The Bible of St. Louis: An Introduction

Bible of st louisBy  Ramón Gonzálvez
Archivist, Toledo Cathedral

Excerpt from Bible of St. Louis

The complex questions arising from the extant manuscript books of the Middle Ages often make it very difficult for readers to grasp their meaning. Although some of the books copied in that period are, in certain respects, relatively easy for cultured persons to understand, others are very complicated on many counts – making the assistance of one or more experts in different fields necessary. Such difficulties may be due to objective factors arising from the nature of the book itself or subjective factors concerning the education of the user. When dealing with manuscript books, it is wise not to jump to firm conclusions until after conducting thorough, in-depth analyses. The great secrets of some such books can only be unlocked by painstaking research and sometimes, even after great efforts, one cannot be sure that they have been deciphered. The obstacles may stem from the persons involved with the manuscript, the methods employed in its manufacture and the historical vicissitudes affecting its present-day condition. Over the centuries, manuscript books have also gradually become archaeological items, silent witnesses of a distant civilization in decline whose sources of inspiration are totally unrelated to our own mental horizons. The magnitude of the obstacles we encounter increases in direct proportion to the gulf between the culture they originated in and our present-day culture.

Few works in the history of books are as hermetic as the Bible of Saint Louis in some specific aspects. The fact that the last quire of volume III – containing the large, closing miniature that identifies the royal members – was split up at an early date, prevented the work from being correctly attributed to its original addressee for many centuries. This is the most obvious reason for the documented fact that the Toledo cathedral chapter, to whose artistic heritage the Bible has belonged for over 700 years, had no precise information, until well into the 20th century, about these three splendid volumes of the Bible. Furthermore, although progress has continued to be made after conducting research, we must admit that not all problems have been solved, for some of its mysteries, such as the heraldry on its clasps, refuse to yield their secrets to those who have had the opportunity of studying this Bible.


In order to facilitate the understanding of the Bible of Saint Louis, M. Moleiro decided to accompany its facsimile edition by complementary volumes providing readers with answers to some of the main questions posed, to the extent permitted by the present-day state of research. Not satisfied with merely disseminating the knowledge already available about the Bible, he chose the more difficult path of sponsoring new research with a view to furthering scientific knowledge in this field and sharing the results with general readers and academics. It was within this framework that he chose to commission certain experts to produce new studies, update the conclusions of their research and conduct an overview of the most noteworthy problems.

The large selection of contributions aims at covering a great number of subjects related to this Bible, but it is not exhaustive and is basically of an isagogic nature insofar as it intends to provide the facts essential for a better understanding and appreciation of the core of this work. Some essays aim to break new ground whilst others concentrate on aspects deserving a closer look.


The group of studies opens with three contributions aimed at clarifying the lavish and fascinating external history of the Bible from the early days of its existence in the Chapel Royal of France, its time in the possession of King Alfonso X “the Wise” of Castile and its final, extended stay in the treasury of Toledo Cathedral, where it still remains. These three contributions are in response to the need to gather as much historical information about this Bible as possible, not only because the history of a book is an integral part of the book itself but also because much of this information may be decisive in orienting our overall understanding of the Bible or clarifying specific aspects of great importance. One of the most noteworthy and earliest historical facts is the description of the Bible given by the king of Castile in his codicil dated 1284, the only, albeit succinct but priceless, mention that has survived from the entire 13th century.

Professor John Lowden (Courtauld Institute of Art, London)provides two contributions. The first one explains the position of the Bible of Saint Louis within a group of similar books (known as Bible moralisées), all made to be used by members of royalty, and the characteristic traits of the typology that defines them. This study reveals that the Bible was conceived of in such grandiose terms that it outstripped everything produced previously by copyists’ ateliers. Consequently, its manufacture breached many of the usual norms of such ateliers, resulting in a Bible which was, from this viewpoint, an utterly singular and exceptional book. In his second contribution, Prof. Lowden addresses the artists who participated in producing the historiae or illuminated scenes painted in the three volumes – which total the enormous number of 4,887. These medallions depict the entire medieval world – the characters, daily life, ideas, morals and beliefs of the persons involved in making this Bible – in incredibly lavish images. Prof. Yves Christe, on the other hand, offers a comparative analysis of the themes depicted in the Bible of Saint Louis and those in the stained-glass windows of the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris: two masterpieces of Gothic art that are virtually contemporary and feature considerable stylistic similitudes.

Toledo Cathedral and its primatial chapter are proud to have helped disseminating the knowledge of a Bible that plays an outstanding role in the history of universal art. Those of us who have contributed in any way to this venture know that our efforts will be well rewarded if this encourages further research on the Bible of Saint Louis and enables the countless admirers of this peerless gem around the world to find, in their reading and contemplation, moments of repose and cultural enrichment.

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