Thursday, July 15, 2010

Discovery of Earliest Extant Illuminated Christian Manuscript?

From the online edition of The Art Newspaper yesterday, Discovery of earliest illuminated manuscript.

Some excerpts:

A conservator at work on the Garima Gospels

What could be the world’s earliest illustrated Christian manuscript has been found in a remote Ethiopian monastery. The Garima Gospels were previously assumed to date from about 1100AD, but radiocarbon dating conducted in Oxford suggests they were made between 330 and 650AD.

This discovery looks set to transform our knowledge about the development of illuminated manuscripts. It also throws new light on the spread of Christianity into sub-Saharan Africa.

The Garima Gospels are preserved in an isolated monastery in the Tigray region, set among mountains at 7,000 feet.


Garima I, the first of the two volumes of the Gospels (348 pages), opens with 11 illuminated pages, including canon tables (which provide a concordance for the four Gospels). This is then followed by the text of the Gospels in Ge’ez.

Garima II is similar (322 pages), with 17 pages of illuminations. It has fine portraits of the four Evangelists. There is also an unusual depiction of the Temple of the Jews, a building with a staircase in a form otherwise unknown in Christian iconography (the architecture is possibly based on a Persian Sassanid garden pavilion for exotic animals, representing paradise). The Ge’ez is by a different scribe from that of Garima I (the texts are slightly different, as is the spelling).

The illuminations are all in the early Byzantine style, but the question is where they were painted. Mercier believes that the images of Garima I probably come from Syria or around Jerusalem (stylistically the canon tables are similar to those of the Rabbula Gospels, probably made at a Syrian monastery). Garima II has illuminations that show some affinity with those of Coptic Egypt. It is also possible that the illuminations were done by a Middle Eastern artist working in Ethiopia or an Ethiopian in a Middle Eastern studio.

Around 20 different species of birds occur in the illuminations. A preliminary analysis suggests that most are found throughout the Middle East and none are strikingly Ethiopian, but they could have been taken from a model book or another canon table. However, further analysis of the birds might help pinpoint where they were painted.

The text itself was probably copied in Ethiopia (rather than by a Ge’ez scribe in the Middle East), since it appears to have been added after the illuminations had been completed. This is particularly clear in Garima I, where the spacing in the canon tables does not fit the Ge’ez.

The covers of the Gospels are important. London binding specialist Nicholas Pickwoad, who has visited the monastery, told us that the cover of Garima I could well be contemporaneous with the contents. This would make it the world’s earliest bookbinding still attached to its text. It is a copper-gilt cover over a wooden board, which, although ornately decorated with a cross, is made in a rather crude style. There are holes, which may have originally been plugged with jewels. The silver cover of Garima II dates from the tenth to the 12th centuries.

Read the entire article at The Art Newspaper.

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