Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 5, 2001
John Lowden The Making of the Bibles Moralisées: The Manuscripts University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000. 360 pp.; 27 color ills.; 117 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (0271019093)

John Lowden’s ambitious new study of the most opulent and complex manuscripts produced during the High Middle Ages is a brilliant, ground-breaking work. For the reader who has been engaged in any way with moralized Bibles, a careful reading of this detailed and densely argued text will be rewarded with an array of major revisions touching almost every aspect of the existing scholarship.

Centered on issues of the production and consumption of the Bibles Moralisées, Lowden’s two separate but closely interrelated volumes adopt a dual strategy. The first undertakes a “broadly codicological” analysis of each of the seven surviving illustrated manuscripts in turn—Vienna ÖNB 2552, Vienna ÉNB 1179, Toledo Cathedral Treasury I-III, Oxford-Paris-London, London BL Add. 18719, Paris BN fr. 167, and Paris BN fr. 166. Ranging in date from the 1220s to the 1480s, each manuscript is treated as a distinctive “artifact” created to satisfy a specific commission. However, Lowden’s massive and densely detailed codicological investigation is not intended as an end in itself but as the essential foundation upon which the art historical “text-image” analyses in the second volume are based. In contrast to the broad scope of the first volume, the second is narrowly focused on a single biblical text, the Book of Ruth. Present in all seven Bibles Moralisées the brief narrative serves as an ideal paradigm upon which the author constructs a working hypothesis for the entire corpus of these huge manuscripts. In his study of the complex shifting networks of relationships between images and words, within this nexus of closely related books, Lowden makes a compelling argument that the Bibles Moralisées stand outside all recognizable norms of medieval book production.

The author’s meticulous codicological approach admirably succeeds in reconstructing a convincing history of each manuscript project from a close physical examination of the book itself. After first assessing the current condition, Lowden’s analysis then proceeds to reconstruct the process of production stage by stage in detail—the work of the designers, artists and scribes, followed by a thorough consideration of the evidence, both internal and external, for the date, provenance, and later history, including its relationship to other Bibles Moralisées. The author then asks how and why each Bible differs from what its original makers and users would have intended or seen in order to identify and explain those features of medieval bookmaking unique to each manuscript.

As a prelude to his full consideration of each manuscript, Lowden summarizes the principal revisions argued in both volumes as follows: Rejecting Reiner Haussherr chronology, the author follows Hans-Water Stork in identifying the earliest surviving moralized Bible as Vienna 2554, a picture book with accompanying caption-like texts in French, probably made at the command of Blanche of Castile for her own use in the early 1220s. Although now fragmentary and disordered, no codicological evidence was found to assume that it contained more than Genesis to Kings. Vienna 1179 was made by the same Parisian craftsmen in the mid-1220s for Louis VIII, again at the behest of Queen Blanche. This much larger project not only latinized texts from the French but added extensive new sections, evincing a new concern for the authority of the Vulgate and existing commentaries.

Contrary to the prevailing assumption that Oxford-Paris-London is a later copy of Toledo cum Morgan M.240, Lowden persuasively demonstrates that both three-volume Bibles Moralisées were produced at the same time, probably for presentation by Blanche of Castile to Louis IX and Margaret of Provence on the occasion of their marriage in 1234-35. One of the most striking of Lowden’s codicological findings is that identical underdrawings in both Bibles were pressure traced with a stylus and then independently worked up and provided with accompanying texts. Within about twenty years both had left France: Toledo was given by Louis IX to Alfonso X of León and Castile, whereas Oxford-Paris-London may have been given to Queen Eleanor of Provence by her sister Margaret in 1255, thus accounting for its presence in England to serve as the model for Add. 18719. Rejecting Laborde’s contention that Add. 18719 was left unfinished, Lowden adopts Avril’s hypothesis that it was intended to serve as a workshop model. Clearly not Parisian but made in London or Westminster in the 1290s expressly as a record of Oxford-Paris-London, the unpainted ink line drawings with full texts seem to have been left unbound for more than fifty years.

Lowden’s revised history of the moralized Bibles concludes with an analysis of two closely related fourteenth- and fifteenth-century French manuscripts based on Add. 18719. Illustrated in elaborately framed grisailles, the sole surviving complete version in Fr. 167 can be traced from its production in Paris for Jean II le Bon in 1349-52 to the present. Provided with both Latin texts and French translations accompanied by nuanced adjustments in aligning the texts and reframing the images, Fr. 167 is seen to reveal a profound change in the conception of the Bible Moralisée and how it should work. Lowden’s further consideration of this remarkably understudied manuscript concludes with the assertion that, to contemporaries, it was the dynastic connections of Fr. 167, whether the kings of France or the dukes of Burgundy, that defined its identity. Like the four earlier moralized Bibles emanating from the royal commissions of Blanche of Castile, this rich book was treasured as a potent symbol of prestige, wealth, and dynastic lineage. The later unfinished redaction in Fr. 166 represents the last of the fully Bibles Moralisées. Intended to surpass Fr. 167 by converting the grisailles into fully painted scenes with detailed landscapes and architectural settings, the images are not simply reproductions but more interesting and complex revisions. Begun for the Duc de Berry by the Limbourg brothers, Paul and Jean,and continued for Renée of Anjou, the last phase of its production for Aymer de Poitiers (1486-93) transformed the book into an “odd mixture of thoughtfulness with a remarkably failure to understand almost all the principles by which the images in the Bible Moralisée were intended to work.”

