Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Crusader Bible: A Picture Book Unlike Any Other

The Crusader Bible, also called the Morgan Bible, is a 13th century French-Gothic bible, containing some of the most notable miniatures of the Old Testament, and serves as the epitome of French gothic illumination. This bible is made up of stories from the old testament, and are noted as some of the greatest visualizations of these stories ever made. 46 folios contain 346 episodes of the Old Testament. The Crusader Bible does not include all the books of the Old Testament, but only parts from Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, and Samuel.

 The pages themselves are the real focus of the manuscript, images covering every single folio in gold, vibrant paint, and precise figures. Measuring 380 x 300 mm overall, as the commentary is not measured, the book is grand in both its size, and of what is inside of it. This bible was originally conceived as a picture book, not really looking to put text in. The images are made of rich pigment, gold leaf, and clearly outlined pictures. The notion that this book was more concerned with pictures than words, lets any reader, literate or not, read this book. They would have had to have an understanding of the Old Testament to understand the narrative, but regardless, like an picture book, the images tell the story, and are downright just pretty to look at. As time went on, ink commentaries were added to the margins. Past owners deemed it necessary to have a commentary on what the image was depicting, and through time the manuscript acquired Latin, Persian, and Judeo-persian notations. These inscriptions are very defined, and the reader can differentiate between the three translations. The Latin text looks as if it was the first language to be added, as it has gilded initials starting of the Latin commentary. These gilded initials offer another element of decoration to an already extravagant manuscript. The latin script is very organized and very legible to be read from. The Persian and Judeo-persian inscriptions are also, very legible and easy to decipher the distinguishing languages being used. The persian and judeo-persian scripts are only written in ink, and have no decoration purpose to the book, they are there purely for just being text.

 The text has in no way any superiority over the illuminations. The illuminations fill every single folio, creating a sequential narrative to follow along with. The images are truly un-parallel to any other manuscript miniatures I have seen, as they are executed perfectly, by masterful illuminators. Seven artists can be identified, with one being the master artist and doing a majority of the illuminations. The master artist can be distinguished as he had an unprecedented naturalistic quality to his work, and he never used gold backgrounds as well. Who the artists were, we do not know, as manuscript production was moving from monasteries to secular out sourcing.

 An important element to the bible is that all of the illuminations are not set in the time period of the Old Testament, but rather in 13th century France. The well known stories of the creation of the world, King Solomon, and stories any pious person would know, were turned into narratives through a contemporary setting. They weren't set in the Holy Land that these narratives were originally thought to be set in. By putting them into a different context, it makes the image much more relatable, as the reader could see themselves in the image, as it was familiar to them.

 A particular favorite illumination from this manuscripts is f.23v, which depicts Saul Slaying Nahash and Ammonites and Samuel anoints Saul and sacrifices to the Lord. When first looking at this illumination, I had to remind myself of the title over and over, because at first looking at it, this contemporary scene did not remind me of the particular story. It's not the usual image of this scene, instead replacing Old Testament figures with Medieval knights, looking like a scene from a crusade or battle during the Middle Ages. It provides a 13th century spin on an old story that people would have been familiar with. The Illumination of Saul slaying the Ammonites is very dynamic and full of action, figures clad in armor, horses bucking, and images even stretching into the margins. The war machine that the one man is holding on to, expands the scene from the main image, making it a more interesting image to look at as well. It draws the viewer in, with drama and narrative.

Folio 23v

Originally made with no captions, the images were the main source of narrative. The images serve to tell the story, without the reliance of text. In this weeks lecture, we have talked about the inclusion of pictures as an indication of status, very apparent in this bible. The higher in the aristocracy you are, the more detailed and image oriented your manuscript was made. But, just because these pictures are included, and serve as a way to "show" the story, the understanding of the Old Testament as a whole was needed as well. One would have had to have an understanding of the stories of the old testament to decipher what was being illustrated in the narratives. More knowledge is needed to understand these images in particular to me, because they are set in 13th century France, and the reader may not recognize them at first glance. One would really have to know the stories in order to have a coherent understanding of what was particularly being illustrated.

