12th-century commentary from Kirkham Priory in Yorkshire, now Arundel MS 36. This manuscript was digitised as part of the Polonsky Foundation England and France 800-1200 project, available on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, and on the Bibliothèque nationale de France project website.

Here the images are limited to busts of three couples, each labelled with their names below: at the top, Joachim and St Anne, in the centre, St Joseph and the Virgin with the dove of the Holy Spirit, and at the bottom, Alpheus and Mary Cleophas. The images appear in the margins of a prologue to the following text entitled De Nativitate Sanctae Mariae. This letter or prologue does not describe the Holy Kinship. Instead, Park and Naydenova-Slade suggest that its inclusion is a visual commentary on a passage in the Nativitate on the children of St Joseph.

Kathleen Doyle

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Further reading

Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. by William Granger Ryan, 2 vols (Princeton: University Press, 1993), II, chapter 131.

Anne Rudloff Stanton, 'La Genealogye Comence: Kinship and Difference in the Queen Mary Psalter', Studies in Iconography, 17 (1996), 177-214.

David Park and Mellie Naydenova-Slade, ‘The earliest Holy Kinship image, the Salomite controversy, and a little-known centre of Learning in northern England in the twelfth century’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 71 (2008), 95-119.


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27 August 2020

Digitisation of the Sherborne Missal

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Weighing as much as the average 5-year-old child and containing more paintings than most art galleries, the Sherborne Missal is a titan of a manuscript. The breath-taking quality of its artwork has inspired art historians to declare it, 'the unrivalled masterpiece of English book production in the fifteenth century' (Kathleen Scott), and 'beyond question the most spectacular service book of English execution to have come down to us from the later Middle Ages' (Janet Backhouse).

It is particularly exciting, then, to announce that this exceptional manuscript is now available to view in full as a pilot project in our Universal Viewer.

Feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin, with miniatures of the Virgin Mary and Benedictine monks
Feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin, with miniatures of the Virgin Mary and Benedictine monks: Add MS 74236, p. 524

The Sherborne Missal (Add MS 74236) is a service book containing all the texts required for celebrating Mass on the different feasts, holidays and saints’ days throughout the year. It was made for the Benedictine abbey of St Mary in Sherborne, Dorset, between approximately 1399 and 1407.

We know a surprising amount about the people responsible for creating the Sherborne Missal, largely because it calls attention to its patrons and makers at every opportunity. The book was probably commissioned by Robert Brunyng, the abbot of Sherborne from 1385–1415, whose image appears in the manuscript about a hundred times. It is hard to think of another medieval person for whom such a remarkable number of portraits survive. These portraits may also provide some insight into Brunyng’s tastes and personality. In two instances he is depicted with a group of small hunting dogs, which scholars have suggested may be his personal hounds. On many of the feast days he is shown wearing exceptionally fine vestments of brocade, embroidery and jewels.

A collage of detail pictures of Abbot Brunyng with his dogs (left) and in a selection of fine vestments
Portraits of Abbot Brunyng with dogs, p. 492 (left), and wearing a selection of fine vestments, pp. 220, 266, 279 (upper), pp. 262, 264, 51 (lower) (details)

On a number of occasions Brunyng is depicted together with Richard Mitford, bishop of Salisbury from 1396–1407, who may also have played a role in the patronage of the manuscript or was perhaps included to emphasise Sherborne Abbey’s close relationship with the bishopric.

Portraits of Richard Mitford, bishop of Salisbury, with his personal arms, and Robert Brunyng, the abbot of Sherborne, with the arms of Sherborne Abbey, on the page for Christmas Day
Portraits of Richard Mitford, bishop of Salisbury, with his personal arms, and Robert Brunyng, the abbot of Sherborne, with the arms of Sherborne Abbey, on the page for Christmas Day: Add MS 74236, p. 36 (detail)

The principal artist, a Dominican friar named John Siferwas, included his portrait and coat of arms several times in the manuscript. In one extraordinary instance, he depicted himself floating in the lower margin, his habit entwined around the branch of a rose bush which forms the lower border to the page, in the same way that angels are represented throughout the manuscript. Another of his surviving works is the Lovell Lectionary (Harley MS 7026), commissioned by John, Lord Lovell, for presentation to Salisbury Cathedral.

