A work of singular achievement in French Romanesque art, the Saint-Sever codex is the only surviving illustrated copy of Beatus of Liébana’s Commentary on the Apocalypse to have been produced north of the Pyrenees. Written and decorated in the middle of the eleventh century for the abbey of Saint-Sever in Landes (then Gascony), France, this copiously illustrated volume includes nearly a hundred miniatures, genealogical tables enhanced with painted scenes, and simply decorated initials throughout. Conservative in content yet precocious in style, the Saint-Sever Beatus is an outstanding witness to cultural crosspollination and monastic workshop practice in Romanesque France.
Beatus of Liébana (730–800) was an Asturian monk whose breakout commentary on the Book of Revelation survives in a total of twenty-nine illuminated copies dating from the tenth to the early thirteenth centuries. This particular copy is followed by transcriptions of St. Jerome’s Commentary on Daniel and St. Ildefonsus’ treatise on the Virginity of Mary. At the end of the codex are copies of charters of particular importance to the abbey of Saint-Sever, added sometime in the eleventh century.
For more information on the Beatus model, read our blog article by Amy R. Miller (PhD, Medieval Art History, University of Toronto).
Painting Apocalyptic Anxiety
The manuscript’s decoration consists of ten double-page miniatures, thirty-six full-page miniatures, and thirty-five vignettes illustrating key events of the Apocalypse drawn from Beatus of Liébana’s commentary. There are also fourteen biblical genealogies elaborated with medallions and panels containing historical scenes or portraits, framed within arcades or decorative bands.
Such an elaborate program required a team of artists: a main designer of considerable experience (identified in an inscription as Stephanus Garsia) set down all underdrawings and painted some miniatures, and two assistants painted the rest. The collaborative nature accounts for the visual homogeneity of the illuminations.
Overall the iconography and style follow the Leonese Beatus tradition marked by vivid colors, frenetic energy, stylized compositions, and lurid details appropriate for the Apocalyptic subject. However, a sophisticated approach to pictorial space and draftsmanship is reflective of contemporary French Romanesque advancements, making the Saint-Sever Beatus an outlier among its Iberian cousins.
Collaboration in a Romanesque Scriptorium
Most of the manuscript was written by two scribes, the first working alongside the main designer and one of the assistant painters, and the second working alongside the other assistant painter. Work was divided among the teams of scribes and illuminators by bifolia, suggesting a highly collaborative production process and, perhaps, the use of an unbound Iberian model.
A small number of folios were transcribed by tertiary scribes. All the script is Caroline minuscule, although one of the tertiary scribes used some Visigothic letterforms and abbreviations.
From Monastic to National Treasure
The Saint-Sever Beatus was commissioned by Gregory of Montaner, abbot of Saint-Sever from 1028 to 1072. The book was destined for a treasured role in the abbey, as attested by the prominent position given to the church of Saint-Sever in the mappamundi and by the transcription of monastic charters into blank folios.
It is not known when or how the Beatus left Saint-Sever. At the end of the sixteenth century it was held by Mathurin Brin, a priest of the village of La Grassière, and in the early seventeenth century Guillaume Guerry gifted it to cardinal François d’Escoubleau de Sourdis.
After the cardinal’s death in 1628 the manuscript passed to his brother, Charles d’Escoubleau de Sourdis, and then into the collection of Louis-Jean Gaignat whence it was purchased in 1769 by Antoine-René de Voyer, marquis de Paulmy and d’Argenson.
In 1790 the Saint-Sever Béatus entered the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, then the royal library. At some earlier point the mappamundi had been excised and may have belonged to historian Jacob-Nicolas Moreau before being spotted in a Parisian bookstore by Armand d’Avezac in 1866.
Purchased by the geography cabinet of the Bibliothèque Nationale, the map was transferred to the manuscript cabinet where, in 1877, librarian Léopold Delisle restored the fragment to its original place in the Saint-Sever Beatus.
Images courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
We have 4 facsimiles of the manuscript "Beatus of Liébana — Saint-Sever Codex":
- Beato de Liébana, códice de Saint-Sever ("Pergamenata" Edition) facsimile edition published by Patrimonio Ediciones, 2012
- Beato de Saint-Sever facsimile edition published by Club Bibliófilo Versol, 2010
- El "Beato" de Saint-Sever facsimile edition published by Edilan, 1984
- Beato de Liébana, códice de Saint-Sever (Gold Edition) facsimile edition published by Patrimonio Ediciones, 2012