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Book of the Month

April 2006

Greek Gospels

Southern Italy/Sicily: mid-late 12th Century
Sp Coll MS Hunter 475 (V.7.2)

To mark Easter, a beautifully illuminated Byzantine copy of the Greek Gospels features as our book choice this April. Probably produced in southern Italy or Sicily, this manuscript dates from the mid to late Twelfth Century. Each of the four Gospels is prefaced by a full page author portrait, lavishly coloured with rich inks and gold. It is a superb example of provincial Byzantine art.

Detail of illuminated portrait of the Evangelist Saint Mark writing his Gospel
Detail of illuminated miniature depicting St Mark (folio 110v)

The vast majority of Byzantine illuminations are found in religious texts. In particular, large numbers of Gospel books were made. According to Lowden, these mostly conform to a standard pattern, containing decorated Canon Tables, with images and decorative headpieces prefacing the start of each of the four Gospels. Their craftsmanship  is nonetheless superlative. Our manuscript eloquently demonstrates the Byzantine love of rich colours and glittering surfaces normally associated with the sister arts of icon painting and mosaics. It should be noted that these artefacts were not purely functional. Their mesmeric power was intended to induce intense spiritual contemplation, offering a glimpse into heaven.

The portrait of Matthew found before the first Gospel is unfortunately somewhat damaged. This an unwelcome result of the Byzantine practice of polishing the parchment to achieve a smooth and glossy finish; as there is little to adhere to, the pigments applied in the illustration often flake away over time.

Double page spread of the opening of the Gospel of St Matthew, with flaked portrait of Matthew on the left and text preceded by ornamental illuminated headpiece on the right
Opening of the Gospel of St Matthew (folios 28v-29r)

Portrait of Saint Matthew writing his Gospel
Full page miniature of St Matthew (folio 28v)

Full page miniature of Saint Mark writing his Gospel
Full page miniature of St Mark (folio 110v)

Matthew is depicted with a gold pen in his right hand and a gold covered book under his left arm. He is seated on a canopied seat in front of a lectern, the stem of which is ornamented with the Christian symbol of a fish. Golden nimbed, he is dressed in purple toga and sandals. The illustration prefacing Saint Mark's Gospel is better preserved. He, too, is poised to write, seated before a lectern.

Luke is similarly posed in the act of writing. His toga is green over a long blue sleeved robe. This miniature is now also somewhat defaced, and the verdigris green has deteriorated markedly.

Douple page spread of opening of the Gospel of Saint Mark, with full page portrait on the left and opening of text on the right
Opening of the Gospel of St Mark (folios 110v-111r)

The script and images in this manuscript were executed by different craftsmen. The portraits of the four Evangelists are all in the same hand, however, suggesting a single phase of work for the book. John Lowden has commented that the four portraits share some uncommon features. For example, he states that the treatment of the frames is odd, being suppressed where they conflict with other part of the design. He declares that 'there is no doubt that the artist was a skilled craftsman, but he was not in the mainstream of the Byzantine tradition'.

Full page miniature of Saint Luke writing his Gospel
Full page miniature of St Luke  (folio 173v)

Detail from the opening of the Gospel of SAint Luke hsowing decorated initial E in the shape of a bird
Detail showing decorated initial E (folio 174r)

The four Gospels provide different accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. They are said to be based on eyewitness reports, although they were not actually written down until the generation after the death of Christ's Apostles. It is generally agreed that Mark's Gospel is the earliest, being dated to about 65 AD; tradition has it that his information was based on direct communications with Saint Peter. Matthew's Gospel was first written down in about 75 AD, and Luke's some ten years later. For the most part, these three Gospels are similar in their accounts, and it may be surmised that they had at least some sources in common (as well each having used some source peculiar to themselves). The last Gospel of Saint John is more problematical. It is usually dated to about 95 AD, draws upon totally different sources, and is written in a much more individual style.

