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21.02.08 Panuskov√° (ed.), The Velislav Bible

The Medieval Review

21.02.08 Panuskov√° (ed.), The Velislav Bible


For those who have long been fascinated by the remarkable mid-fourteenth-century picture book known as the Velislav Bible, the volume edited by Lenka Panušková has been eagerly awaited; for medievalists not acquainted with this fascinating manuscript, this volume will serve as a welcome introduction. Eight chapters authored by six scholars follow a brief Preface. Anna

Kernbach joins the volume’s editor to write the first two chapters, which together serve as an introduction. Chapter 1 briefly surveys the surprisingly scant previous scholarship on the Velislav Bible, nearly all in either Czech or German and much of it concerned with two related issues: the manuscript’s date and the identity of Velislav (Czech = Welko), who is depicted on folio 188v kneeling before Saint Catharine and holding a scroll inscribed "Sancta Katerina, exaudire famulcum tuum Vellizlaum."

Chapter 2 then summarizes the manuscript’s contents, which consist of ten parts of greatly uneven length: illustrations of 1) Genesis (fols. 1r-52v), 2) Exodus (fols. 52r-88v), 3) Daniel (fols. 89r-108r), 4) stories of Samson and Judith (fols. 108v-129v), 5) the life of Antichrist (fols. 130v-135v), 6) the life of Christ (fols. 136r-149r), 7) various devotional and hagiographic scenes (fols. 150r-152v), 8) the Apocalypse (fols. 153v-168v), 9) the lives of Peter and Paul (fols. 169r-179v), and 10) the legend of St. Wenceslas (fols. 180r-188r). Unfortunately, a quire originally placed between the lives of Antichrist and Christ has been lost, so the conclusion of Antichrist’s parodic inversion of Christ’s life, including the preaching of Enoch and Elijah and Antichrist’s death, is not depicted. Christ’s early life is similarly lost, beginning only at the Transfiguration. Particularly valuable is the demonstration that the Christological scenes and texts have been selected to parallel gospel pericopes ordered "by the liturgical year from the second Sunday in Lent to the second Sunday after Easter" (48). This correspondence is neatly summarized by an appendix (66-67). The chapter concludes by returning to issues of dating and patronage, arguing that the codex may be from the Vyšehrad Chapter School in Prague and Velislav may be the notary who was appointed a canon at Vyšenhrad in 1334.

The next two chapters focus on the manuscript as a picture Bible. In chapter 3, "The Velislav Bible in the Context of Late Medieval Biblical Retellings and Mnemonic Aids," Lucie Doležalová surveys selected source texts, the treatment of the Vulgate, and a few comparable manuscripts, including the much earlier Pamplona Bibles--which in 1970 François Bucher had compared to Velislav--and fourteenth-century typological works such as the Biblia pauperum and Speculum humanae salvationis. The author concludes, however, that the connection with Pamplona is vague and although the selection of illustrations in Velislav suggests possible typological links, typology is not its organizing principle. She therefore agrees with "the general consensus...that a careful design in the creation of the book is lacking" (73). The chapter’s subtitle suggests Velislav’s use as a mnemonic aid, but although "it provides memory triggers" (86), Doležalová does not think it would be an effective memory aid. Her argument would have been greatly strengthened by a careful reading of Mary Carruthers, whose substantial scholarship is astonishingly not cited.

Panušková’s chapter 4, "The Books of Genesis and Exodus in the Picture Bibles: Looking for an Audience," is the volume’s longest. It provides a breathtakingly expansive survey of the representation of the first two biblical books in art, ranging from the early Christian Cotton Genesis and Ashburnham Pentateuch to the fourteenth-century Egerton Genesis and Padua Bible (ca. 1400). References abound, including the Old English Hexateuch, prefatory cycles of several psalters, illustrated Haggadot, the mosaics of San Marco, Monreale, and Palermo, and even the paintings of Dura Europos and the catacombs. Not surprisingly, the resulting iconographic analysis is somewhat superficial, but it supports the conclusion that in comparison with earlier cycles, "the Velislav Bible follows biblical events almost literally" (100). The more detailed comparison of Velislav’s narratives with those of the Queen Mary Psalter are insightful and leads Panušková to suggest that the primary artist of Velislav was "strongly influenced by contemporaneous Anglo-Norman miniature painting in the first half of the fourteenth century" (92). The chapter’s examination of the Exodus scenes is focused on the early life of Moses, which includes a delightful depiction of his vision of Christ in the burning bush (fol. 57r). The author concludes that the codex was designed "to educate future clerics and preachers" (139), thus concluding the search for an audience promised by the chapter’s subtitle.

