Middle left (detail), Scenes from the Apocalypse, Paris-Oxford-London Bible moralisée, France, c. 1225-45 (The British Library, Harley MS 1527 fol. 140v)
One book, thousands of illustrations
Imagine a children’s illustrated bible. There might be 2-3 illustrations for each story: Adam and Eve in the garden, Noah’s ark, Daniel in the lion’s den, and others. If you open a regular copy of the bible, each of these stories are covered in several pages of densely-written ancient text. Now imagine that you had a book that contained a separate illustration for every few sentences in the entire bible. Imagine that this super illustrated bible also contained another text that interpreted the bible text and that your book also contained illustrations of that additional text. One book: thousands of illustrations. It is medievally mind-blowing.
The Bible moralisée, or moralized bibles, are a small group of illustrated bibles that were made in thirteenth-century France and Spain. These books are among the most expensive medieval manuscripts ever made because they contain an unusually large number of illustrations. These books were generally commissioned by members of royal families, as no one else would have been able to afford such luxury. Below is a dedication page showing the owners of one Bible moralisée: Blanche of Castile and King Louis IX of France.
Biblical text and commentary
Bible moralisée contain two texts: the biblical text and the commentary text, which is sometimes called a gloss. These commentary texts interpreted the biblical text for the thirteenth century reader. Commentary authors often created comparisons between people and events in the biblical world and people and events in the medieval world. In the case of the Bible moralisée, the commentary often draws parallels between the bad guys of the biblical text and those who were perceived as bad guys in the thirteenth century. In France, as in most of western Europe at this time, Jews and corrupt priests were the bad guys and there are anti-semitic themes throughout the commentary and illustrations.
The format of Bible moralisée manuscripts is unusual, as the artist had to create a coherent arrangement for the biblical text, its accompanying commentary text, and an illustration for each. On each page of this manuscript there are eight circles, called roundels, that illustrate biblical scenes and commentary scenes. There are short snippets of text, either from the bible or commentary, that accompany each scene.
In looking at the page, it breaks down into a number of parts and it is important to identify each part in order to understand how the texts and images work together. The Latin text in the upper left is from Revelation 14:19, which translates as
“And the angel thrust in his sharp sickle into the earth, and gathered the vineyard of the earth, and cast it into the great press of the wrath of God:” (Douay-Rheims translation)
Commentary (detail), Scenes from the Apocalypse, Paris-Oxford-London Bible moralisée, France, c. 1225-45 (The British Library, Harley MS 1527 fol. 140v)
The illustration is a visual interpretation of this text, with some extra details added. A figure on the right harvests grapes from the vines on the right and Christ, with his cruciform (cross-shaped) halo, pours the grapes from the basket on his back into the winepress. God and his angels bless the scene from above.
The commentary begins with the red letter “P” below and talks about how the great winepress signifies hell. Note that in the accompanying illustration (very top of this page), there are demons herding the damned into a hellmouth—literally the jaws of hell. Among the damned is a corrupt bishop, identified by his special hat, the mitre. There is also a corrupt king in hell.
This arrangement give the biblical text three interpretations: a visual interpretation, a commentary interpretation, and a visual commentary interpretation. Each interpretation builds on the other. The illustrations are more than simple representations of the text, they are contemporary interpretations of it. The commentary text does not mention bishops or kings, but the illustrator adds those.
The reader then moves on to the right, to the next pairing of images and text.
The upper portion of text comes from Revelation 15:1, which translates as
“And I saw another sign in heaven, great and wonderful: seven angels having the seven last plagues. For in them is filled up the wrath of God.” (Douay-Rheims translation)
The accompanying illustration shows Christ on the left and seven angels on the right. The commentary beginning with the blue letter “P”, interprets the seven angels as faithful preachers who teach God’s people. The illustration shows priests on the left teaching a group of men (below). The illustrator goes further and adds two Jewish men on the right, identified by their conical hats. The faithful priests are contrasted with the Jewish men who literally turn their bodies away from the priests. Illustrations like this tried to convince Christian readers that although Jews were once God’s people, as outlined in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, that medieval Jews had turned away from that role. This kind of anti-semitic message promoted hate and violence toward Jews in the later Middle Ages.