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The Bible and Its Study: From the Cloisters to the University

The Bible, the quintessential text of Christianity, was the most frequently copied and rigorously studied book of the Middle Ages. Biblical manuscripts display great diversity in their size, format and illumination, reflecting the different contexts in which they were made and used.

The true meaning of the Word of God could not be fully appreciated without interpretation. In the early Middle Ages, the Fathers of the Church and celebrated theologians provided the authoritative explanation. By the twelfth century the early universities stimulated the mass production of Bibles and commentaries that required the professional skills of numerous parchment makers, scribes, artists, and book sellers.


Manuscript

The Bury Bible
England, Bury St Edmunds, c.1130-1135

Giant Bibles were a new Italian fashion in the twelfth century. This is one of the noblest of all English Romanesque Bibles, although only its first volume survives. It is also one of the best-documented. It was commissioned by Herveus, the sacrist of Bury St Edmunds, one of the wealthiest Benedictine monasteries in England. It was painted by Master Hugo (act. c.1130-1160), the earliest professional artist documented in England. He was a multi-talented craftsman who produced various items for Bury: a great bell in the crossing tower, a set of decorated metal church doors, and a beautiful cross for the abbey choir. Master Hugo’s places of origin and training remain elusive. The magnificent colour patterns of his paintings, the startlingly new Byzantine draperies and the deep-staring eyes of Moses, Aaron and the Jews suggest that he had travelled at least to southern Italy and probably also to Cyprus, Byzantium, and even the Holy Land.

Corpus Christi College, MS 2, fol. 94

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Manuscript

Bede, Super cantica canticorum
England, St Albans, first quarter of the twelfth century

The most detailed evidence of the increasing involvement of specialist lay craftsmen in monastic book production during the eleventh and twelfth centuries comes from St Albans Abbey, where this copy of Bede’s commentary on the Song of Songs was made. It was illuminated by an itinerant professional, the Alexis Master (act. c.1100-1130). The initial to the first book shows the intimate embrace of bride and groom, interpreted as the mystical union of the Church and Christ.

King’s College, MS 19, fol. 21v

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Manuscript

The Eadwine Psalter
England, Canterbury, Christ Church, mid-twelfth century

Of all surviving twelfth-century English manuscripts, this is the most complex in design. Three Latin versions of the Psalms laid in parallel columns are integrated with a Latin commentary, Old English and Anglo-Norman translations written between the lines and in the margins. Each Psalm opens with a magnificent drawing inspired by its text. ‘By the waters of Babylon’ illustrates Psalm 136 shown here. The page layout remains lucidly clear, despite its complexity and the large team involved in the project – at least ten scribes and six artists. The scribe Eadwine, named in a prayer at the end of the Psalms and portrayed at the end of the book, may have been responsible for the original design and its harmonious execution.

Trinity College, MS R.17.1, fol. 243v

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Manuscript

Peter Lombard, Magna glossatura on the Psalms
Northern France, c.1164- 1177

Part of a four-volume set, this manuscript was one of the most ambitious enterprises of its time. It is a sophisticated critical edition of standard commentary on the Psalms. Commissioned by Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury (1162-1170), the project was master-minded by his secretary and theological adviser, Herbert of Bosham (c.1120-1194). Lombard’s commentary is copied in two columns. Two versions of the Latin Psalms are inset within each column. The margins are sprinkled with cross-references and the names of commentators quoted by Lombard. Herbert identified the passages wrongly attributed to them and signalled his corrections with a cunning visual device. The figures protesting ‘Not me’, like Augustine with his ‘Non ego’ scroll shown here, point a long lance, not just a finger, at the wrong attributions. Herbert used images to stimulate a critical examination of the text, to facilitate the reader’s search and memory, and, no doubt, to please the eye.

Trinity College, MS B.5.4, fol. 135v

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Manuscript

Bible
Northern Netherlands, Utrecht, c.1420-1430

This is the only known example in Dutch illumination of a Latin Bible in which every biblical book opens with a miniature, a historiated initial, or both. The illustration is in two distinct styles. One of them is exemplified by the images of David shown here. They reveal the bright palette and deep interiors typical of the Masters of Zweder van Culemborg, artists active in Utrecht between 1415 and 1445. The three-volume Bible was made for a member of the Lochorst family of Utrecht.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 289, vol. 1, fol. 493

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Manuscript

The Trinity Apocalypse
England, c.1255-1260

The thirteenth-century fashion for richly illustrated Apocalypses was an English phenomenon. This is the largest and most sumptuously illuminated of all English Apocalypses. It contains the Apocalypse text and extracts from the commentary of Berengaudus, both in Anglo-Norman French. Four artists were responsible for the magnificent miniatures illustrating the main text and the Life of St John the Evangelist. A noble female patron is suggested by the representation of a lady in six of the miniatures. She appears in the company of friars, as in the lower right-hand compartment of the miniature depicting the woman and the dragon. It is conceivable that this exceptional manuscript was produced for Henry III’s queen, Eleanor of Provence, or for a woman of similar rank and taste.

Trinity College, MS R.16.2, fol. 14

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