What are the most beautiful medieval manuscripts? We asked an expert: Giovanni Scorcioni, co-founder of Facsimile Finder, the leading provider of facsimile editions of medieval manuscripts and books.
Based out of Italy, Giovanni has spent over a decade looking through thousands of medieval works in facsimile, and here is his list of the most beautiful manuscripts made in the Middle Ages.
1) Lindisfarne Gospels (British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV)
Created at Lindisfarne Abbey in northern England, the Lindisfarne Gospels date to the early eighth century. The written text is of the four Chrisitan gospels, but it comes with extraordinarily detailed artwork in a unique style of Hiberno-Saxon or Insular art, combining Mediterranean, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic elements. It is viewed as very innovative with images that are complex and full of imagery.
Giovanni adds: “A masterpiece of Insular manuscript painting and one of the most iconic books of the Middle Ages, the Lindisfarne Gospels melds Insular and Mediterranean traditions in its illumination. It is an exquisite example of early medieval artistry and combines intricate illuminations with intricate Celtic motifs and vibrant colors. The highly skilled craftsmanship of the illuminators is evident in the delicate interlacing patterns and meticulous attention to detail.”
2) Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux (Metropolitan Museum of Art – Acc., No. 54.1.2)
Created in Paris between 1325 and 1328, within its 209 folios one can find 25 full-page miniatures and 700 other illustrations. It was originally a wedding gift from King Charles IV of France to his new wife Jeanne d’Evreux. Part of its appeal is that manuscript is very small (8.9 × 6.2 cm), yet is full of art. All miniatures are in demi-grisaille, a painting technique using mainly shades of grey and colouring for the figures’ faces and hands. The surprising amount of details that can be fit in such a small space is outstanding.
“This little manuscript is known for its intimate and personal nature, as it was created as a prayer book for Jeanne d’Evreux, consort of King Charles IV of France,” Giovanni explains. “The delicate depictions of biblical scenes and saints create a sense of spiritual devotion and contemplation, offering a precious insight into the prayer life of the Christian queen.”
3) Godescalc Evangelistary (Bibliothèque Nationale de France MS Nouv. acq. lat. 1203)
This Carolingian liturgical book was made between 781 and 785 and would have been very costly to make – it uses purple-coloured parchment with the text written in gold and silver. The scribe, known as Godescalc, also included 6 full-page miniatures and other artwork throughout its page.
“The Godescalc Evangelistary holds immense historical and cultural significance as it was commissioned by Charlemagne as a gift for the cathedral at Aachen, Germany. Its creation represents the revival of book production in the Carolingian era and its promotion of learning and religious devotion,” Giovvani adds.
We also have the words of Godescalc himself, describing this manuscript:
Golden words are painted [here] on purple pages,
The Thunderer’s shining kingdoms of the starry heavens,
Revealed in rose-red blood, disclose the joys of heaven,
And the eloquence of God glittering with fitting brilliance
Promises the splendid rewards of martyrdom to be gained.
4) Prayerbook of Claude de France (Morgan Library & Museum MS M. 1166)
Another tiny manuscript, this was created for Claude, Queen of France, in the year 1517. At a size of 6.9 cm by 4.9 cm, this prayerbook could easily fit in your hand, but it is full of detailed paintings.
Giovanni writes: “A tiny book exemplifying the beauty and refinement of Renaissance illumination. The delicate and intricate illuminations depict scenes from the life of Christ and saints, adorned with rich colours, gold accents, and meticulous details that reflect the elegance of the period. The manuscript holds a personal touch as it was commissioned by Queen Claude de France, making it a testament to her piety and devotion.”
5) St. Albans Psalter (Dombibliothek Hildesheim MS St. God. 1; Schnütgen Museum Köln Inv. No. M694)
Created around the year 1125 at St. Albans’ Abbey in England, it has over 40 full-page illustrations. The lavish miniatures and painted initials form often include elongated figures. Its style would be influential, especially among English artists.
