PROVO As millions of Christian parents around the world open the Bible on Christmas Eve to share the story of Jesus' birth with their children, they'll be following in the footsteps of at least one French queen, who is said to have commissioned creation of an illustrated Bible to teach her son the meaning of scripture in the 13th century.
As might be expected, the result was a large and lavishly illustrated three-volume set that incorporated so much hand-painting and gold leaf that its creators could only do their work on one side of the animal-skin parchment that was used as paper for each page. Now, a facsimile of the Bible of St. Louis is on display at Brigham Young University, which recently acquired copies of the hefty texts from a Spanish publishing house specializing in historic reproductions.
Visitors to the university's Special Collections section of the Harold B. Lee Library will see illustrated medallions picturing the Nativity within the Moralized Bible of St. Louis' New Testament volume, now on display as part of an exhibit, "For Thou Hast Found Favor With God," which includes other early textual illustrations of the story of Christ's birth. The display runs through December, though library hours vary during the holiday season.
Jesse Hurlbut, associate professor of French medieval literature and culture, said BYU's facsimile of what has been dubbed the "moralized Bible" was acquired after he approached the dean of his own college and then talked with other schools on campus about the benefit to students, faculty and researchers seeking to better understand how 13th century monks understood the biblical canon.
At the time, church leaders and royalty were the only people with ready access to the Bible, as the printing press had yet to be invented and clergy believed they alone were to be the interpreters of scripture. As such, their views influenced not only daily life for commoners but also created the mental images from which painters, sculptors, cathedral builders and other artisans fashioned both the European cathedrals and the religious art that filled them.
"Art historians study these Bibles extensively," he said, pointing to the details of individual medallions on the book's pages that show in vivid and colorful detail the 13th century understanding of heaven, hell, angels and devils, as well as well-known figures from Bible stories, including Moses, Abraham and Isaac, Daniel and Jesus Christ.
Hurlbut said the original Bible of St. Louis was produced in 1230 A.D. as a teaching tool for a young prince, who later became King Louis IX of France. His mother, Queen Blanche, is believed to have commissioned its creation as a way to instruct the prince not only about the episodes chronicled in the Bible, but also about their interpretation by the clergy who produced the illustrated volumes.
Each page contains eight scenes or "medallions," four of which illustrate a verse from the Vulgate (or Latin) Bible. Under each scene illustrating a Bible verse, the following medallion illustrates an allegorical interpretation, or "translation," of the preceding verse that the Christian monks and artisans drew from the meaning of the scriptural text, Hurlbut said.
For example, the medallion that illustrates Abraham making a sacrifice of Isaac is followed by another medallion that describes how Abraham represents God and Isaac represents Christ, who was to become a sacrifice for sin. The descriptions are in Latin, as are those in the original text, though selected pages in the original Bible's New Testament include French translations, Hurlbut said.
Neither the original nor the facsimiles contain the entire text of the Bible, he said, but include only key episodes and their accompanying moral lessons. In fact, the New Testament Gospels have been compressed into one complete story of Christ's birth, ministry and death.
While considered among the most treasured possessions of the royal family, it also was used "to instruct the king how to be a good king, similar to the stories and images depicted inside the churches of the time. King Louis (eventually) had his royal chapel in Paris, and the images inside look a lot like this Bible and the images" it uses to teach about scripture, he said.
As an example, the story of King Arthur is believed to have derived from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, and the St. Louis Bible "tells us how people in the 13th century understood the Book of Daniel."
Many of the lessons it taught "were not necessarily directed toward the king, but to the monks that would have been producing this Bible," Hurlbut said. "I think they're very general messages to the king," rather than pointed political statements expressing veiled grievances of that time. "Something like 'a good king does good things and a bad king goes to hell."'
It also illustrates how meanings and symbolism have changed within Christianity over time, he said. For example, one medallion showing how God created fish and birds is interpreted with another medallion explaining how birds represent Christians who are free to move about and do good for God's kingdom, while fish are symbolic of non-Christians who are earthbound and limited to the materiality of this world.
Hurlbut noted that today's widely known Christian symbol of the fish "had probably disappeared by this point in time" when the St. Louis Bible was produced but resurfaced in later centuries and is still in use today.
All three volumes of the original Bible one of seven known original versions of the lavishly illustrated "moralized Bibles" produced from the 13th to the 15th centuries were given as a gift to Alfonso of Aragon and have remained in the Cathedral Library in Toledo, Spain, since that time. At some point in the 14th century, the end of the Book of Revelation was detached and ultimately ended up in the Pierpont-Morgan Library in New York City, Hurlbut said.
"Somewhere along the way, the pages were trimmed to fit a smaller binding. Reproductions of these pages are included in the facsimile and are even trimmed to match the current state of the (original) pages."
In all, the three volumes contain some 5,000 medallions, outlining and explaining key episodes from biblical passages in the Old and New Testaments.
"In this Bible, one can find representations of the world view of the first half of the 13th century: men, social groups, their vices and virtues, apparel, customs, beliefs, games and ideals," says a prospectus from Moleiro, the Barcelona-based publisher. "Life in the Middle Ages is revealed through the images presented in this Bible."For more information, see www.moleiro.com and search for "The Bible of St. Louis."