Self-portrait of John Siferwas, the artist of the manuscript, floating in the lower margin, his habit entwined around the border of roses
Self-portrait of John Siferwas, the artist of the manuscript, floating or kneeling in the lower margin, his habit entwined around the border of roses: Add MS 74236, p. 225 (detail)

The Sherborne Missal also provides portraits of the master scribe, John Whas, who was probably a monk of Sherborne Abbey. Whas recorded his name in several colophons, for example, emphasising the physical effort of scribal work: 'John Whas the monk has worked to write this book, and rose early, his body becoming much wasted in the process' (Librum scribendo Ion Whas monachus laborat, Et mane surgendo corpus multum macerabat, p. 661).

Colophon of John Whas the scribe
Colophon of John Whas the scribe: Add MS 74236, p. 661 (detail)
Portraits of John Whas, the scribe, and John Siferwas, the artist, on the page for Easter Day
Portraits of John Whas, the scribe, and John Siferwas, the artist, on the page for Easter Day: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

With decoration on nearly all of its 694 pages, the Sherborne Missal contains thousands of images. It is particularly famous for its series of 48 highly illusionistic depictions of British birds in the margins of the Ordinary and Canon of the Mass, most of them inscribed with their names in Middle English. These birds are unique in medieval manuscript illumination both for their ornithological accuracy and for the rich variety of species shown.

Details of birds: kingfisher, robin, skylark, female house sparrow, starling, spotted woodpecker
Kingfisher (kyngefystere), robin (roddock), skylark (larke), female house sparrow (sparwe hen), starling (stare), spotted woodpecker (wodewale): Add MS 74236, pp. 383, 382, 369, 377, 385, 373 (details)

Local pride in Sherborne and its venerable history is a running theme throughout the manuscript. The Preface of the Mass features a series of portraits of 25 bishops of Sherborne from the creation of the diocese in 705 to the transfer of the bishopric to Salisbury in 1075. Clearly the Abbey was eager to emphasise its historic significance as the original site of the bishop’s seat.

Details of bishops: St Aldhelm, Forthere and Asser
St Aldhelm and Forthere, the 1st and 2nd bishops of Sherborne, and Asser, 11th bishop of Sherborne, from the Preface of the Mass: Add MS 74236, pp. 363 and 366 (details)

There is also a series of roundels in the lower borders of the Ordinary and Canon of the Mass that contain portraits of historic benefactors of the Abbey. They hold charters recording their gifts, the large seals hanging down into the margins.

Details of kings Cenwalh and Cynewulf holding charters
Benefactions of kings Cenwalh and Cynewulf, from the opening of the Canon of the Mass: Add MS 74236, p. 381 (detail)

Local Dorset saints are similarly prominent in the manuscript, such as St Juthwara, a pious virgin of the 6th century whose relics were housed at Sherborne Abbey. It is said that after being beheaded by her stepbrother, St Juthwara picked up her head and put it back on.

The martyrdom of St Juthwara, with a praying Benedictine
The martyrdom of St Juthwara, with a praying Benedictine: Add MS 74236, p. 489 (detail)

Select pages of the Sherborne Missal were previously published online as part of the Library's Turning the Pages project in 2002. We are now delighted to make the entire manuscript available to view through a pilot project on the Library’s Universal Viewer, a new viewer which offers a range of improved features. This pilot will be extended to include further collection items in due course.

