Seminar CXC: close-reading a 75-pound Bible

I said a few posts ago that I was teaching at Birmingham last year more or less in imitation of an Anglo-Saxonist, and I meant to link that phrase to the webpage of Dr Peter Darby at Nottingham, because it was in fact very specifically him that I was imitating; he had been on contract to do the teaching I took over before Nottingham made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.1 He has Birmingham academic background, however, so it was a sort of homecoming when he addressed Birmingham’s Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages Seminar on 25th November 2013, with the title, “Heresy, Orthodoxy and the Codex Amiatinus Christ in Majesty”.

Full-size replica of the Codex Amiatinus

What the BBC confusingly calls “the only full-sized replica in the world of a Bible created more than 1,000 years ago”, raising the question of why someone is using gloves to handle a modern replica (not that you necessarily should even with parchment). Nonetheless, this gives you the size of the volume, and if you imagine those pages being skin, not paper, also the weight…

The Codex Amiatinus is the 75-pound Bible of the title, famously one of a set of three made at Bede’s monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow for presentation, in this case to the papacy, the source as Bede saw it of England’s Christianity.2 It was done in Roman-style uncial script, in columns, by at least eight different scribes; it is probably reasonable to see it as the baby Church demonstrating to Papa that it’s all grown-up now. It was taken to Rome, probably by the following of Abbot Ceolfrið, who died on the way there, and by the ninth century was in the monastery of San Salvatore al Monte Amiata, whence it gets its name; in 1786 it was moved to Florence, at which point someone for reasons best known to themselves altered the dedication page so that it claimed (and claims) to be a gift from Peter Lombard. There is a lot of decoration in the book, including the famous portrait of Ezra that has been reused so many times by people looking for images of medieval scribes. Peter pointed out that most of this decoration is in the first quire of the book now, and wondered if it might have been rearranged, but some pictures remain later on, and his paper was essentially a close-reading of the one below in search of communications of orthodoxy.

Christ in Majesty, from the Codex Amiatinus

Christ in Majesty in the Codex Amiatinus, ink and dyes on sheepskin parchment. “Amiatinus Maiestas Domini” by Unknown – Internet. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This rather splendid example of medieval book-painting occupies the folio between the Old and New Testaments, thus opening the New, but Peter argued that it also closes it, by invoking in its depiction of Christ in Majesty the throne in Heaven described in the Book of Revelation: against a background of stars, jasper and ruby, a rainbow encircling, four living creatures around it that represent the Evangelists… I was happy to accept that (and indeed to drag the image straight into my teaching materials next term) but Peter also found a lot of fours in this image, numerical and geometrical, including pointing out that if you draw diagonal lines between the Evangelists’ books they intersect at Christ’s book and that even the stars in the background are arranged in quincunxes, crosses of four points around a fifth. The trouble for me here is that there are four Gospels, that’s a given starting place, and I’m not sure that this kind of structuring has to mean any more than a recognition of that as an organising principle for a necessarily four-sided artwork. Peter also argued that the portrayal of Christ as human was very current and correct, because the Church had just (as of 692) agreed that the Lamb of God should no longer be used to depict Jesus, but the Christ in Majesty usually is human, isn’t he, and that might to be honest just be because lambs look silly standing on furniture.

The Lamb of God defeating the Ten Kings of <em>Revelation</em>.

Not that anthropomorphising the Agnus Dei hasn’t been taken to much less likely lengths, of course! This is from a c. 1200 copy of Beatus’s Commentary on the Apocalypse, showing the Lamb of God defeating the Ten Kings of Revelation.

What I certainly took from this was that the artwork was meticulously planned and laid out, and that once again it as with many another Insular Gospel Book stands as very obvious evidence against anyone who wants to argue that medieval artists weren’t very good. This was difficult and deliberate work, especially with the tools, inks and dyes available, and no effort was being spared to make a top-of-the-range codex. Peter’s case that it was sending an up-to-the-minute communication of theological orthodoxy to the papacy, however, rather than just advertising that its artists and home monastery were world-class… well, I’m still open to it, but this paper did not close it for me.

1. Given that this could be taken as a critical review, I should admit in full disclosure that I was also interviewed for the Nottingham job. I hope that that doesn’t affect my thinking here but I suppose you ought to know it could technically be a factor.

2. If there is a one-stop academic read on these matters it is for now Paul Meyvaert, “Bede, Cassiodorus, and the Codex Amiatinus” in Speculum Vol. 71 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 827-883, DOI: 10.2307/2865722. A bigger picture (literally) can be got from George Henderson, From Durrow to Kells: the Insular Gospel-books 650-800 (London 1987).

3 responses to “Seminar CXC: close-reading a 75-pound Bible

  1. “This rather splendid example of medieval book-painting occupies the folio between the Old and New Testaments”: isn’t that the space that Dizzy claimed to occupy?

  2. Pingback: Seminar CXLI: Jews in Western art before, during and after the 1160s | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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