Double page spread of the opening of Saint Luke's Gospel with portait of Luke on the left and beginning of text preceded by an illuminated ornamental headpiece on the right
Opening of the Gospel of St Luke (folios 173v-174r)

The Gospels would have originally been written in Greek, but the actual manuscripts of the Evangelists themselves have been lost. So although more than 5000 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament exist today (albeit many of them in fragments or in parts such as this Gospel Book), not one of them represents the original text as recorded by the Evangelists and other authors.

Detail from the opening of the Gospel of Saint John showing illuminated decorative headpiece
Detail showing decorative border and text at the opening of the Gospel of St John (folio 275r)

All of these surviving manuscripts contain different readings, ranging from spelling mistakes to major shifts in the text. According to Elliott and Moir, there are an estimated 300,000 variants in total. The manuscripts have been studied closely by textual scholars in an effort to group similar texts into families to trace back a genealogy of the texts. However, attempts to recreate the actual 'original' Gospels in this way have proven to be impossible.
It has been established, however, that very few later manuscripts exhibit significant variants. Instead, they nearly all support readings as found in a small number of works surviving from the Second to Fourth Centuries, when the New Testament text assumed the comparative stability of a work of canonical status. To put this in perspective, although 95% of the extant Greek manuscripts date from after the Eighth Century (some seven centuries after the originals were composed), the text of modern editions relies heavily on only four manuscripts: Codex Sinaiticus (discovered by Constantin von Tischendorf, whose personal library is also kept in Special Collections), Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Vaticanus and Codex Bezae. These all date from around the Fourth and Fifth Centuries. As a comparatively late copy of the standard Byzantine version of the Greek Gospels, this makes our manuscript relatively unimportant for the purposes of tracing the textual transmission the Bible. As a unique artefact, however, it is still invaluable as a witness of Middle Byzantine art and culture.

Besides the four Gospels, our manuscript contains other liturgical and theological texts. The first section is actually an addition that dates from the Fourteenth/Fifteenth Century. Written on coarser vellum than the rest of the manuscript, it begins with instructions for the order of the Marriage Service. This part is written in an Italian that is transcribed phonetically in Greek characters, complete with accents. This suggests that the manuscript remained in Italy for some time after its original composition in Sicily or the south of the country in the Twelfth Century.

First page of the manuscript, a fifteenth century addition of text with decorative headpiece in red and maroon ink
Beginning of the manuscript: order of the marriage service (folio 1r)

Double page spread of excerpt from Canonical tables set out in decorative columns
Opening showing excerpt from the Canonical Tables (folios 21v-22r)

The Gospels are preceded by the Canon Tables of Eusebius. These tables show which passages in each Gospel are similar to passages in the other Gospels. The text of each Gospel is divided into numbered sections and the table cites the number for the parallel passages as found in the different texts of the Gospels. The accompanying epistle from Eusebius to Carpianus explains the system.

Excerpt from Gospel of Saint Mark showing Minuscule script with title rubricated
Detail from the Gospel of St Mark, 5, verses 22-23 (folio 126r)

The Gospels in this manuscript were copied in two sections by two scribes. The first scribe supplied Matthew, and the second from Mark to John. The script is a professionally written Greek Minuscule. Minuscule is a cursive form of script that could be written fairly rapidly and compactly. It was introduced at the end of the Eighth/beginning of the Ninth Century, and soon became popular among scribes throughout the Greek world. It quickly superseded Uncial, a more upright, laborious script. Minuscule is a conservative hand which changed very little in the centuries that it was used; this makes dating manuscripts using palaeographical evidence alone particularly problematical. This is especially the case with liturgical works which were traditionally less prone to change in execution, manuscripts from different centuries being copied out using the same regular pattern. Our manuscript has been variously dated as being produced from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries. The most recent work on it by John Lowndes suggests that it belongs to the Twelfth Century.