The Sherborne Missal was purchased by the British Library in 1998 with generous support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

08 August 2020

Ludicrous figures in the margin

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‘Hours of the Virgin, decorated with shields of arms, and ludicrous figures in the margin’, was the description of Harley MS 6563 provided in the 1808 catalogue of the Harley Collection. Our catalogue records have come on a long way since then, but the lively marginal antics in this little Book of Hours still stand out. Already popular with viewers on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, they can now be appreciated in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Harley MS 6563 was made around 1320-1330 in Southern England, perhaps London, probably for a woman owner. Originally the manuscript must have been extensively illuminated, but sadly all the pages containing decorated initials or miniatures were removed in the early modern period. Yet almost all of its remaining pages feature drawings from the topsy-turvy world of medieval marginalia. In honour of its digitisation, let’s dive down the parchment rabbit hole to explore some of its marginal subjects and their possible meanings.

A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit running into a hole and emerging the other side.
A rabbit runs into a hole on one side of the page and emerges on the other side: Harley MS 6563, f. 33r-v

While endlessly inventive, this kind of playful marginalia found in manuscripts of the 13th-14th centuries tended to draw on certain reccurring themes which were common to medieval art of other media such as stained-glass windows, wall paintings, misericords and stone carvings, as well as popular literature of the time. The meanings of these themes are much debated and there are no definite answers, but this uncertainty makes marginalia all the more fun to puzzle over.

Crafty foxes

One much-loved character who makes a prominent appearance in the margins of this Book of Hours is the crafty fox, trickster and master of disguise, who was well-known to medieval audiences from the Renard the Fox stories and other animal fables. Two double-page scenes in the manuscript show a fox preaching to a flock of birds. The fox leans on a pilgrim’s staff and gestures emphatically while the birds gaze on in gullible wonder. Later in the manuscript we see the conclusion of the tale: a fox running away with an unlucky member of the congregation in his jaws.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox preaching to a flock of birds.
A fox preaching to a flock of birds: Harley MS 6563, ff. 54v-55r
A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox running with a bird in its mouth.
A fox runs away with a bird: Harley MS 6563, f. 6v

In another double-page scene the fox appears as a schoolmaster, birch and rod in hand, teaching a dog pupil who holds a book up to his face as though attempting to read. As with his preacher guise, the fox once again assumes a position of authority to misguide the ignorant and unwary.

Such scenes might be understood as social satires commenting on the corruption and folly of the human world. There may be a lesson to be learned here, as the Nun’s Priest concludes his retelling of a Renard the Fox story in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ‘Taketh the moralite, goode men’ (take up the moral, good men)—although he is conveniently vague about what the moral actually is.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox teaching a dog.
A fox teacher instructs a dog pupil: Harley MS 6563, ff. 22v-23r

Animal musicians

One particularly well-represented subject in this Book of Hours is animal musicians. A whole musical troupe of cats, pigs, dogs and rabbits is shown in concert over a series of five leaves in the Penitential Psalms, and others also appear throughout the manuscript.

The animal musicians probably belong to the popular theme in medieval marginalia of ‘the world turned upside down’. The idea that animals are unable to appreciate music was commonplace in the Middle Ages. A proverb inherited from classical antiquity via Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy referred to someone who fails to understand something as ‘the ass which cannot hear the lyre’. Similarly, a Middle English poem listing impossibilities includes, ‘whan swyn be conyng in al poyntes of musyke’ (when swine are knowledgeable in all points of music), as we might say ‘when pigs might fly’. The animal musicians might therefore represent the impossible becoming reality.

Details of animals playing musical instruments from the marginalia of Harley MS 6563
A cat playing a fiddle (f. 40r), a cat playing bagpipes (f. 40v), a boar playing a portative organ (f. 41r), a boar playing a harp (f. 41v), a dog playing a hurdy gurdy (f. 43r), a cat playing a psaltery (f. 43v), a rabbit playing a drum (f. 44r), a rabbit playing a trumpet (f. 44v): Harley MS 6563

Fighting snails

Another example of the inversion of reality is the ever-popular subject of figures fighting snails. In medieval marginalia, snails are notoriously hostile, as we see in this Book of Hours where a man attempts to fend off a large advancing snail with a club. On the following page, another man has cast down his sword and shield and begs for mercy before a ferocious mollusc.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a man with a club fending off a snail.
A man with a club fends off a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 61v-62r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of an armed man surrendering to a snail.
An armed man surrenders to a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 62v-63r