Taken together, the Bibles Moralisées constitute a special and unique genre of medieval book—manuscripts of breathtaking richness but for centuries unknown outside royal circles. In rejecting Haussherr’s hypothesis of a lost model or archetype from which the seven surviving versions descend in a stemma, Lowden persuasively asserts that the Bibles Moralisées were not produced by a process of transmission that presupposes a single authoritative original and involves subsequent attempts to reproduce the model without error. Instead, each version set out to be unlike the others, in some way intended to surpass its predecessors. However, Lowden’s dismantling of the philological concept of archetypes and stemmae is not as new to manuscript studies as he implies (see Lewis, Reading Images, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 40-53, and elsewhere).

Referring to a related but more narrowly iconographical problem, Lowden proposes that most of the pictorial content in the Bibles Moralisées was created not by copying images found in various sources, but “formulaically,” arguing that the imagery was virtually unknown in the Middle Ages. However, Lowden’s readers could readily take issue with the logic of his assertion on the grounds that such isolation could hardly have prevented artists and designers from bringing and adapting innumerable currently circulating images to their work. Indeed one could counter with the observation that many Bibles Moralisée illustrations are obviously derived from sources outside the genre. Instead it might be useful to explore the negotiable differences between appropriated sources and their inevitable revisions as they were adapted to “illustrate” new texts. For example, in the revised Toledo and Oxford-Paris-London versions where the embracing figures of Naomi and Ruth (or Orpha) differ significantly from those in Vienna 2554 and 1179, a contemporary iconographic formula seems to be drawn into play as an allusion to the Mary and Elizabeth from the Visitation, an inflection that might help resolve Lowden’s problem in identifying the figures (vol. II, pp. 71-89).

On the basis of his interpretative codicological and word-image analyses, Lowden confidently concludes that the Bibles Moralisées were made by teams of scribes and artists specially brought together in a space provided by the royal patron, “not in a monastic scriptorium.” On the other hand, Lowden has by no means substantially disproved Robert Branner’s suggestion that the Parisian house of St. Victor could have served as that place for the four early thirteenth-century versions.

Although the sometimes widely divergent compilations of texts for each moralized Bible were supervised by clerics, Lowden convincingly argues that, contrary to current assumptions, the Bibles Moralisées were not the work of professional theologians or university scholars. Comprising complex compilations of texts, sources and piecemeal revisions, the moralizations address a narrow and banal range of ideas but are far from stable. Although they adopt a wide range of moralizing strategies, the level of “theological” argument suggests that these texts probably did not involve any distinguished or even recognized university masters.

One of the most impressive results emanating from Lowden’s “global” approach involving all seven Bibles created over three centuries is a compelling “history” of a unique genre that in turn engages the wider sphere of medieval culture. A series of important paradigmatic shifts emerge in the relationships between word and image from the earliest four Bibles Moralisées dating from the first half of the thirteenth century. They move from designs that Lowden characterizes as “overwhelmingly visual in conception” to Fr. 167 and Fr. 166 in which the texts dominate the illustrations. A corollary transition occurred with Add. 18719, which reverts to the normal procedure of scribes writing the texts first, whereas in the quartet of earlier moralized Bibles the scribes worked after the illustrations had been finished.

In a series of widely dispersed analyses Lowden details how the various transformations and final disappearance of the widely reproduced frontispiece image of God the Creator follow an analogous trajectory. Beginning with a close reading of the well-known Deus artifex in Vienna 2554 and its counterpart in Vienna 1179, the author dismisses Otto von Simson’s interpretation of the colossal figure as “architect of the universe” by arguing that the compasses are not being used to measure but to draw or circumscribe the circular universe, as a self-referential image of the designer creating the distinctive compass-drawn layout of roundels in Bibles Moralisées. The image is somewhat weakened in Toledo and its twin, and drastically reduced in scale in Add. 18719. The frontispiece representation is then omitted altogether in Fr. 167 and Fr. 166, having lost its referent when the earlier layout of roundels was abandoned and replaced by square frames.

In conclusion, the reader stands in awe of John Lowden’s magisterial work. His far-reaching findings should serve as an indispensable reference for all future studies not only of the moralized Bibles but of other genres of medieval books as well.

Suzanne Lewis
Stanford University

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