Full page illuminated portrait of Satin John shown instructing his disciple
 Full page miniature of St John (folio 274v)

Saint John, holding a scroll in his left hand, is shown here dictating his Gospel to his disciple Prochoros. Prochoros was the reputed author of the Acta Joannis which contains a detailed account of the writing of the fourth Gospel. Here, John is making the Orthodox sign of the Cross over his head; rays symbolic of inspiration proceed from his forefinger. The hand of God extends from a segment of heaven at the top right and instructs the evangelist.

Double page opening of Saint Jophn's Gospel - portrait on left and text on right, with illuminated decorative headpiece and ornamental initial E
Opening of the Gospel of St John (folios 274vv-275r)

The Gospel text begins on the facing page with an enlarged 'E' beneath a title and headpiece, all executed in gold and a red-purple pigment. This ornamentation is in a different hand from that of the portrait. Some of the gold on both pages has been offset on to the facing surface.

Inscription of previous owner Cesar de Missy: ex libris Caesaris de Missy, Berolinensis / Londini Anno Domini 1748
Ownership inscription of César de Missy, dated 1748, on opening page (folio 1r)

William Hunter bought this manuscript in 1776 for £9.10s at the sale of César de Missy's library (lot 1638). Originally from Berlin, De Missy (1703-1775) was a New Testament scholar and chaplain to George III; he spent his life collecting materials for an edition of the New Testament. His close study of this book is evident from the manuscript additions that he has made to aid navigation around the dense text: his numbering of the verses of the Gospels is evident throughout. Hunter bought eleven Greek manuscripts at the De Missy sale - that is, two thirds of the manuscripts on offer. The manuscript came to Glasgow University, along with Hunter's other books and collections, in 1807.

This manuscript is on display in the Special Collections foyer (level 12), together with two Byzantine Evangelisteria, until June 2006.

Other Greek manuscripts in Hunter's collection from the César de Missy sale:

Religious manuscripts
MS Hunter 476 (V.7.3) Greek Gospels 13th Century
MS Hunter 407-8 (V.3.5-6) Saint Basil: Homilies 899
MS Hunter 440 (V.5.10) Evangelistary of the Greek Church (Imperfect) 1259
MS Hunter 405 (V.3.3) Evangelistary of the Greek Church 12th/13th Century
MS Hunter 406 (V.3.4) Apostolus (Greek Church Lectionary from the Epistles and Acts) 12th Century
MS Hunter 419 (V.4.3) Apostolus (Greek Church Lectionary from Epistles and Gospels) 1199

Classical literature
MS Hunter 293 (U.6.11) Hesiod: Opera 14th/15th Century
MS Hunter 322 (U.7.16) Seneca: Tragedies 15th Century
MS Hunter 324 (U.7.18) Sophocles: Ajax and Electra 16th Century
MS Hunter 424 (V.4.8) Plutarch: Vitae Parallelae [and other works] 1348

Edited by David Buckton Byzantium: treasures of Byzantine art and culture from British collections London:1994 Level 11 Main Lib Fine Arts A6250 1994-B (NB entry on our manuscript pp. 178-179 by John Lowden; this article particularly draws on the introductory article 'Byzantine manuscript illumination' by John Lowden, pp. 19-20).

Ian C. Cunningham Greek manuscripts in Scotland: summary catalogue Edinburgh: 1982  Level 11 Main Lib Bibliog D92 1982-C

Keith Elliott and Ian Moir Manuscripts and the text of the New Testament: an introduction for English readers Edinburgh: 1995 Level 10 Main Lib Theology FT55 ELL2

Thomas F. Mathews  The art of Byzantium : between antiquity and Renaissance  London: 1998  Level 11 Main Lib Fine Arts A6250 MAT2

Sir Edward Maunde Thompson An introduction to Greek and Latin palaeography Oxford: 1912 Level 11 Main Lib Bibliog B144 1912-T

Bruce M. Metzger Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: an introduction to Greek palaeography Oxford: 1981 Level 10 Main Lib Theology qFA120 MET



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Julie Gardham April 2006