Warrior women

But if anyone is able to triumph over such a formidable adversary, it is probably this naked woman warrior who is shown charging with a lance towards a snail. As part of the reversal of the social order in medieval margins, women, who were often expected to be subservient in medieval society, are sometimes shown as powerful militants and victors. Similarly, on another page a man surrenders to an armed woman.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a naked woman fighting a snail.
A naked woman warrior vs a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 86v-87r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a man surrendering to an armed woman.
A man surrenders to an armed woman: Harley MS 6563, ff. 63v-64r

Battle of the cats and mice

Role reversal is also the theme of the series of images for which this manuscript is best known: the battle of the cats and the mice. Over an eight-page narrative sequence, an epic war unfolds. First the mice besiege the cats’ castle, hurling rocks from a trebuchet and attempting to scale its walls. Then the cats attack the mouse castle, one firing a crossbow and another being crushed by a falling rock from the battlements. Next, a cat archer and a mouse lancer go head-to-head, and finally the mouse succeeds in impaling the unfortunate cat.

This triumph of the mice over the cats may also be understood as social commentary. In Boccaccio's Decameron, the artist and trickster Bruno paints a fresco of a battle of cats and mice in the house of the foolish doctor Simone. The doctor considers it a very fine piece, little knowing that Bruno and his friend Buffalmacco are actually swindling him. In the story, the cat’s defeat by the mice may reflect the wealthy doctor’s humiliation by the artists.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of mice besieging a cat in a castle.
Mice besiege cat castle: Harley MS 6563, ff. 71v-72r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat with a crossbow attacking mice in a castle.
Cats besiege mouse castle: Harley MS 6563, ff. 72v-73r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat with a bow and a mouse lancer taking aim at each other.
Cat archer and mouse lancer take aim at one another: Harley MS 6563, ff. 73v-74r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat impaled by a mouse lancer, begging for mercy.
Mouse warrior has impaled the cat who begs for mercy: Harley MS 6563, ff. 74v-75r

Rabbit huntsmen

The idea of the hunted becoming the hunter also underlies the manuscript’s images of a rabbit huntsman, who in one instance takes aim at a very sorry-looking spotty dog. The same theme of killer rabbits taking revenge on the hounds is found in the margins of the Smithfield Decretals.

A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit setting out and returning from a hunt.
A rabbit hunter sets out with a full quiver of arrows and returns with his quarry: Harley MS 6563, f. 20r-v
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit hunter aiming at a dog with a bow and arrow.
A rabbit archer takes aim at a spotty dog: Harley MS 6563, ff. 96v-97r

The rich man and Lazarus

Yet there is also religious imagery with serious moral messages, such as scenes of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar from the Gospel of Luke (16:19–31). First we see three fashionably dressed diners at a feast shooing away a beggar on the facing page while dogs lick the sores on his legs. On the following pages, the rich man is shown on his deathbed accompanied by a devil, while the beggar is shown dying outdoors with an angel at his side.

This parable is also an instance of role reversal in that the rich man suffers torments in death, whereas the beggar is received into comfort, yet here the message is clearly sincere. That at least one of the manuscript’s owners found it disturbingly real is suggested by the way in which they attempted to rub out the figures of the devil and angel.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of the rich man's banquet and the beggar Lazarus.
The rich man’s banquet and Lazarus the beggar: Harley MS 6563, ff. 10v-11r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of the death of the rich man and Lazarus.
The death of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar: Harley MS 6563, ff. 11v-12r

To us it may seem strange to place scenes of cartoon violence alongside religious imagery with such urgent moral messages. But for medieval audiences, perhaps this was all part of a visual culture in which the sacred and profane, the entertaining and didactic, and the ludicrous and meaningful were more intricately intertwined than today.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 August 2020

Treasures on Tour: an Armagh gospel-book on display in Belfast

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Last year we announced the digitisation of two of the Library's most important medieval Irish manuscripts, the Harley Irish Gospels. This year we're loaning one of them, the Gospels of Máel Brigte (Harley MS 1802), to the Ulster Museum in Belfast as part of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme.

