Dating to the late tenth century, the Urgell Beatus is one of the finest and most complete Beatus manuscripts. With ninety detailed illustrations in the Romanesque Mozarabic style, it is a work rich in visual and literary tradition. It was made in eastern Asturias in northern Spain and contains the text of Beatus’s Commentary on the Book of Apocalypse along with a preface of Christological genealogies and a commentary on the Book of Daniel. The text is Latin with rubrication throughout the single column of text. Playful display capitals are used for chapter headings.
The Urgell Beatus is one of nine illustrated tenth-century Beatus manuscripts from Spain. It emulates the style and iconography of the slightly earlier Beatus of Valcavado (Valladolid, Biblioteca de la Universidad, MS 433). 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 manuscripts, the Urgell Beatus has an extensive illustrative cycle of ninety images including portraits within mechanically drawn genealogical tables of Old Testament figures ending with Christ, a two-page Mappa Mundi, and detailed depictions of narrative events from the Bible. Unlike many of its counterparts, the illuminator of the Urgell Beatus is unknown. This manuscript has a distinctive figural style of disproportionately small, square heads with large almond eyes, clothing that is reduced to areas of repeated patterns, and stylized wings often placed atop thin lines attaching them to the body. The artist used intense, flat fields of red, yellow, green, and blue. While the overall program is indebted to an iconographic tradition established by slightly earlier works, there is a charming splendor in its deceptively naïve style.
Apocalyptic Visions from the Old and New Testaments
The Urgell Beatus contains three distinct sections: a preface containing the genealogy of Christ, Beatus of Liébana’s Commentary on the Book of Apocalypse, and a commentary on the Book of Daniel. Placing both major biblical works concerning the apocalypse into one volume is logical, especially in the years leading up to the turn of the millennium. Although the overall apocalyptic fervor during this period is likely overstated, for a monastic community coping with political instability at home and abroad, reflecting on the end times is understandable.
The Theft and Return of a Priceless Masterpiece
The exact origins of the Urgell Beatus are unknown, although it was likely made in the northern Spanish kingdom of Asturias, perhaps in the monastery of San Millán de Suso in La Rioja. By 1147 it was housed in the cathedral of Urgell. In 1996, a group of thieves staged a daring heist of the manuscript as the cathedral was being opened. The manuscript was found intact early the next year in Valencia, Spain and was returned to Urgell.