 The Crusader Bible, with its inclusions of masterful illuminations, provides a great example of French Gothic illumination and book production. It shows that these illuminations were an important part of social status, narrative, and understanding of biblical knowledge. This manuscript, to me, provides a ideal illuminated manuscript, to be seen as inspiration for future manuscripts and illuminators. Imagery is such an important part of the Crusader Bible, that to me, it stresses that while it may not have as many words, it can tell a story in a much more detailed and aesthetically pleasing way than script can. This manuscript might just be a "picture book" in the most generalized terms, but no picture book can truly meet the standard that the Crusader Bible had instilled.


  1. I really enjoyed writing and reading about the Morgan Crusader Bible. It’s crazy that it was pretty much made originally as a picture book. It’s funny to think about royal patrons or priests cracking open a picture book to discover what’s inside.
    The illustrations certainly are beautiful, and I don’t think that the value of the piece to Crusader Scholarship can be emphasized enough. The way that the battle scenes are depicted in the book as iron and Bronze Age events in 13th century style is so interesting. It reminds me of similar artistic pieces done today. Many previous events have been depicted by art in a contemporary style. What immediately comes to mind (besides the example I gave in my own Morgan Crusader Bible entry) are graphic novels sold in Christian book stores that portray New Testament events in the style of contemporary life. I feel that this technique is done in order to help us as dwellers in contemporary time to have empathy for these past events. It helps us to understand the context of those events and apply their teachings to our own lives.
    In conclusion, when viewed through this lens the motivations behind the Morgan Crusader bible are not too difficult to understand. Honestly, it’s kind of cool.
    -Mason Smith

  2. My first introduction to the Morgan Crusader Bible came last semester during a side lecture that Professor McCarthy had given on the manuscript and its significance. To me the most interesting element of this manuscript stems from the fact the the depictions that illustrated, while intended to re-envision scenes from the Old Testament, are illustrated as depicting a 13th-century style of dress/armor and a combat that is clearly embellished for entertainment purposes. The intermixing of styles, much like saints/priests who are depicted in togas for a more Classic appearance, seems to be prevalent in the Middle Ages as the illustrators attempted to harken back to separate historical influences, though in the case of the Morgan Bible it is the modern styles which are drawn upon ancient figures, rather than ancient customs on modern figures. It makes me wonder if peoples living in the 13th-century had begun to garner a greater sense of self and rather than merely living out the glory of the past, they instead began to forge a new sense of self and believe in their own individuality and creativity, seeing the dawn of the 13th & 14th-centuries as an imaging of their own identity that was finally separating from the Classical Era. Ignoring my musing, however, the manuscript is still very fun to look through, particularly for the heightened sense of violence that is present in the manuscript which in turn makes the illustrations all the more entertaining to look through which shows yet another example of the broadening use of books and manuscripts in Medieval European Society.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I think it is rather interesting that the Morgan Crusader Bible leaves out various portions of the bible like Genesis and Exodus. I wonder why these portions were left out. Could it have been lack of supply, were they lost at some point after the publication of the bible, or for some other reason? This manuscript is a true testament of its publication date. By this time in the middle ages manuscripts went from being produced with a small amount of illumination, unless the client was extremely wealthy. The Morgan Crusader Bible contains rather large and extremely clear illuminations linking them to the time period of their creation. There is little wording on the pages with illuminations because the need for explanation is minimal because the illuminations very clearly demonstrate the bible scenes. I truly love the colors on the various pages. The blue in particular seems to jump off the page. Just by glancing at the manuscript it is evident that its production must have taken a long time and the cost of the product must have been high. I enjoy the fact that this manuscript is different than almost all other manuscripts of the time period.