ManuscriptsFour Lessons from Medieval Illustrated Bibles Illuminated Bibles are a living testament to human history in addition to being the divine record of history. David S. HoggA collage of images from the Luttrell Psalter (c. 1325–40), BL Add MS 42130. Illustration by Peter Gurry. Public domainOctober 25, 2022 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level Among the treasures housed in the British Library is the Luttrell Psalter. It is a lavishly illustrated early 14th century manuscript commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell. Inside the front cover someone has written the name of Sir Geoffrey followed by the Latin words me fieri fecit. Loosely translated this means, “Sir Geoffrey Luttrell brought me into existence.” This is interesting for at least two reasons. First, by writing it in the first person, the author is personifying the book itself—treating it as though it were speaking to us. On one level, we might consider this a bit childish since we know books are inanimate. But on another level, precisely because this is written in a book containing a portion of the Bible, itself the only book in all creation that can be described as living and active (Heb. 4:12; 1 Thess. 2:13), it does not seem entirely out of place. Whatever else might be said of their piety, citizens of medieval Europe well understood that the Bible and the church claimed that this is a book that has the power to transform hearts and minds because it is a living word that has the power to impart eternal life (1 Pet. 1:23; 2 Tim. 3:14–17). It is, in short, a book that speaks to us like no other. Thus, to add an element of personification on the inside cover is not entirely out of place. The second reason this little notation is interesting is that it invites the reader to consider the intentionality behind creating this specific volume. Besides Sir Luttrell, who might have been involved in producing this lavish copy of God’s Word? Printers? Artists? Scribes? Leather workers? Purveyors of fine parchment? Which members of the Luttrell family, young or old, had input into what illuminations they wanted to include? By way of contrast, in our age where Bibles are everywhere, from homes to hotel rooms, and available in multiple formats, from print to audio recordings to software programs to hypertext online versions, considerations about how the Bible is produced have faded into the background. And, it may be argued, rightly so since the process of mass producing print, audio or electronic Bibles is not especially engrossing. Why Illuminate the Bible? Be that as it may, the somewhat eccentric Jerome who translated the Bible into Latin in the early fifth century (the text we now call the Vulgate) would be elated at the modern proliferation of simple, straightforward, text-only Bibles published around the globe. Throughout his life, Jerome remained staunchly opposed to the ornamentation of God’s Word—evidence that illustrating the Bible in some way was practiced before the Middle Ages in the earliest centuries of the church. To the list of those who prefer the Bible to remain a simple, text-only book, I suspect we could add some of the leaders of the Reformation, to say nothing of the Puritans, whose opinions on the subject are a foregone conclusion. The collective motto of Jerome & Co. might be, “Just print the Bible. It’s not a coloring book.” This is, however, not the position taken by many Christians throughout the ancient and medieval church. Exhibit A: the Luttrell Psalter. Here is a portion of the Bible with elaborate ornamentation throughout, to say nothing of the full color illustrations of people and daily life that fill the spaces amidst the sacred leaves. What’s more, this practice was followed well into the sixteenth century. If we fast forward about a century beyond the creation of the Luttrell Psalter to the time when Gutenberg revolutionized book production with his moveable type printing press, we discover that he printed the Bible with large blank spaces at the beginning of books and chapters as well as leaving considerable real estate blank at the margins. This was done on purpose and for decades following Gutenberg’s life. The point was that everyone who could afford a Gutenberg Bible could take their copy to a book illuminator and make it their own by having it decorated however they wished. Lest you think this an antiquated practice, consider the recent publication of the ESV Bible in formats that either already have ornamentation in them or leave large blank spaces as an intentional invitation for people to add their own illustrations and adornments. It seems illuminated manuscripts are back in style. At this point, it is worth noting that many Bibles, parts of Bibles, and other manuscripts created in the Middle Ages included no adornment. Illustration was an expensive undertaking. Even so, if the cache of illuminated texts that have survived into our own day is any indication, a lot of Bibles included some form of adornment. But why, we might ask, was adorning the margins and first letters of books and chapters in the Bible done in the first place? Why was it so popular for over 1,500 years? In what follows, I offer four reasons why manuscripts of the Bible were illuminated. One of several curious creatures (or “grotesques”) in the Luttrell Psalter. BL Add MS 42130 1. Illustration communicates the value of the text What do you do with the things you value greatly? If it’s a picture, you might have it professionally framed. If it’s an object associated with a strong memory, you may keep it in a special box. If it’s beautiful or costly, you might display it in a glass case. We often convey value through context. In the Middle Ages, all books were relatively expensive, but illuminating a manuscript with colors created from costly dyes and overlaying letters and borders with gold leaf communicated a level of importance that went above and beyond. Depending on the level of craftsmanship required, portions of the Bible or even the whole Bible created in this way could take anywhere from two to four years. Even in a slower age bereft of automation and computers, anything that took multiple years and several people to make signaled significance to the observer. While communicating the value of the Bible through its physical production could matter in a number of situations, one context in which a visual reminder of the value of the text of Scripture was especially helpful was in missionary work. In her very illuminating book, Hidden Hands, Mary Wellesley cites a letter written by an eighth century missionary named Boniface in which he is requesting an illuminated manuscript of the Pauline epistles, “to impress honour and reverence for the Sacred Scriptures visibly upon the carnally minded to whom I preach.” Wellesley herself comments on the rationale for Boniface’s request writing that a “manuscript was not simply a repository of text but an embodiment, in visual and physical form, of the sacral power of Scripture.”1Mary Wellesley, Hidden Hands: The Lives of Manuscripts and Their Makers (London: Quercus, 2022), 164 2. Illustration prompts thinking about the text On the page where Psalm 36 begins (in our English Bibles that would be Psalm 37) in the Luttrell Psalter, there is an illustration at the bottom of the page of a naked blue man. Yes, you read