Monday, October 15, 2018

Book Review: The Bible Illuminated

          When textual critics study a New Testament manuscript, their primary focus is the text that it contains.  Dr. Karen York, who served until January 2018 as the Director of the Curatorial Department of the Museum of the Bible, explores manuscripts with a different focus in the book The Bible Illuminated:  How Art Brought the Bible to an Illiterate World.  Dr. York briefly describes, in short chapters, the artwork found in 61 Biblical manuscripts, and readers are given full-color examples of the artwork found in each one – often in the form of full-page illustrations.  Len Woods also contributed to the book. 
            Novice manuscript-admirers will likely find their vocabularies expanded by the rare terms that are encountered from the outset; before the end of the first three chapters (on the Rossano Gospels, the Vienna Genesis, and the Book of Durrow), readers will encounter words such as folio, scriptio continua, evangelistary, insular, colophon, canon table, and sacristy.  Fortunately most of these terms are accompanied by their definitions, making this book a rather helpful introduction to the jargon of manuscript-studies; by the time attentive readers reach the end of the book, they will be familiar with medieval book-production.      
          Fewer than half of the manuscripts featured in The Bible Illuminated are of much interest for text-critical purposes – most are Latin, a few are Hebrew, and over a dozen are Latin devotional books – but for the story of medieval art, every one is interesting.  The Book of Kells is featured, of course, along with the Harley Golden Gospels, the Theodore Psalter (one of the few Greek volumes described in the book), and volumes such as the Winchester Bible and the Luttrell Psalter.  (Alas, the Bury Bible is not featured.)
          Readers are likely to not only gain an appreciation of the use of art in medieval Bibles (and related books) but also gain some fascinating details about specific manuscripts, such as information about the cover of Codex Aureus of Echternach, or the story about how the Sarajevo Haggadah survived World War II, or the historical background of the Psalter of Queen Melisende.
          One could perhaps wish for a greater geographical variety of sample-books; it would have been nice to see a page from the Ethiopic Garima Gospels, and a few examples of Armenian ornamentation and illustration, and at least one example of art in a manuscript from Egypt.  This shortcoming, however, by no means diminishes this book’s value as an illuminating review of primarily European art in primarily European manuscripts.      
          The Bible Illuminated:  How Art Brought the Bible to an Illiterate World is published by Worthy Books, in association with the Museum of the Bible.  It is available online at Amazon for about $8.00, and I was able to find it (as of early October 2018) for about the same price at a local Ollie’s store.  The lavish pictures alone are well worth the price; this book is an art gallery you can hold in your hands.

Post-script:  Worthy Books also sells bookmarks that feature art from a few of the volumes featured in The Bible Illuminated, including 
the Rice Psalter and the Hours & Psalter of Elizabeth de Bohun.  I imagine that they would complement the book attractively on a coffee table.

1 comment:

John Podgorney said...

Thanks James! I want to get this book. Our Ollie's doesn't have it but I'll find it online.