The manuscript fragment known as the Oxford Bible Pictures comprises thirty-one leaves (all now trimmed and properly termed cuttings) with thirty-four full-page miniatures originally part of a picture cycle that preceded a Christian book of psalms designed as a private prayer book. The manuscript was created in Oxford around 1250. Remarkable for the extent and narrative inventiveness of its forty-one scenes principally illustrating the lives of the ancient Israelites, the cycle of miniatures is the work of the prolific scribe and painter William de Brailes working with assistants.
The Bible pictures are currently divided between the Walters Art Museum (this subset confusingly sometimes referred to as the Oxford Bible Pictures) and the Musée Marmottan Monet, the two portions probably having been separated around 1900. They almost certainly once were a part of a psalter now in Stockholm (National Museum, MS B.2010).
An Extensive Picture Cycle
The thirty-four surviving miniatures are a small portion of the original cycle, which probably numbered nearly 100 paintings on ninety-two leaves. Most of the miniatures are captioned in French, and the text presented on scrolls within the images is in Latin. The use of the vernacular language for the captions and the manuscript's small proportions create an intimate experience for the reader's private devotion.
Bible Stories Alive in Pictures
Most of the surviving paintings of the Oxford Bible Pictures depict episodes described in the Biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Ruth, and First Samuel (I Kings). Highly burnished and often tooled gold backgrounds and an earthy palette of rich oranges, blues, and browns create a luxurious warmth.
Among the scenes are some that are rarely found in medieval art, such as the Stoning of Achan (Baltimore, fol. 19r). The Bible relates that Achan, his family, and his sheep were stoned and then burned as punishment for Achan's having stolen precious metal vessels in the siege of Jericho. In the miniature, a group of people, arms flailing, cast stones on the bleeding Achan and dozens of family members. We are told that the slaughter of Achan and his relatives pleased the Lord, which led to the Israelites' successful capture of Ai (pictured immediately below in the miniature).
William de Brailes, Master Illuminator
William de Brailes's distinctive style features long faces with aquiline noses and small upper lips and a flair for individual expression. He extended his compositions into the margins and across pages. Among the paintings in the Oxford Bible Pictures, for example, Lot and his family are almost entirely outside the frame of the miniature depicting their flight from Sodom (Baltimore, fol. 4r). The image of the ancient Israelites crossing the Red Sea on their flight from Egypt has Moses's rod extending across two miniatures (Baltimore, fols. 11v and 10r).
Dismembered in the Early Modern Period
The earliest known owner of the psalter is Edith Corf, Prioress of the Cistercian convent of Tarrant Kaines in the fourteenth century. The prefatory picture cycle was separated from the rest of the book by the seventeenth century. Henry Walters (1848-1931) purchased twenty-four leaves of the picture cycle bound as a book from Léon Gruel in 1906 and bequeathed the codex to the Walters Art Gallery (now Walters Art Museum). Georges Wildenstein (1892-1963) owned the other seven surviving leaves, which entered the Musée Marmottan Monet in 1981.
The Baltimore leaves are bound in worn velvet with two nineteenth-century clasps. The front cover is embellished with a double-sided carved ivory panel made in Germany in the late fourteenth century. On the exterior is the Nativity of Christ, and the interior shows the Crucifixion.