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The Bible moralisée
1000 golden miniatures from the French gothic period
Vienna, Austrian National Library, Cod. Vindob. 2554, Paris, 1220-1230



Further Pictures


Available as Vol. 2 of the series "Glanzlichter der Buchkunst"

This famous Bible moralisée is one of the most luxurious Gothic manuscripts of the 13th century. On 136 illustrated pages, no less than 1032 picture medallions are to be found, as well as one full-page miniature which earned great interest for its depiction of God as the architect of the Universe. This magnificent manuscript strikes the beholder as a lavishly illustrated picture book complete with brief texts in French to explain the illustrations.

As the title of the manuscript betrays, the Bible moralisée somewhat favours the moral interpretation of the Scriptures, without neglecting other approaches to spiritual exegesis. In the attempt to describe its purpose, one will come to call it a book of edification. The decorative apparatus of our manuscript makes it outstandingly precious and it might have been commissioned by or destined for a high-ranking personality.

The unique effect of this painted manuscript lies in its picture medallions set on coloured, gilded ground, and holding scenes from the Books of the Old Testament. Their contents becomes obvious in illustration and the accompanying text provides a résumé or a paraphrase of the passage treated. The miniatures are truly winning, not only because of their narrative power, but also because of their plain and pristine character.

Uniquely dramatic narration

We do not know of many manuscripts in which the picture faces the word of the Biblical narrative in this manner. Our codex differs from other contemporary manuscript in its colours too, which in the basic patterns and figures lend it a somewhat subdued impression. The prevalent colours are dark blue and reddish-brown, used in various shades. The pictures deploy their luminous effect on a dark gilded ground. Vividness is achieved through enhanced motion and impetus of the figures. The compositions are generous and fill the medallions completely. Several figures transcend the set frames, giving the narrative a dramatic turn.

A heavenly picture book

Our illuminated manuscript, which is “readable” even without the text, follows a contiguous formal concept: each page shows eight medallions displayed on patterned ground, thus forming a block which is flanked by four text portions on either side. These entities are surrounded with a narrow frame. The picture medallions are arranged two by two, one beneath the other, and combined with the adjacent texts to form a contextual entity. The upper section of text resumes or paraphrases a passage from the Bible and the scene is illustrated in the adjacent miniature. The text below contains an interpretation of the Bible text which is also illustrated. The illustration cycle is to be read, beginning with the picture pair on the upper left, to follow with the pair on the upper right, then the pair on the lower left and finally the one on the lower right.

God as the architect of the Universe

The famous frontispiece of the Bible moralisée, not unlike a title miniature, depicts God as the Creator of the World. The Creation of the Heavens, of the Earth, Sun and Moon and the other elements is compressed in this one picture. The depiction of the Creator God who steps out, bending over the cosmos which is rolling in front of him, and forming it by measuring it with a pair of compasses, has drawn the attention of many, not only for its impressive execution but also because it represents the importance of measuring and proportions in the Middle Ages in an unequalled manner.

The commentary volume

A bilingual expert commentary (German and French) written by Reiner Haussherr provides a comprehensive introduction to the manuscript. The series „Glanzlichter der Buchkunst“, vol. 2: , comprises a German translation of the French Bible text by Hans-Walter Stork.

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