A significant feature of the Velislav Bible--which first drew me to it fifty years ago--is its life of Antichrist, to which the volume devotes two chapters. In chapter 5 Pavlína Cermanová summarizes the textual sources of the Antichrist legend, providing useful background on the Bohemian manuscripts of Adso of Montier-en-Der’s tenth-century De ortu et tempore Antichristi, which influenced most subsequent representations of Antichristin art, drama, poetry, sermons, and didactic treatises. She also helpfully discusses Peter Comestor’s twelfth-century Historia scholastica, instrumental in synthesizing the Gog and Magog legend;and Hugh Ripelin of Strasbourg’s thirteenth-century Compendium theologiae veritatis, a handbook very popular in medieval Bohemia whose book 7 is not only the most important influence on the Velislav Antichrist--which often quotes the Compendium verbatim--but also on the German fifteenth-century block-book lives of Antichrist. Cermanová also briefly draws attention to Antichrist’s representation in Velislav’s Apocalypse miniatures, not only, as expected, in the interpretation of Enoch and Elijah as the Two Witnesses of Revelation 11 (fol. 162r), but also by placing Antichrist’s blasphemous "Ego sum Christus" (Matt. 24:5) in the mouth of the Sea Beast of Revelation 13 (fol. 164r). She does not note how features of the Antichrist tradition infiltrate other parts of the manuscript, however, including the representation of Elijah and Enoch in the Earthly Paradise (fol. 5r), the reference to the fierce king of Daniel as Antichrist (fol. 104v), and Peter’s debate with Antichrist’s most powerful forerunner, Simon Magus (fols. 171v, 174v-175v). This is a useful chapter that will be particularly valuable for readers unfamiliar with this rich apocalyptic tradition.

In the following chapter 6 Kateřina Horníčková then works systematically through the major elements of the Antichrist pictorial cycle, rightly noting its "imaginative didactic use of the visual medium" (188). Her comparison of Velislav with contemporary Antichrist imagery in the windows of the Marienkirche in Frankfurt is helpful. She seems unaware, however, of standard earlier and also more recent scholarship on Antichrist and related apocalyptic imagery, such as Nathaniel Campbell’s excellent 2015 study of the Hortus deliciarum (Gesta 54). More disturbing are her misleading generalizations about other manuscript traditions, such as the important mid-thirteenth-century Anglo-French picture-book Apocalypses. Apparently unacquainted with the much larger contemporary Antichrist cycle in the Jour du Jugement (Besançon, MS 579), Horníčková tends to exaggerate the originality of the Velislav cycle. Her analysis of its depiction of Antichrist burning books is quite insightful, though, and supports her conclusion that the cycle’s depiction of "theologians and philosophers as the last bastion of the resistance against Antichrist" (189) is particularly appropriate for students training to be clerics and scholars.

Chapter 7 develops references to the volume’s earlier essays and thereby serves as a conclusion. Its author, Milena Bartlová, searches for the manuscript’s "practical function," asking what "was the purpose of those images in the Velislav Bible? What message do they convey? What did they teach, and to whom?" (195-96). Although comparing Velislav to comic books as well as the Bayeux Tapestry is superficial at best, Bartlová does raise worthwhile questions about the manuscript’s narrative and gestural strategies. Given the lack of a systematic commentary, I cannot agree that Velislav "comprises a theological interpretation of the Bible" (196), and it is certainly not the case that "even the life of the Antichrist may be seen as a sui generis Old Testament parallel to the Gospels" (196). The life of Antichrist is expected to parody events from the life of Christ in the Last Days and is based primarily on passages drawn from the New not the Old Testament. Bartlová’s view that the codex served "as a handbook for the preparation of sermons" (198) is more convincing. The chapter concludes with a brief stylistic discussion of the manuscript’s imagery, comparing it to other mid-fourteenth-century Bohemian art, illustrations of which are regrettably not included. The absence of a more robust discussion of the style and aesthetic qualities of the Velislav Bible is one of the volume’s two missed opportunities. The other is its failure to study the manuscript’s rich Apocalypse imagery.

The volume’s most valuable contribution is chapter 8, by Kernbach, who provides a critical edition of the numerous contemporaneous Latin captions and explanatory texts written by five scribes that accompany the manuscript’s 747 illustrations, as well as of the brief Latin and Czech glosses dating to the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century and of the few seventeenth-century German inscriptions. My selective checking of the transcriptions against images from the manuscript gives me confidence in Kernbach’s edition. This final chapter is then followed by a useful bibliography listing manuscripts, primary sources, and secondary scholarship, as well as a brief index that, regrettably, is woefully incomplete.

The volume is enhanced by fifty-eight illustrations, mostly drawn from the Velislav Bible, but also including some from contemporary art. In general the images are sharp and large enough to "read," although the captions are often unhelpful, inexplicably identifying only one of the two scenes depicted on each folio and rarely giving details. It is also peculiar that various chapters do not cite either earlier or later illustrations and that some illustrations are repeated, whereas many other relevant miniatures and comparative images are not included. Particularly frustrating are some very small images that are almost worthless and certainly cannot contribute to the comparative argument they are intended to support. One hates to criticize Amsterdam University Press, since it has been quite generous in including so many images in color, but what is the point of juxtaposing two tiny miniatures from the manuscript or cramming two images from the Frankfurt Antichrist windows next to each other at the top of pages if their iconography can barely be discerned even with a magnifying glass?

Although the English of some of the authors is occasionally stilted and ungrammatical, the essays are clear. More problematic are the book’s numerous errors, which range from typographical slips, wrong citations of folios and shelfmarks, and mistaken names of scholars, to more serious blunders that should have been caught by an editorial proofreader, such as the statement that "the manuscript originally comprised around 800 leaves" (15), when it is missing 12 of its original 200 folios. Although disconcerting, these glitches may be excused given the volume’s overall contribution to our knowledge of an important manuscript that deserves to be much more widely known. I’m delighted to have this book and recommend it to all interested in medieval manuscript illustration, apocalyptic and biblical studies, and didactic and homiletic practices.