The Lambeth Apocalypse is one of the most exquisite examples of English illuminated manuscripts about St. John’s Apocalypse. With its powerful imagery, which includes 78 half-page framed miniatures, it certainly has more impact than a textual oration. Dated to 1260s, it takes its name after the Archbishop of Canterbury’s library at Lambeth Palace.
This codex written in Latin and dated 1260-7 was produced in England, where it was likely commissioned by Lady Eleanor De Quincy and it has been part of the collection of the Canterbury archiepiscopal Library since the 17th century.
The powerful imagery of the Lambeth Apocalypse
The manuscript contains the Book of Revelation and it recounts St. John’s vision, which was a popular subject in the Middle Ages as it depicted a powerful imagery of terrestrial and celestial turmoil.
Examples of the power of the Lambeth Apocalypse's forceful imagery are Satan cast into the Hellmouth (fol 36v.) or the Whore of Babylon (fol. 30r.). The former depicts Satan represented as a dragon being cast into the fire, visually striking but also very confusing as the vibrantly colored illustration is cluttered with several elements; the latter, depicting an aristocratic woman holding her cup of evils and astride a seven-headed beast, represents a warning to female readers to avoid abominations such as vanity or luxury.
In both depictions, the apocalyptic atmosphere is rendered by the use of strong colors such as red and blue; they are applied in contrast with the gold which was used quite indulgently especially for the backgrounds. It is worth noticing how a geometric backdrop depicting a frame-inside-of-a-frame pattern characterizes every setting, alternating blue or red with the ever-present gold.
The rectangular arrangement framing the miniatures and the two-column text is a compositional device frequently used in English illuminated manuscripts of hagiographic content and in other apocalypses of the 12th century: examples are St. Albans Psalter and the Winchester Bible.
An ornamental line executed in gold, red and blue ink often decorates the gold and blue initials. Fleuronné initials, also in gold, red and blue, are present in the text.
Educational and recreational use of the Lambeth Apocalypse
Around about the time this manuscript was produced, a fashion for illuminated manuscripts came to be, mainly in England. This fashion later spread to the continent too. The aim of the text seems to be educational but also entertaining. The presence of the text conveys the intention to educate the readers, guiding their comprehension of the biblical text.
The Lambeth Apocalypse contains in the main section the text of the Apocalypse with extracts from the 11th century commentary of Berengaudus. The work contains 78 miniatures which not only assist the reader as a visual aid to the understanding of the text, but also represent a statement of the social position of the owner. The Lambeth commentary copies almost every word of the Metz Apocalypse, a slightly earlier manuscript.
Intera gothica textualis quadrata media
The handwriting of the Lambeth Apocalypse is the work of possibly four different hands referred to as A, B, C, D. Hand A and C were the most experienced and were responsible of almost the entire execution. With the exception of fol. 17, all four scribes use the same type of Gothic script called Textualis or Textura, namely Intera gothica textualis quadrata media. The script is useful also for the dating of the manuscript. The line below the top line hardly occurs before 1220-1240 and the lateral narrowing of the letters points to the second half of the 13th century.
Lady Eleanor De Quincy's Lambeth Apocalypse
This 13th century English manuscript was possibly commissioned by Lady Eleanor De Quincy, Countess of Winchester, or her younger sister Margaret De Quincy.
Part of Canterbury's archiepiscopal collection since the 17th century, it is still uncertain which of the four archbishops of the period expanded the collection as to include this manuscript along many others; it was possibly one between Richard Bancroft (1604-1610), George Abbot (1611-1633), William Laud (1633-1641) and Gilbert Sheldon (1663-1641).