The Story of Jacob from the Vienna Genesis

The Story of Jacob, Vienna Genesis, folio 12v, early 6th century, tempera, gold and silver on purple vellum, cod. theol. gr. 31 (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna)

Additional resource

Read the story of Jacob

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re looking at one of the most important early manuscripts that has survived from the early Christian or Byzantine era. This is from the early 6th century, and it’s called the “Vienna Genesis.”

[0:16] It’s a manuscript of the first book of the Bible.

Dr. Nancy Ross: [0:19] What we see are illustrations at the bottom of each page, so the text is always on top and these illustrations are at the bottom.

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] This is really rare, books that are 1,500 years old don’t often survive.

Dr. Ross: [0:31] Books are often susceptible to fires and floods. This is a really unique object and it preserves some of the earliest narrative illustrations of Bible stories. That’s really important for Christian iconography.

Dr. Zucker: [0:48] But this book is even more rare than we might think. Not only has it survived, but if you go back to the 6th century, there probably weren’t that many books. To produce a book was a major undertaking.

Dr. Ross: [0:59] All of the pages, which are made from animal skin, were made in a process that’s similar to making leather but not tanned. Then all the pages were cut and ruled, and all of the text was written by hand and not in any way printed using a press. That was a very time-consuming process.

Dr. Zucker: [1:17] In this particular case, the text is written in silver, which is now tarnished, so it’s black, but originally it must have been a gleaming surface and really sumptuous.

Dr. Ross: [1:27] It’s been dyed purple, which perhaps suggests a royal commission. Writing in silver and gold and dyeing parchment purple was seen as a very ostentatious thing. It’s something that St. Jerome, an early Doctor of the Church who translated the Bible into Latin, it’s something he preached against as being very un-Christian and lacking humility.

Dr. Zucker: [1:48] Now, we’re not sure who made this or where it was made. Some scholars have suggested Constantinople, others have suggested Syria.

Dr. Ross: [1:56] This is a strange story. What we see is that Jacob wakes up and he leads his family across the river. We see Jacob in brown with a red tunic, and he’s leading servants and his wives. His wives are on donkeys. Then his sons are behind, and they are crossing a river and we see a bridge.

[2:17] After they cross the river, Jacob becomes separated from his family and he meets a man and he wrestles with the man. He wants the man, or is often interpreted to be an angel, to bless him. The angel blesses him, and then the family goes on their way.

[2:33] One thing that happened as a result of this story is that the Old Testament patriarch, Jacob, is no longer called Jacob, but he’s called Israel. That’s seen as being an important transformation in Jacob’s life.

Dr. Zucker: [2:46] It’s a pretty simple story to convey in terms of the basic narrative, but it’s a more complex story if one thinks about trying to convey the transformative aspect. We see a classical relief that has been bent in the middle.

[3:00] I can almost imagine if that bridge was straightened out, and this whole thing was unfurled, that this would make a perfect frieze that could have been carved in stone. That classical tradition calls itself out to me.

Dr. Ross: [3:10] I see the artist trying to find a way to stretch this very linear narrative and make it fit the space of the book. Even though there is a sense that the figures on top are further away and the figures in the bottom are closer to us, there is no differentiation in terms of size.

[3:28] We have some interesting anecdotal details. We see one servant or a son looking off the bridge and looking at the water running down below as you can imagine people doing when crossing a bridge. We see one of the wives turned around. We see the form of her body underneath her drapery, which recalls more classical forms than the early Byzantine scene that we’re looking at.

Dr. Zucker: [3:50] We see clear references to the classical even in the architecture of the bridge. Notice that the bridge includes a colonnade, and we can imagine classical columns. There are Roman arches that the water courses through underneath.

[4:03] I love the playfulness and the malleability of the bridge, the way in which the artist has been able to warp it around so that we’re seeing both its front side and the opposite side on the lower right.

Dr. Ross: [4:13] In a way, it’s very typical of early Christian, early Byzantine, or late antique art; we can see that the sense of perspective is quite skewed. If we look at the columns on the farther end of the bridge, they’re taller and bigger than the columns that are nearer to us, which is the opposite of linear perspective or rational perspective.

[4:32] That mixing up of space in a very intentional way is typical of this time. We have these classical elements and these more realistic elements, and they are at odds or there’s a tension with the more Byzantine elements or medieval elements.

Dr. Zucker: [4:46] Here’s a moment where the physicality of the figures, the sense that we really can understand their bodies below the cloth, comes into play. These are two bodies that are going at each other. Although it may have a spiritual aspect to it, their physicality comes into play.

Dr. Ross: [5:01] One of the details of the story is that the angel touches Jacob’s hip joint, and we see that happening. It puts Jacob’s hip out of joint, and he hobbles away. That’s a part of the story, and so we can see that pinnacle moment happening.

[5:32] Although it’s unclear exactly who was reading this book, what I can imagine is an individual from a royal household sitting down to read perhaps in the evening, and the silver letters would be reflecting a shimmery, almost mystical candlelight.

[5:32] As they’re reading, they’re using the illustrations to contemplate and to bring this particular story to life.

[5:40] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Nancy Ross and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The Story of Jacob from the Vienna Genesis," in Smarthistory, December 15, 2015, accessed April 22, 2024,