Giovanni writes: “A true masterpiece of Romanesque illumination, the St. Albans Psalter is renowned for its exceptional level of detail and vibrant colours, which showcase the skill and artistry of the illuminators. The intricate borders and decorative motifs throughout the Psalter further enhance its visual appeal, making it a feast for the eyes.”
6) Westminster Abbey Bestiary (Westminster Abbey Library Ms. 22)
Created in York in the last decades of the thirteenth century, a bestiary is a compendium of animals, some real and some mythical. This bestiary contains 164 miniatures of the animals, many created with an artistic flair.
“A fascinating medieval manuscript that combines the realms of natural history and symbolism,” Giovanni notes. “It presents a collection of vivid and imaginative illustrations of animals, accompanied by moral allegories and religious symbolism, providing a unique insight into medieval beliefs and the interplay between the natural world and spirituality.”
7) Vienna Genesis (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Codex Theol. Gr. 31)
It is the most ancient purple manuscript surviving today. It was made in the Near East in the sixth century, and by the fourteenth century was being held in Venice. The fragment of the biblical Book of Genesis (from the Greek Septuagint translation) is compiled in golden and silver ink, on a beautifully purple-dyed calfskin vellum. Each page contains a lavish miniature depicting the text, for a total of 48 well-preserved images.
“A remarkable example of Byzantine illumination, the Vienna Genesis holds great historical and cultural significance as one of the oldest known illustrated biblical manuscripts. Every page of the manuscript was dyed a deep purple, although the color has since faded to brown. Likewise, the Greek uncial text, once written in glittering silver ink, has tarnished to black,” says Giovanni.
8) Black Hours (Morgan Library & Museum M. 493)
The Black Hours, created in Bruges around the year 1475, is a product of unequalled luxury. All 121 vellum folios are stained in black. To make the writing stand out against the dark background, only white lead and opaque paints were used for the miniatures, and gold and silver ink for the script. Only three of these black parchment manuscripts survive to this day.
“A captivating and unique manuscript known for its deep black pages, which create a dramatic and mysterious backdrop for the illuminations,” Giovanni explains. “The attraction to luxurious, velvety black is closely associated with the Burgundian court, from which a total of seven black-dyed books made in the late fifteenth century survive. The shimmering script heightens the extravagance of the codex: the rubrics are written in gold, while most of the text is written in silver.”
9) Morgan Crusader Bible (Ms M.638 › Morgan Library & Museum; ; Bibliothèque Nationale de France Ms Nouv. Acq. Lat. 2294; Getty Museum Ms Ludwig 16 83. M.A. 55)
Also known as the Maciejowski Bible, this Bible was made for King Louis IX of France around 1250. In this manuscript we see Biblical history depicted in great detail, from the Creation of the world to the deeds of the most important characters of the Old Testament. The Crusader’s Bible fascinates through its rich and refined gold embellishment which comes to enhance the luminosity of the colours.
Giovanni says, “The Morgan Crusader Bible is a remarkable medieval manuscript that chronicles the Old Testament narratives with a unique focus on the Crusades. The book is known for the compelling and naturalistic battle scenes that spill out beyond the border of the pictorial space into the margins; with their attention to gore and technically accurate depictions of armour and weapons, these scenes suggest first-hand observation of the brutalities of war.”
10) Grimani Breviary (Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana Ms. Lat. I, 99=2138)
Created by Gerard Horenbout and Simon Bening sometime between 1510 and 1520, it is a huge work – 1,662 pages with about 120 full-page miniatures. Made in Bruges, the manuscript’s artwork is filled with details and realism.
Giovanni adds, “One of the most important works of the Flemish Renaissance, the Grimani Breviary stands out for its monumental size and its extensive contents, containing a wide range of prayers, hymns, psalms, and other liturgical texts. Its illuminated illustrations vary from religious to lay themes and feature intricate details, vibrant colours, and gold embellishments, creating a visual feast for the eyes.”
Our thanks to Giovanni for sharing his list of the most beautiful medieval manuscripts made in facsimile with us. Click here to check out Facsimile Finder. You can subscribe to his “Bookplate” newsletter, where he talks more about these books and offers fascinating insights into the Middle Ages.