Medieval manuscript miniature of an ox surrounded by a patterned border
The ox symbol of the evangelist St Luke, Harley MS 1802, f. 86v

As we discussed in the previous blog post, the manuscript has a number of  fascinating features. Its detailed colophons reveal that it was made by a 28-year-old scribe named Máel Brigte, working in Armagh in 1138. Máel Brigte also mentioned contemporary events in his colophons, including a great storm that happened two years earlier and the killing of King Cormac Mac Carthaig by Toirdelbach Ua Briain in 1138, which he called 'a great crime'.

Medieval manuscript miniature of a lion surrounded by a patterned border
The lion symbol of the evangelist St Mark, Harley MS 1802, f. 60v

The main texts of the manuscript are the Gospels, which are splendidly illustrated with evangelist symbols and decorated initial letters painted in vibrant colours. Unusually, the animal symbols of the evangelists are depicted sideways, as though standing on a vertical ground. Perhaps this was designed to make the figures fill the space, or to remind the viewer to mentally reorient themselves before beginning to read the Gospel text.

Medieval manuscript page containing a poem
Irish poem on the Three Magi, Harley MS 1802, f. 5v

In addition to the Gospels, the pages of the manuscript are filled with other rare and interesting texts, including commentaries, poems and exegesis. A particularly intriguing example is an Irish poem on the names and descriptions of the Three Magi (f. 5v), which seems to be one of the earliest texts that describe one of the magi as being black. According to the poem, Melcho was the elder magus, who had grey hair, wore a yellow mantle, a green tunic and speckled sandals, and presented gold; Caspar was youthful and beardless, wore a purple mantle, yellow tunic and green sandals, and presented Frankincense; while Patifarsat was a dark-skinned man (fer odor) who wore a white-spotted mantle and yellow sandals, and presented myrrh.

On f. 9v another Irish poem describes the appearance of Christ and the Apostles, stating that Christ had brown hair and a long red beard.

Medieval manuscript page with a decorated XPI initial
Chi-rho initial, Harley MS 1802, f. 10r

The Gospels of Máel Brigte is now on display in the Saints and Scholars gallery at Ulster Museum for the next three months. The Treasures on Tour programme is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The British Library is working with other libraries, museums and galleries across the UK to share our collections with thousands of people every day, and the Library will be announcing additional loans as part of Treasures on Tour over the coming months.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

28 July 2020

Picturing the Old Testament in the Rochester Bible

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So far in this series of posts on the great Romanesque Bibles held by the British Library, I have focused on those made on the Continent: the Worms Bible, Arnstein Bible, Stavelot Bible and Floreffe Bible. Today’s blog is about an English example, from the former cathedral priory of St Andrew, Rochester, in the second quarter of the 12th century. Unlike the others, which are all in two huge volumes, only part of the Rochester Bible survives, now divided between the Royal collection in the British Library and the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. Both portions are fully digitised and available online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site (Royal MS 1 C VII), and on the Walters Art Museum's site (MS W.18).

Together these two parts constitute one of only eleven known extant English Romanesque display Bibles. Although it is slightly smaller than the Continental manuscripts featured, measuring 395 x 265 mm, the Rochester Bible is still a larger format than most other manuscripts from the period. The Royal portion of the Bible includes only the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth and I–IV Kings (I–II Samuel and I–II Kings in modern Bibles), while the Walters portion contains the New Testament. Four of the seven books have historiated initials (letters containing identifiable scenes or figures) depicting events described in the first chapters of these books. These historiated initials occur only in the Royal portion of the Bible, at the beginning of four of its seven books: Joshua, and I, II and IV Kings.

