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'If I make it true and God grants me life Never will you see another such book'
The artist's opening prayer has been triumphantly realised: he has brought popular scenes from the Bible to life in a manner that had never been achieved before nor has been since. Dramatic composition, delicate colouring and a humorous personal touch combine to make this a unique vision of the Bible and of the medieval age which produced it.
From the number of pictures to the very reason the book was made, this manuscript is one of a kind. Its choice of language, stories and provenance are a puzzle, which scholars have pondered over for decades, even as they admire the skill and devotion which produced it. Unlike many illuminated manuscripts, the pictures form the entire bulk of the book – either full-page or two set one over the other. Words illustrate the pictures, not the other way round – and these scenes are magnificently drawn.
The Holkham Bible abounds with details from the medieval world - from new developments in technology (a jointed visor, ships depicted with innovatory rudders and bow-sprits) to familiar London landmarks in the Middle Ages. The centre of medieval manuscript production was Paternoster Row, beneath the spire of St Paul's (the medieval cathedral spire was taller than Wren's dome), and this is depicted by the artist when the devil tempts Christ to throw himself from the temple. Immediately afterwards Satan takes Christ to a high place, which seems to be the earliest depiction of Hampstead Heath with its newly acquired windmill. The entire book hums with the hubbub of city life, but underneath this delight in bustle runs a sincere dion that reminds the viewer of the enormous appetite for and popularity of sermons, miracle plays and religious frescoes among medieval audiences.
Instead of gilding in silver and gold, the artist has chosen to use a form of tinted wash which was popular in earlier manuscripts, but had almost disappeared in favour of heavier ornamentation. The subtlety and naturalistic poses are more reminiscent of the developments in fresco painting which were sweeping Italy than of the stylised figures of medieval illumination. The depiction of drapery, textiles and clothing throughout the manuscript is exceptionally well realised, and there are unusual diamond-patterned backgrounds (known as diaperwork) with figurative flowers and oak-leaves painted in red. In her Commentary, Professor Michelle P. Brown raises some fascinating suggestions, noting similarities to the needlepoint opus anglicarum for which London was famous.
A unique insight into the medieval mind; combining piety with bawdy humour
The artist uses time-lapsed compositions to enhance the dramatic nature of his story – rather as a film storyboard might do. He frequently conflates events into a single image for dramatic impact and to provide a wealth of naturalistic detail. Hence in the depiction of the Creator, overleaf, elements of the third, fifth and sixth days of the creation are presented as it were simultaneously, producing a sumptuous array of birds, beasts and bushes. Words have clearly been added after the painting was finished - the reverse of the normal method of manuscript production. Instead of classical Latin, the captions are written in Anglo-Norman, with a strong 'franglais' flavour, since English words and phrases occasionally slip in. This provides Michelle Brown with clues to unravel the secret of the book's making in her Commentary.
The artist seems to bring a strongly individual approach to which scenes he chooses to paint. Rather than following any known existing model, he combined a mixture of sources: Scripture, entertaining details from the mystery plays, episodes from an Anglo-Norman account of Christ's childhood, and Petrus Comestor's influential twelfth-century Historia Scholastica. This mixture gives us such appealing scenes as Christ playing on sunbeams as a child and God telling Noah to hurry up with the Ark so that he is forced to finish the top section in wicker rather than wood. There are moments, almost Chaucerian in their bawdy comedy, designed to appeal to a less than 'aristocratic' audience - Jesus tricks his master by doing all his work with a miracle and Herod peeps down Salome's skirt as she stands on her hands, her dance turned into a tumbling acrobatic display.
At The Folio Society we have always commissioned experts to write the commentaries to our very special Limited Editions. Professor Michelle P. Brown combines a depth of knowledge with insights which have led to exciting new theories, making her Commentary a thrilling read in itself, providing not only a full transcript and translation with illuminating notes on the pictures, but also containing fascinating speculation on the artist's likely identity, the date the book was made and its purpose-all based on her unrivalled knowledge of the period and the inspired insights she has gained from clues in the images themselves.
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Review by AliceF10 on 27th Sep 2012
"This is/was the second of the Folio Societys limited editions I purchased. I already have a number of bibles and this was a 'must' being so beautifully reproduced. Many of my friends have also enjoyed..." [read more]