Bible moralisee



Prefactory miniature from a moralized Bible of "God as architect of the world", folio I verso, from Paris ca. 1220-1230. Ink, tempera, and gold leaf on vellum 1' 1 1/2" X 8 1/4". Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna. God shapes the universe with the aid of a compass. Within the perfect circle already created are the spherical sun and moon and the unformed matter that will become the earth once God applies the same geometric principles to it. A view of the earth influenced by Ancient Greek Geometry and icons of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The Bible moralisee. is a later name for the most important of the medieval picture bibles, sometimes called "biblia pauperum", though they were extremely expensive, to have survived. It is a heavily illustrated illuminated manuscript of the thirteenth century, and from the copies that still survive it is clear that it existed in at least two versions. They were similar in the choice and order of the Biblical texts selected, but differed in the allegorical and moral deductions drawn from these passages.

Each page pairs Old and New Testament episodes with illustrations explaining their moral signicance in terms of typology.

Background

In the European Middle Ages the Church made use of pictures as a means of instruction, to supplement the knowledge acquired by reading or oral teaching. Books only existed in manuscript form and, being extremely costly, were beyond the means of most people.

Hardly anyone could read, outside the ranks of the clergy and the monks. So frescoes of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, stained-glass windows, an the like were set up in the churches, because, as the Synod of Arras (1025) said, "The illiterate contemplated in the lineaments of painting what they, having never learnt to read, could not discern in writing".

Pictures spread abroad a knowledge of the events recorded in the Bible and of the mutual connection between the leading facts of the Old and New Testaments, whether as type and antitype, or as prophecy and fulfillment. For this purpose the picture Bibles of the Middle Ages were copied and put in circulation. Parts of these go back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Versions

The best known copy of the first version is one of the most sumptuous illustrated manuscripts, preserved to us from the Middle Ages. It no longer as a single volume; it has been split up into three separate parts kept in three libraries. The first part, consisting of 224 leaves, is in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. The second part of 222 leaves is in the Bibliotheque nationale de France in Paris; and the third part, made up of 178 leaves, is kept in the British Library. Six leaves of the third part are missing, so that it ought to contain 184 leaves. When complete and bound together, therefore, the whole volume consisted of 630 leaves, written and illustrated on one side only.

This Bible, as indeed all the picture Bibles of the Middle Ages, did not contain the full text of the Bible, and contained much original commentary. Short passages only were cited, and these not so as to give any continuous sense or line of thought. But the object of the writer seems to have been chiefly to make the texts cited the basis of moral and allegorical teaching, in the manner so common in those days. In the Psalter he was content with copying out the first verse of each psalm; whilst when dealing with the Gospels he did not quote from each evangelist separately, but made use of a kind of confused diatessaron of all four combined. An attempt was made to establish a connection between the events recorded in the Old Testament and those recorded in the New, even when there does not seem to be any very obvious connection between them. Thus the sleep of Adam, recorded in the beginning of Genesis, is said to prefigure the death of Christ; and Abraham sending his servant with rich presents to seek a wife for his son is a type of the Eternal Father giving the Gospels to the Apostles to prepare the union of His Son with the Church.

The entire work contains about 5,000 illustrations. The pictures are arranged in two parallel columns on each page, each column having four medallions with pictures. Parallel to the pictures and alternating with them are two other narrower columns, with four legends each, one legend to each picture; the legends consisting alternatively of Biblical texts and moral or allegorical applications; whilst the pictures represent the subjects of the Biblical texts or of the applications of them. The illustrations are executed with the greatest skill. The painting is said to be one of the best specimens of thirteenth-century work and the MS. was in all probability prepared for someone in the highest rank of life. A specimen of the second edition of the "Bible Moralisee" is to be found in the Bibliotheque nationale de France (MS. Francais No. 167). Whilst it is identical with the copy which has just been examined in the selection and order of the Biblical passages, it differs from it in the greater simplicity and brevity of the moral and allegorical teaching based on them. Another important Bible, intended to instruct by means of pictures, was that which has been called the "Bible Historiae toute figurae". It was a work of the end of the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth century. In general outline and plan it resembles the class of Bible which has gone before, but it differs from it in the selection of Bible passages and in the allegorical explanations derived from them. Coming to the life of Christ, the author of the "Bible Historiae toute figurae" dispensed with a written text altogether, and contented himself with writing over the pictures depicting scenes of Christ's life, a brief explanatory legend.

Many specimens of this Bible have come down to us, but we select part of one preserved in the Bibliotheque nationale de France (MS Francais No. 9561) for a brief description. In this MS. 129 pages are taken up with the Old Testament. Of these the earlier ones are divided horizontally in the centre, and it is the upper part of the page that contains the picture illustrative of some Old Testament event. The lower part represents a corresponding scene from the New Testament. further on in the volume, three pictures appear in the upper part of the page, and three below. Seventy-six pages at the end of the volume are devoted to depicting the lives of Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin.

Other illustrated Bibles

There is a MS. existing in the British Museum (addit. 1577) entitled "Figures de la Bible" consisting of pictures illustrating events in the Bible with short descriptive text. this is of the end of the thirteenth, or the beginning of the fourteenth, century. Of the same date is the "Historia Bibliametrice" which is preserved in the same library and, as the name implies, has a metrical text. The Velislai biblia picta is a 14th century Bohemiann picture bible.

There are specimens of manuscript illustrated Bibles of earlier date. Examples are the Bible preserved in the library of the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome; that of the Amiens Library (MS. 108), and that of the Royal Library of The Hague (MS. 69).

Return to Main Index