Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Moutier-Grandval Bible

The Moutier-Grandval Bible finds its place in History as the product of Charlemagne’s desire to represent himself as an heir to the great Scholarly heritage of the Roman Empire, and to lift it out of what we would call today: The dark ages. In order to do so, he brought people from around the world in order to re-vitalize this aspect of his empire. One of the people he brought was Alcuin of York, who made books from the Vulgate translations of the Bible in Charlemagne’s scriptorium. The Moutier-Grandval Bible was not made in Alcuin’s time however, it was made under the Abbot Adalhard (834-843 C.E.) it nonetheless gives one the idea and impression one could receive from a Vulgate Translation completed under Alcuin. The codex has 449 folios, has dimensions of 495 x 380 mm and has capital text consisting of square capitals and uncial script. The main text is a form of Caroline Minuscule.

The name of the manuscript comes from the monastery of Moutier-Grandval, which is in Switzerland. The Manuscript resided here from the 16th to 18th Century’s before finding itself in the hands of Private collectors. One of whom donated it to the British Library who digitized it. Digitizing the manuscript was especially difficult due to the large size of the Manuscript and its fragility. As a result a special cradle had to be constructed in order to safely digitize it.

This is a picture of the cradle that was constructed in order to digitize the manuscript. The manuscript is lying inside of the cradle. I have always wondered what the actual digitization of a manuscript might look like, and that is it. I wonder if the specialized cradle would have to be significantly modified in order to digitize other manuscripts of different sizes, or is that cradle now an excellent resource of the archivists, useful for many more projects. This provides a window into the politics and economics of digitization and archival studies.

As you look at these pages from the manuscript, try to ask yourself a few questions. What would a manuscript writer (scribe) be trying to accomplish with the design of the manuscript? How does the manuscript compare to the mass printed bibles of today? Can the art in the manuscript be appreciated outside of the context of what the manuscript is actually portraying?

What immediately strikes me is the rich purple of the text. Known since ancient times as the color of royalty purple is employed here to enhance the majesty of the text. This seems to go along more with the idea of Books as objects of Veneration than as books as actual reading material. The size of the Manuscript itself also seems to belie that. This particular page is from the section of the bible devoted to Jerome’s commentary, in the very beginning. Jerome (who is often depicted with a lion in his study) was the translator of the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible.

This page is from the section of the bible concerning the seven seals. This is from the Book of Revelation. The Seven seals are depicted on this page. This would have been a very important chapter of the Vulgate for the scribes and illuminators as Christianity is what is considered an apocalyptic religion in that it concerns itself with the end of the world. Notice the dress of the humanoid figures in the picture. It appears to be roman style dress. This would also be very important for the creators of the manuscript as they felt that by creating masterful copies of manuscripts they were adding their mark to the long roman heritage of scholasticism that they felt that they inherited from the Roman Empire.

This is an illustration from the first chapter of the Bible, Genesis. What you can see (going from top left to bottom right) is the creation of Eve from the dust of the ground, the creation of Adam, the meeting of Adam and eve, the admonishment from God not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God confronting them concerning their decision, the expulsion from Eden and the settlement of the land outside. It is very interesting to me that in this picture it shows Eve being created first despite the mainline Biblical narrative suggesting that Adam was created first. A feminist interpretation would be very interesting here. I also wonder if perhaps this was done as a certain tilt of the head towards the old roman Goddess veneration. As I am no scholar in these matters I only have my conjecture to offer regarding that.

In conclusion, the Moutier Bible is a very important work because of all that it symbolizes in regards to the time period that it was made. Desperate for the power and prestige that came from the old Roman Empire these manuscripts are literally relics of an attempt to legitimize themselves as proper heirs worthy to claim the title of Romans. All of these, from the royal purple to the ornate illustrations serves that exact same purpose, to increase prestige. There is no way the average person would be able to properly read and study these and that was the point. They were not made for mass production or digestion. They were made to recapture a feeling of Nostalgia the Romans would never experience again.

—Mason Smith


  1. The Moutier Bible is a beautiful example of a manuscript made during the Carolingian writing reform. Here we have the hierarchy of scripts with the main text done in Carolingian miniscule. The writing is very consistent and legible, divided into two columns to make it easier to read, especially given the size of the book as we can see in the main post.
    The images shown in the post of the large page illustrations show Roman influence that is common in Carolingian manuscripts. The story is divided on the page in rows in order to depict the more of the story rather than a single image to represent the entire story, rather like a comic book. And while the illustrations show Roman influence the illuminated letters show local influence in their intricate floral patterns.

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