The full name of this manuscript, the Holkham Bible Picture Book, is apt. Previously kept at Holkham Hall in Norfolk, the book tells the story of the bible predominately in pictures. The drawings are either full-page or divided into two registers, populated with a multitude of figures, Gothic in design and yet rendered in a tinted drawing style made popular during the Anglo-Saxon revival of the thirteenth century.
Made near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London between 1327 and 1340, it was executed by a lay artist with an aesthetic informed more by the myriad of narrative cycles present on contemporary textiles, frescoes, and woodcarvings than the refined iconography of the ecclesiastic arts. Indeed, the greatly abridged biblical verses in Anglo-French serve more as captions to describe events shown pictorially than a work of sacred text in their own right.
Around 200 scenes are depicted over forty-two folios. Important events, such as the Crucifixion, are given a whole page while more complex narratives might be divided into six scenes over two registers. The expressive, detailed drawings and lack of gilding suggest the book may have been devised as a pattern book illustrating key biblical events made by and for the use of lay craftsmen in London in the tumultuous years leading up the Black Death.
The Bible in Pictures
The book illustrates popular narrative excerpts from the whole of the Bible. After a (tragically worn) fanciful dedication cycle showing the layman scribe at work, who contends “Never will you see another such book” (unkes ne veyses Autretel livere), a full-page illustration shows God-as-architect creating the world with a compass, with the happy angels of heaven above and a fiery hellmouth grinning below.
Old Testament stories from Genesis follow as well as the story of David. Included also is an extensive Life of Christ cycle. The book ends with depictions of apocalypse from Revelations including a particularly inventive rendering of the thirteen signs of the Last Judgment.
An Anglo-French Bible in London
The book opens “In this book are portrayed many miracles that God has made” (in ceo livre est purtret Meyn dé miracle que deux a fet), an accurate description of what follows. Almost as an act of self-awareness, the text is relegated to that of caption rather than primacy for in this work, words are secondary.
The Gothic textualis Rotunda script lives on irregular ruled lines squeezed in here and there among the illustrations. On the word scrolls, the typical late medieval fashion for depicting speech or authorship, Gothic Precissa is used, the more formal script within the pictures conveying extra authority to the images over the words.
From the Black Death to the British Library
After a period in continental Europe, the book came into the possession of auctioneer Winstanley in the late eighteenth century. It was rebound after William Roscoe purchased it for £30 in 1819, about £2,500 today. It was then gifted to Thomas William Coke and bears his bookplate of 1837.
The British Museum acquired it in 1952 and it remains in the British Library collections today, less than two miles from its likely place of manufacture.