Dating from the last quarter of the tenth century, the Urgell Codex is one of the finest and most complete Beatus manuscripts. With ninety detailed illustrations, it is a work reflecting a rich visual and literary tradition. It was made in the Kingdom of Léon in northern Spain and contains the text of Beatus of Liébana's commentary on the Christian biblical book of the Apocalypse, preceded by a Christological genealogy and followed by Saint Jerome's commentary on the Old Testament book of Daniel.
The Urgell Beatus emulates the style and iconography of the earlier Valladolid Codex. The poor quality of the parchment suggests it was made for monastic use, but its remarkable survival and the scope and detail of its vivid illuminations have made the book a glorious treasure of Spanish medieval art.
Distinctive Illuminations from an Unknown Artist
Like many tenth-century Beatus codices, the Urgell manuscript's ninety images include portraits within a genealogy of Old Testament figures ending with Christ, a two-page mappa mundi, and detailed depictions of narrative events from the Bible. It is thought that all the drawing and painting is the work of one illuminator.
The paintings are brightly colored in a palette dominated by orange, pale yellow, purple, and terracotta. Many scenes are in framed miniatures with backgrounds of horizontal bands of bold color, including red, yellow, green, and blue.
This manuscript has a distinctive figural style featuring disproportionately small, square heads with large almond-shaped eyes and stylized wings often placed atop thin lines attaching them to the body. Clothing is reduced to areas of repeated patterns.
Apocalyptic Visions from the Old and New Testaments
The coupling of the Apocalypse with a commentary on the Old Testament book of Daniel effectively positions the Apocalypse of Saint John the Divine within the Jewish apocalyptic tradition.
The text is written in the characteristic Visigothic Minuscule used in the Iberian Peninsula for centuries. The illustrations feature inscriptions in display script employing many Visigothic letterforms. Headings are in colored inks in angular display script.
The Theft and Return of a Priceless Masterpiece
By 1147 the Urgell Codex was housed in the cathedral of the Virgin Mary at Urgell. In 1996, a group of thieves staged a daring heist of the manuscript as the cathedral museum was being opened. The manuscript was found intact some months later and was returned to Urgell.
For more information on the Beatus model, read our blog article by Amy R. Miller (PhD, Medieval Art History, University of Toronto).