From the Library: Illuminations of Passion Week

By: Andrew J. Patton and Leigh Ann Hyde

Welcome to a most unusual Holy Week. While most of us shelter in place, we can find it difficult to remember the day of the week. The blur of one day into another without a change of scenery can sap our usual reflections on Easter. Since we cannot attend a service or gather with family and friends as many do, we would like to contribute to your Easter weekend by pointing out Byzantine artwork of the passion narratives in Greek New Testament manuscripts. Join us as we look at the unique ways readers of Scripture in the past signified this week in their manuscripts with images and illuminations.

Illustrations in New Testament manuscripts decorated the pages of medieval Scriptures more than any other period of these documents’ handwritten production. These ornamentations reveal how Byzantine readers valued and interacted with the text that they adorned. Most often, we find headpieces, patterned borders, decorated letters, and author portraits in New Testament manuscript illustrations. A few of the artifacts include narrative scenes that picture the events that the text describes. These kinds of images indicate that readers of Scripture valued these stories and desired to know, share, and preserve them. Let’s look at representations of the passion and resurrection narratives found in manuscripts digitized by the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM).

GA 777, NLG

Gregory Aland 777 has the most decorative miniature paintings of the Gospel stories of any manuscript digitized by CSNTM. This medieval manuscript from the 12th century at the National Library of Greece depicts many of the most memorable scenes from the final week of Jesus’s life. Note a few of the highlights from above.

  • In the painting of Jesus entering Jerusalem, he enters on a donkey while the crowds place palm branches and garments across the path. 
  • The scene of the Last Supper, interestingly for those of us more familiar with da Vinci’s Renaissance painting, places the twelve disciples seated around a round table. 
  • The manuscript also includes a portrait of Simon the Cyrene carrying Jesus’s cross to Golgotha. 

GA Lect 1807, NLG

The covers of Gregory Aland 1807 depict the crucifixion and resurrection in silver. On the front, small portraits of angels surround the crucifixion scene. Some bow, and others look downcast or even shedding tears. Their expressions reflect the horror and divine glory at the crucifixion of the Son of God. The center of the back cover shows Jesus’s resurrection. He triumphantly rises from the dead, pulling Adam and Eve from their graves, which demonstrates his victory over death. Around the resurrection scene we see portraits of Peter and Paul and the four Gospel writers. Simon, Bartholomew, Phillip, Matthias, James, and Thomas, other disciples, join them. At the bottom stand two early Christian martyrs: Saints George and Demetrios.

GA Lect 434, NLG

Lectionary 434, also in the collection of the National Library of Greece, has a particularly interesting illumination from the Passion narratives. The decorative headpieces at the beginning of each Gospel in this manuscript contain paintings of Jesus Christ. Most Greek manuscripts exclude icons or depictions of Jesus in their manuscripts, showing only the evangelist at the beginning of his Gospel. One of these headpieces includes a painted scene, showing Judas’s kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane—complete with a weapon-toting crowd in the background.

GA 784, NLG

Codex 784 contains a full-page painting of Jesus’s crucifixion that curiously someone pasted onto the blank page before the first page of Luke’s Gospel. This manuscript has many loose or missing leaves, including the beginning of Luke, so the text of the Gospel begins at verse nineteen. It is also noteworthy that Luke’s Gospel begins with an image of the crucifixion when the other three Gospels begin with the traditional portrait of the author. Among the people at the foot of the cross we find Jesus’ mother, with the words “Mother of God” written above her head, and John the apostle, labeled as “St. John the Theologian.”

GA 106, CBL

GA 106 contains marvelous headpieces to begin each book emphasized with inlaid gold so that they truly illuminate the manuscript. Each headpiece contains the familiar author portrait housed by a frame that includes a scene from that Gospel book. This illustration of the resurrection scene pictures the risen Jesus surrounded by witnesses and raising an old man from a grave. We find this picture of the risen Jesus in numerous medieval Christian pieces of art titled and the AnastasisGreek for resurrection. (For more information on the resurrection icons, see the paintings and descriptions at the Walters Art Museum)Some of these resurrection depictions show Christ raising Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, from the grave by their wrists. This detail reflects Christian teaching of the resurrection that Christ’s life allows new life offered to the human race. The risen Jesus mightily liberates those bound to death and helpless since the fall of mankind. 

GA 199, BML

This manuscript, which resides at Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, along with author portraits and a few other narrative illustrations, pictures the crucifixion and resurrection appearances. The image of the resurrection illustrates the pericope of the first appearances of Jesus to women who followed him (See Mk. 16:1–8 or Lk. 24:1–11).

Remembering Easter

The Easter events—Jesus’ death and resurrection—are the central moments in the life of Christ and the history of Christianity. Byzantine art within manuscripts generally focused on full-page portraits of the Gospel writers and decorative headpieces. As Annemarie Weyl Carr, Professor Emerita of Art History at Southern Methodist University noted, “Byzantine New Testament illumination stands out for its inventive deployment of the author portrait” (Carr, “New Testament Imagery,” in A Companion to Byzantine Illustrated Manuscripts, ed. Tsamakda, pp. 263–64). Their rare occurrence, then, indicates the significance and value of scenes from the Gospels and other decorations about the life of Christ in manuscripts. This artwork often points to theological convictions and had an affective impact on the person reading or seeing the manuscript decorations. 

As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians: “I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance; that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15.1–4 [NIV]). We hope that as you celebrate Easter or recall the Gospels’ testimony about Jesus, these Byzantine illuminations serve as a reminder of the gospel Paul received and passed on that most significant week nearly two thousand years ago.

As always, we at CSNTM extend our gratitude to you and our partnering institutions for the opportunity to digitize Greek New Testament manuscripts at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, Italy; the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland; and the National Library of Greece in Athens, Greece.

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