The stunning Bible Moralisée, likely made in a lay Parisian workshop in the 1220s, is one of the most original inventions of Gothic art. Held in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek of Vienna under the shelfmark Codex Vindobonensis 2554, and commonly referred to as Vienna 2554, this volume belongs to the distinct genre of Bibles that contain a cycle of biblical illustrations paired with interpretative and moralizing images. Only four Moralized Bibles from the thirteenth century survive, all made for members of the Capetian family, and each among the most expensive books created within medieval Europe; of these four, Vienna 2554 might be the earliest.
Presently made up of one hundred and thirty folios each richly illuminated on a single side with masterly drafted narrative scenes, liberal use of highly burnished gold leaf, and finely detailed colored grounds, this is a luxury object surely commissioned by one of the most powerful individuals of the thirteenth century. The extant paintings are in excellent condition, but some missing folios and an abrupt end to the narrative cycle indicate that Vienna 2554 was once a more extensive manuscript.
Vienna 2554 begins at the book of Genesis and ends at 4 Kings 8. Each Biblical narrative is interpreted according to its moral application to contemporary life, and each illustrated scene is captioned in Old French. It is clear that Vienna 2554 was made for moral rather than intellectual education. At this time the production of deluxe manuscripts was moving out of monasteries into lay workshops, and this book was most likely created by teams of scribes and artists brought together for that purpose in Paris.
A Supreme Achievement of Gothic Art
Like other Bibles Moralisées, Vienna 2554 is essentially a picture book. Its most famous image is the full-page frontispiece of God the Creator using a compass to design a circular universe out of chaos. Otherwise, every illustrated page is made up of four pairs of superimposed medallions arranged into two columns, for a stunning total of 1032 medallions. Every pair of medallions consists of an illustration of a Biblical scene above and its moralizing interpretation below, and two narrow columns of explicative text on the extreme left and right of the page clarify the nearest illustrated scene.
With their complex drapery with looped folds and dynamically swaying figures, the illuminations are representative of the classicizing and courtly ‘Year 1200,’ and are evocative of contemporary enamel and stained glass. The palette is varied and luminous, but of a paler tonality than other Parisian manuscripts of this period. Yet the most common color is gold: it coats the background of every medallion, borders the frames and the panels of texts, enriches details of the background field and within narrative scenes.
Each page is painted on just one side, so that in the bound manuscript illuminated openings alternate with facing pages of bare parchment. Several illuminators were involved in the painting, but the drawings were executed by a single designer, making for a strikingly complex yet consistent decoration.
Pithy Captions for a Picture Book
The writing of Vienna 2554 was of secondary importance. The scribes worked after the illuminators were done, and the text of the captions often overlies the painted borders that had been assigned it. The text is written in an irregular Gothic bookhand of varied formality, with enlarged red and blue flourished initials opening each caption. Corrections and changes to layouts of texts throughout the manuscript show how scribes problem-solved, experimented, and learned as they worked quire-by-quire, from beginning to end, to create a visually harmonious if calligraphically imperfect book.
An Unknown Journey
While the early history of Vienna 2554 is unknown, it may have been commissioned for her own use by Blanche of Castille, wife of Louis VIII, mother of Louis IX, and regent of France between 1226 and 1234. The earliest indication of the provenance of the manuscript is a hastily scrawled note in a sixteenth-century hand naming an Abbé de Mercy, probably from the Mercy de Luxembourg family. Later in the 16th century, a sheet of parchment bearing the coats of arms of de Mercy and Luxembourg were added. Vienna 2554 came to the Imperial Library in Vienna in 1783 from the dissolved convent at Hall in Tirol; how it arrived in Austria in the first place remains unclear.
We have 3 facsimiles of the manuscript "Vienna Bible Moralisée in French":
- Bibbia Moralizzata 2554 (Library Edition) facsimile edition published by Imago, 2020
- Bibbia Moralizzata 2554 facsimile edition published by Imago, 2020
- Bible Moralisée facsimile edition published by Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt (ADEVA), 1973