In 582 the monastery of Montecassino, founded by St. Benedict a generation earlier, was attacked by the Lombards, causing the monks to leave the monastery and flee to Rome for protection. In the late ninth century, Saracen raiders once again scattered the community of Montecassino. As peace returned in the late tenth century, monastic life was slowly restored. Over the next century and a half, capable abbots acquired the lands and the reputation of religious leadership.
This restoration culminated during the abbacy of Desiderius II (1058-85), who rebuilt the abbey basilica on Montecassino’s highest point. In 1071, Pope Alexander II consecrated the great church.
The Codex Benedictus Celebrates the Life of St. Benedict
During the celebrations, Desiderius dedicated to St. Benedict a lavishly illustrated lectionary for Vigils, probably created for the occasion. The manuscript opens with an illustration of Desiderius presenting St. Benedict with the book.
The splendid new abbey churches appear in the background, and Montecassino’s possessions extend over a landscape at the feet of the two abbots.
This book, now in the Vatican Library with the shelfmark Vat. Lat. 1202, contains illustrated lives of Sts. Benedict and Maurus along with material on Benedict’s sister, St. Scholastica.
A text loved by Desiderius, the Life of St. Benedict written by Pope Gregory I, represents the core of this codex.
The Illuminations Explore Eleventh-century Monastic Matters
68 miniatures embellish the large codex. The scenes suggest Desiderius’ desire of pursuing a pure monastic life following the Rule and the example of St. Benedict. The illustrations mark each vigils lesson.
The miniatures appear in varied layouts: the scenes are organized in single panels or several miniatures are juxtaposed to occupy an entire page. The layouts of the illustrations are meant to emphasize certain themes in Benedict’s Life.
As scholars have pointed out, new political matters and the changing spirituality of the age of Desiderius are reflected in the illustrations.
The second half of the eleventh century was a period in which debates over the relationship between lay and ecclesiastical power intensified, as well as issues of ecclesiastical hierarchy and right succession in the Church.
Associated with these issues, Desiderius’ concerns for monastic chastity found expression in the illustrations along with the institution of oblates, a source of income and a way of connection with the noble families.
We have 2 facsimiles of the manuscript "Codex Benedictus":
- Codex Benedictus (Pope Edition) facsimile edition published by Belser Verlag
- Codex Benedictus (Standard edition) facsimile edition published by Belser Verlag, 1981