correctly. Furthermore, this little blue man (slightly turned to preserve at least a modicum of modesty) has been hoisted upon a pole held horizontally to the ground and is carried by two people as he waves a leaf of some kind and looks like he is having a grand time (despite what one imagines must be a terribly uncomfortable way to travel!). Why, it seems reasonable to ask, is there a little naked blue man on the page below Psalm 37? Although we can’t be sure since no interpretive notes are included with the illustration, it is likely the case that this illustration is depicting the wicked, the enemy, described in the Psalm. In medieval England, blue was the color associated with the enemy and thus the wicked because their archrivals, the Scottish, would sometimes paint their bodies with a blue dye before going into battle. Knowing this, and reading Psalm 37:35, for instance, we discover that the Psalmist tells us that he has seen the wicked spreading himself out (naked) like a tree. The fact that we have an identifiable enemy (blue guy), being exalted on a pole and paraded about by two people, and revealed as naked as a tree before the world (holding a leaf in his hand to help us make the connection in case we missed it), it seems an apt, if mildly amusing pictorial representation of the verse. The “blue man” at the bottom of Psalm 37 on the left page in the Luttrell Psalter. BL Add MS 42130 Again, we must be careful not to read too much into these illustrations, but it appears that the Luttrell family are using a popular cultural trope to heighten and focus the attention of the reader on the contents of the Psalm. As Israel had enemies in their time who would one day pass away under God’s judgment while the righteous alone remained, so the English have their enemies who will not abide despite appearances to the contrary. Instead of passing over a text quickly, the illustration invites the reader to consider who the little blue men are in their life who will not stand in future judgment despite their present prosperity. In fact, whether the reader lives in the 14th or the 21st century, it also prompts a smile—not that someone would fall under judgment, but that, in the end, the righteous will overcome. 3. Illustration is an expression of God-given gifts to create beauty God did not condemn the Israelites for living in great cities with homes filled with good things (Deut. 6:10–11), nor did he frown upon using wealth to create beautiful things (Solomon’s palace). Historically, in the western classical tradition, the good, the true and the beautiful were held in high regard. Today, one might be forgiven for thinking each of these in their turn has been rejected or ignored. With respect to the Bible, in a culture that prizes functionality and efficiency, sometimes even to the detriment of the good, true, and beautiful, we should take care not to assume our priorities are superior or the standard by which all others should be measured. Take, for example, a mass-produced digital alarm clock. It is entirely functional with nothing but numbers because it is assumed that all that is needed is accuracy, not beauty (and preferably cheap!). Surely, every clock should be just like this because a clock has only one purpose: to tell the time. But do we not stand amazed at clocks or watches that have been crafted with beauty? I own what is called a skeleton watch. It is called this because while there are hands to tell the time, there is nothing hiding the inner workings so you can see all the wheels, cogs, springs, and coils in their tiny, exquisite detail turning, twisting, untwisting, rotating, flying, and rocking. When I first bought the watch when my children were younger, they used to ask to look at it while we ate dinner and they sat mesmerized by it. I have never once seen them stare in awe at the cheap, but accurate digital alarm clocks they had by their bedside! From the beginning of creation, God has called humanity to the work of creativity and beauty. From the beginning of creation in the garden of Eden, God has called humanity to the work of creativity and beauty. Throughout its history, the church has believed that applying artistic or creative gifts to this world and what we make is part of what it means to be made in the image of God. We must never change the text of Scripture, but surely the margins are free for applying God-given talent in a thoughtful way. 4. Illustration connects us with others, past, present, and future Most of us like new books. There something about the pristine quality, the new book smell, and the wonder of being the first to turn the pages. Recently, however, I heard an author talk about her love of books, and she clearly favored what she called good, clean used copies of classic works. She likes used books that are still in good condition because they include the occasional marginal notation and, more often than not, they fall open to a place the previous owner looked over for some time. Her point was that she loved knowing that she was one in a line of connected readers who all read the book before her. In an unusual way, it reminded her that books and reading are fundamentally communal. What a wonderfully positive way to think in the midst of a world that can often seem bent on using the practice reading and writing as a way to drive a wedge between people. There is something about a book, especially the Bible which is the very Word of God to humanity, which, when ornamented and illustrated and colored bids us slow down and appreciate the whole, to pause over the wonder not only of revealed truth, but of the generations before us who have done the same and left their mark, their clues to how they understood and applied the same texts we are now perusing. Reading a Bible that includes the artistic fingerprints, marginal notes and interlinear underlinings bids us to forego our modern penchant to read as though we are alone and confronts us as individuals who are part of a body of readers, a genealogy of the faithful, the church throughout the ages. A Bible that is illuminated is a Bible that has a human history in addition to being the divine record of history. A Bible that is illuminated is a Bible that has a human history in addition to being the divine record of history. Mary Wellesley is surely right when she wrote that, “manuscripts, by their very nature, resist neat chronologies, because they often tell simultaneous histories. They might have been written in one age, but contain texts dated much earlier, and they also incorporate the histories of their later owners and readers.”2Hidden Hands, 9. In this sense, medieval illuminated Bibles are first and foremost the living Word of God, but they are also a kind of living testament to generations of faithfulness that draws the reader into conversations about perennial nature truth, goodness, and beauty.Notes1Mary Wellesley, Hidden Hands: The Lives of Manuscripts and Their Makers (London: Quercus, 2022), 1642Hidden Hands, 9. David S. Hogg David Hogg (PhD, University of St. Andrews) is the Vice President of Academic Affairs and Professor of Church History at Phoenix Seminary. Previously, he taught at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, and Beeson Divinity School in Alabama where he was also the Academic Dean. He is the author of Anselm of Canterbury: The Beauty of Theology.