One of the most precious late classical illuminated manuscripts is a herbal produced in Constantinople during the 6th century, which, after its current place of conservation, is called the "Vienna Dioscorides". This codex describes numerous officinal herbs, most of which are illustrated in full-page miniatures covering a whole page.
Like the fascinating images of human beings and animals contained in the book, they bear testimony to the great art of book painting at the time of the Byzantine Empire. In the line of text tradition – the herbal of the Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides (1st century) including insertions from writings of other authors and a number of significant appendices – the Vienna Dioscorides has provided a virtually inexhaustible source for the history of classical sciences and early Byzantine culture.
The codex had an enormous influence for several centuries and became the ancestor of numerous herbals and officinal herb manuals of the Middle Ages, down to the beginning of the modern age. It bears the traces of continuous use by Greek, Latin, Turkish, Oriental and Jewish physicians, thus proving an ongoing esteem for classical pharmacology.
With the increasing interest for the effects of medicinal herbs in modern times, the Vienna Dioscorides is gaining ever-wider recognition, and was awarded the status of a world's cultural heritage by UNESCO in 1998.
Testimony to Byzantine book painting
The dedication picture introducing the manuscript allows it to be dated to around 512 and located in a workshop in Constantinople. It shows the Byzantine princess Juliana Anikia, endower of a church in the quarter of Honoratae; she is being presented the precious codex as a gift from the citizens of Constantinople.
Invaluable source for the sciences, book illumination, and philology
The manuscript consists largely of a copy of the herbal by the physician and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides, arranged in alphabetical order. It describes 383 medicinal herbs in Greek majuscule, a script often referred to by researchers as Bible majuscule. We also find transcriptions in a later minuscule as the old majuscule script became increasingly difficult to read.
In a highly sophisticated didactic approach, the descriptive text is accompanied with pictorial representations of the plants. Most of these illustrations cover a whole page and are executed in opaque colour painting.
Together with 66 images of poisonous animals and 47 illustrations of birds they represent excellent copies of late Hellenistic-Roman models, and are priceless not least because the antique originals have been lost.
The herbal covers the main part of the book and is followed by several appendices, among them an anonymous poem on the effects of plants dedicated to the Gods (carmen de viribus herbarum) and four paraphrases on classical scientific works.
The paraphrase of Eutecnios on the "Theriaca" of Nicander of Colophon containing illustrations of plants and wild animals (snakes, scorpions, spiders), the paraphrase of the same author on the "Alexipharmaca" of Nicandros, an anonymous paraphrase on the "Halieutica" of Oppianos and an anonymous paraphrase on the "Ornithiaca" of Dionysos of Philadelphia including numerous depiction's of birds, which have proved important in the history of zoological illustration. The book concludes with some small fragments of a Menaion, a liturgical service manuscript including the lives of saints, which goes beyond the scope of its contents.
A manuscript unique in its kind
The great esteem for and frequent use of the manuscript over the centuries is clearly visible from the numerous inscriptions and glosses in the margins added by later hands in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish and Arabic.
This collective manuscript not only referred to the most diverse sources but also provided a résumé of all relevant findings of Greek research in the field of pharmacy and applied botany. The Vienna Dioscorides therefore remains an all-encompassing reference work for specialists in medicine and pharmacology.
We have 2 facsimiles of the manuscript "Vienna Dioscorides":
- Dioscurides. Codex Vindobonensis Med. Gr. 1 facsimile edition published by Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt (ADEVA), 1970
- Pedacio Dioscorides Anazarbeo, De Materia Medica facsimile edition published by Edilan, 1978