A page from the Rochester Bible, featuring a historiated initial F with an illustration of the Old Testament figure Elkanah and his wives.
Historiated initial of Elkanah and his wives at the beginning of I Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 58r
A detail from the Rochester Bible, showing a historiated initial of Elkanah and his wives Hannah and Peninnah.
Historiated initial of Elkanah and his wives at the beginning of I Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 58r (detail)

In contrast to the incredibly complicated theological artwork of the Stavelot Bible and Floreffe Bible, the illustrations of these books initially appear to be more straightforward. For example, I Kings (I Samuel) begins with a discussion of Elkanah (Elcana in the Vulgate) and his two wives. Each is labelled in the initial with their names above. To his left, Peninnah (Phenenna) holds two children, and in contrast, the childless Hannah (Anna), to his right, holds one hand to her face, perhaps in a gesture of sorrow. This is a succinct summary of the first verses: ‘There was a man of Ramathaimsophim, of mount Ephraim, and his name was Elcana, . . . And he had two wives, the name of one was Anna, and the name of the other Phenenna. Phenenna had children: but Anna had no children’. (I Kings 1: 1-3).

A page from the Rochester Bible, featuring a historiated initial P with an illustration of Elijah's Ascension.
Historiated initial of the Ascension of Elijah at the beginning of IV Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 154v
A detail from the Rochester Bible, showing a historiated initial of Elijah's Ascension, with the Old Testament prophet depicted riding a chariot.
Historiated initial of the Ascension of Elijah at the beginning of IV Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 154v (detail)

Similarly, the initial at the beginning of IV Kings illustrates the second chapter of the text, which describes how, after seeing ‘a fiery chariot’ with ‘fiery horses’, Elias (Elijah) ‘went up by a whirlwind into heaven’ (IV Kings 2:11). Yet as C.M. Kauffmann has noted, the choice of this subject for the illustration rather than an event from the first chapter of the book underlines the significance of the Ascension of Elijah as a prefiguration of Christ’s Ascension.

A page from the Rochester Bible, featuring a historiated initial E with an illustration of two men with a book, perhaps Moses giving the book of law to Joshua.
Historiated initial of Moses and Joshua at the beginning of Joshua, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 2v
A detail from the Rochester Bible, showing a historiated initial of two men with a book, perhaps Moses giving the book of law to Joshua.
Historiated initial of Moses and Joshua at the beginning of Joshua, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 2v (detail)

The imagery for the book of Joshua may be viewed as another layered interpretation of the text. The initial shows two men conversing: one young and beardless, and the other with grey hair and beard. The older man is handing the younger man a book. In order to fit the figures into the initial ‘E’, the artist presented the scene sideways—a relatively rare solution—and used the bar of the ‘E’ as a column, creating a setting within a building. Unlike Elkanah and his wives, the figures are not labelled. Nevertheless, it seems likely that this scene represents the transmission of the law from Moses to Joshua, as set out a few verses later:

Take courage therefore, and be very valiant: that thou mayst observe and do all the law, which Moses my servant hath commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayst understand all things which thou dost. Let not the book of this law depart from thy mouth: but thou shalt meditate on it day and night, that thou mayst observe and do all things that are written in it: then shalt thou direct thy way, and understand it. (Joshua 1:7-8).

So this too, could have Christian significance as a reference to the Old Law that will be fulfilled in the New. It also echoes the actions of the blessed man of Psalm 1, who meditates on the law day and night, and who was understood by some Church Fathers to be a prefiguration of Christ. Further, as Lucy Freeman Sandler remarked, this verse begins next to the decorated initial in the right-hand column of the page, and the word ‘law’ (legem) appears only three lines lower than the image of the book in the initial (private communication).

Together, therefore, these initials enhance not only the elegant presentation of the Word, but also its interpretation.

Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Further reading:

Walter Cahn, Romanesque Bible Illumination (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982), no. 33.

C. M. Kauffmann, Romanesque Manuscripts 1066-1190 (London: Harvey Miller, 1975), no. 45.

C. M. Kauffmann, Biblical Imagery in Medieval England 700-1550 (London: Harvey Miller, 2003), pp. 87, 94, pl. 62, Appendix 2.

And our earlier blog post on the Rochester Bible.