Monday, May 12, 2014

Rossano Gospels: Good Samaritan Illumination

The Rossano Gospels, The Good Samaritan
An illuminated manuscript is a text that has been illustrated or decorated in some way. Some ancient papyri scrolls were illuminated, as Pliny the Elder notes concerning his own work (Natural History 35.4.8, about the color illustrations of plants) and the works of others (e.g., Natural History 35.2.11), although very few illustrated papyri have survived (e.g., a third century CE Heracles poem). The invention of the codex (a book consisting of pages stitched together on one side), however, with flat sheets of parchment bound together, served as a catalyst for an increased amount of illuminations of manuscripts. Not only were the materials more durable, but they also permitted more and thicker layers of paint to be applied to the pages. Thus the artistic level of such miniature painting became an advanced art form in the fourth century CE. The most popular illuminated manuscripts were of the epic poems, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey or Vergil’s Aeneid (Weitzmann 1977: 10).

The Rossano Gospels (Codex Purpureus Rossanensis; early 6th century) is the oldest extant illuminated manuscript of the New Testament Gospels. The codex is named Purpureus Rossanensis because the parchment pages were dyed a purple/reddish color and the manuscript was housed at the cathedral in Rossano, Italy. The text is written in uncials (all capital letters) primarily with silver ink with incipits (opening words) in gold ink. The current manuscript only contains the Gospels of Matthew and Mark (up to Mark 16:14), but it is distinctive because the fourteen miniature full-paged illustrations—which cover elements of all four gospels—are placed together at the front of the manuscript in a coherent cycle. This placement allows the story told by the pictures to be viewed in sequence without any interruption by a written text (Weitzmann 1970: 93-94). In this case, the primary images are scenes from the life of Jesus, but ten of the illustrations are supplemented by images of four Hebrew Bible/Septuagint figures who prophesy the coming of Jesus and the event depicted above them.

The Rossano Gospels depict two parables: the Good Samaritan and the Wise and Foolish Virgins. The depiction of the Good Samaritan is placed in the cycle of pictures that depict the Passion of Jesus—between Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and healing of two blind men on one side and Jesus’ trial before Pilate on the other. Its placement in the cycle indicates its connection to the death of Jesus, spiritual conversion (symbolized by the healing of the blind), and redemption (through the Passion of Jesus). In the illustration itself, the bottom half of the page includes two pairs of figures from the Septuagint with their names inscribed above them—David and Micah and David and Sirach. All four figures have a nimbus/halo, but King David has a jewel-studded crown, darker clothes, and possibly a breastplate (according to Milburn 1988: 300) in both of his representations. The four figures also each stand holding a brief text from the Septuagint relevant to the story. At the top left of the page a city is depicted—scholars debate whether it is Jerusalem (e.g., Brubaker 1999: 77) or Jericho (e.g., Weitzmann 1977: 93); Jerusalem is more likely, in my view—and the miniature then depicts from left to right two scenes from the parable. The first scene is the Good Samaritan ministering to the wounded, bloody man with an angel assisting him. The second is the Good Samaritan paying the innkeeper to take care of the wounded man, who sits sidesaddle on the Samaritan’s animal.

I’ll talk about the details of the illumination of the parable of the Good Samaritan in the next post (and maybe about its illumination of the Wise and Foolish Virgins parable as well).

A personal note: Congratulations to our son, Jacob, who graduated from Oxford College of Emory University on Saturday (what Dean Robin Forman of Emory College calls a "halftime celebration"). Jacob continues his undergraduate career on the Atlanta campus of Emory University tomorrow, with a Maymester course.

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