The Vienna Genesis is not only a sumptuous book from the early Byzantine empire, it is also among the oldest known illustrated biblical manuscripts. It is only one of two illuminated Greek Old Testament works to survive from before the period of imperially sanctioned iconoclasm in the eighth century making it an important source of information about late Antique and early Byzantine narrative art. There were originally between four and five hundred iconographic scenes, a quarter of which survive in the present manuscript. Of the original text, the Greek Septuagint, only a portion of Genesis remains.
The exact origin of the Vienna Genesis is unknown. Its similarities to the Rossano and Sinope Gospels suggest it was made in an eastern province of the Byzantine Empire. Given the luxury materials used, it was likely produced at an urban center enjoying imperial patronage. Although the manuscript is fragmentary, the preservation of the colorful, detailed images is remarkable providing key insight into the early period of book illumination.
Oldest Surviving Illustrated Biblical Manuscript
The richly colored and exquisitely detailed illuminations in the Vienna Genesis are placed in the bottom half of the page below the text they illustrate. Some are executed as continuous narrative, where the separate events of a story are presented within a single image. The style of the illustrations is transitional from the isolated scenes in scrolls to the framed compositions of medieval books. Several artists worked on the manuscript and this is seen in the various approaches taken with the pictures. Some, like the first image of the Garden of Eden, are framed in red. Others, like that of Jacob and Esau, are divided into two registers with multiple separate narrative scenes. Each is a jewel of early manuscript illustration.
Silver Script on Purple Pages
Every page of the Vienna Genesis was dyed a deep purple, although the color has since faded to brown. Purple dye was restricted to imperial use suggesting the book of the Septuagint may have been made for Justinian I or someone of high status in his court. Likewise, the Greek uncial text was written in glittering silver ink. Now it has tarnished to black. Today one must imagine the original glory of the shining script on its regal pages.
“I was transported with joy when I discovered this gem.”
A number of early Byzantine purple-paged manuscripts were brought to Italy by crusaders returning to Europe from the Levant. The Vienna Genesis may have been among them. It was in Vienna by 1664 when Archduke Leopold Wilhelm obtained the book for his extensive art collection. This book was bequeathed to his nephew, Emperor Leopold I, which, along with the rest of the archducal gallery, served as the basis for the modern national art collection of Austria.