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, [Edit (see comments): atby which point someone had for reasons best known to themselves altered the dedication page so that it claimed (and claims) to be a gift from one Peter of the Lombards]. 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.


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).

11 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?

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  3. Your article says “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.”

    The way you have that sentence written, it sounds to me like you are saying that the alteration took place in 1786.

    Do you happen to have a source for that info?

    • I do not, and in fact as far as I can determine it must be wrong. The British Library and the National University of Ireland Galway both have pages up saying that the alteration was done in the 9th or 10th centuries. That is rather before Peter the Lombard, but it transpires that the altered dedication names Petrus Langobardorum, ‘Peter of the Lombards’, which is not what the later scholar called himself. Furthermore, he wouldn’t have written in the rather fancy uncial that is used for the dedication, I imagine. In either case, it looks genuinely medieval to me and since the manuscript had apparently already been claimed as being an autograph of Gregory the Great by then, I don’t see why the Biblioteca Laurenziana would have claimed any less if they’d been determined to forge a provenance.

      So the remaining question is where did I get the idea? That is no longer possible to reconstruct; it’s in my notes, but I may have misheard or misunderstood Peter, as what is closest to the published version of this paper makes no such claim; but on the other hand it doesn’t mention the Florentine history of the manuscript at all. So it might also be that it was a carelessness of Peter’s that he later fixed. More likely my fault, but I’m afraid it’s lost in the moment. In any case, I’ve fixed it up above, and sorrt to have misled.

      • I’ve been trying to find more information on the 9th century Peter. There is conflicting information about when he lived and a seemingly nonexistent amount of information about him outside of the references to him pertaining to the Codex Amiatinus. Looking for info on him is how I found your article and website. I have an article on my website about that codex which has a part dedicated to the Peter Lombard character. I can link it here if you want to check it out but don’t want to comment my link if you don’t want to see it

        • You’re welcome to link it if you like; others may want to read it too. I was not aware of this Peter before tonight, and it is always quite possible that we just don’t know anything else about him. If I wanted to start looking for him, though, since he would seem to have been a donor to the house, I’d start in the charters of San Salvatore di Monte Amiata, which are edited and seem to have a whole volume of indices.

          • The part about Peter is the last portion of the article ~

            • That is quite the array of questions! But as I say, I imagine the abbey’s own charters hold many of the answers. In particular, if he was abbot of the actual house, I shouldn’t have thought he could escape a mention or two. The edition isn’t available electronically, however, so not a simple thing to check.

              By the way, the Latin of the dedication which your page translates as, “From the farthest ends of the earth, I, Peter, abbot of the Lombards” could be rendered differently. My first choice, just because it is closer to the word order, would be, “Peter of the Lombards, [an] abbot from the ends of the borders”. It’s tempting to try and make that explain Peter, but of course the unaltered text related to Ceolfrið not Peter. Peter might still have been abbot of wherever the manuscript had been sitting before he decided to give it to San Salvatore, rather than of the recipient house, but it’s such a big gift there might still be signs in the charters of an earlier relationship with the Roman monastery anyway.

              • It’s not the most pressing matter on my plate but I will be keeping it in mind while I study. Please do let me know if you stumble across more info on him

                I think I’ll get the notification if/when you comment back here on this thread

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