The Bible - From Antiquity to the Renaissance

Writing and Images from the Vatican Library

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Ambrogio M. Piazzoni, Francesca Manzari
  • Collegeville, MN: 
    Liturgical Press
    , November
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Bible—From Late Antiquity to the Renaissance: Writing and Images from the Vatican Library is simply a magnificent volume. It is also massive! At first glance it looks like a coffee table book on steroids: over a foot long, and nearly a foot and-a-half along the spine, it contains more than three hundred and sixty thick glossy pages. The text is composed of short contributions by more than thirty different scholars. The Bible examines many of the biblical manuscripts housed at the Vatican Library, but limits itself to those from late antiquity through the Renaissance periods. These manuscripts are written not only in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Coptic, and Syriac, but also in Arabic, Armenian, Cyrillic, Ethiopian, Georgian, and Gothic. In covering such a wide range of manuscripts the collection does far more than discuss the specific manuscripts housed at the Vatican Library; rather, it tells the story of the history of the text and translation of the Bible itself, from antiquity to the cusp of modernity.

For me, the book’s most exciting attribute by far is its many images. It contains more than one hundred and eighty full color images of manuscripts, often illuminated with stunning art. Many of these images take up the entire page, and in some instances two whole pages are filled by a single image. Often when manuscript images are included in volumes, scholars need magnifying glasses in order to read the script. This is not the case with any of the images in this volume. All are sufficiently enlarged to be rendered legible for those who can read the languages in which each manuscript is written. While many (but not all) of the early Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac, and Arabic images they include are fairly unadorned, one is struck by the bright colored images of the artwork accompanying the Armenian manuscripts. The Byzantine era Greek manuscripts contain quite detailed images around which the text is wrapped. A number of the Renaissance era Latin manuscripts include beautiful images of scenes from the Bible or of St. Jerome translating the Bible. In many of these illuminated manuscripts, there are in effect two renderings of the biblical story: the text itself, and the images surrounding or alongside the text.

For scholars interested in the history of the book, there are numerous details included, often as asides, parenthetically, or in notes, that are quite fascinating. This is not only the case regarding manuscript production, but also how these manuscripts arrived at the Vatican. Since much of my work has been in the seventeenth century, I was interested to see so many rare manuscripts coming from Queen Christina of Sweden’s (Descartes’s patroness) personal library. There is also much fruitful discussion of the development, already in the medieval period, of so-called “pocket Bibles,” for use primarily by scholars. In the thirteenth century, quite a few such “pocket Bibles” were produced for study away from the library. The University of Paris, where Thomas Aquinas taught, was one of the centers of this production of “pocket Bibles.” Many of the Bibles produced in the medieval period were glossed with comments from the church fathers. The medieval “pocket Bibles,” in contrast, were unglossed. Despite this fact, and despite their obviously small size, for whatever reason a number of these “pocket Bibles” were accompanied by miniature artistic images, much like the larger editions with more lavish illustrations.

The story told in this volume spans the disciplines of medieval history, history of art, philology, history of print, theology, and Jewish and Christian interpretive practices to tell the story of the transmission of biblical manuscripts and their reception by way of the specific and large number of examples provided by the Vatican Library. In doing so, the volume sheds light on how biblical texts were interpreted with the aid of the artwork and the glosses which accompanied them, as well as by the work of translation itself.

I highly recommend this volume to those interested in biblical art, the history of biblical manuscripts, or anyone who teaches the Bible. I plan on using some of the manuscript images from this volume in my courses so that students can see what ancient biblical manuscripts looked like, but also how the illustrations that later accompanied such manuscripts functioned interpretatively. The examples provided of illuminated manuscripts both show how the artists themselves interpreted the texts, but also how those artistic examples of interpretation could become carriers of traditions of interpretation, and thus shape the interpretation of communities. This is a truly beautiful book with careful scholarship from specialists in each manuscript area.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeffrey L. Morrow is Chair of the Department of Undergraduate Theology at the Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall.

Date of Review: 
February 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ambrogio M. Piazzoni is the vice prefect of the Vatican Apostolic Library, first layman to hold this position. A graduate of Sapienza-University of Rome, educated in medieval history and specialized in palaeography, he spent a number of years as a cataloguer of manuscripts in the Vatican Library before taking charge for the introduction of the computerized cataloguing of manuscripts. As vice prefect (1999), he is also the scientific director of cataloguing of the Vatican Library manuscripts and director of the Library's publishing department. He teaches Latin palaeography, which pertains to both writing and illuminations, at the Augustinianum University in Rome. He has published a number of books and more than a hundred articles in scholarly journals and collective works on subjects related to medieval cultural history, biblical exegesis in the Middle Ages, Church history, and history of the Vatican Library.

Francesca Manzari is researcher in history of medieval art at Sapienza-University of Rome, where she teaches history of illumination. She has taken part, as author and part of the editorial staff, in the Enciclopedia dell'arte Medievale and in the journal Arte Medievale. In 2015 she won the Houghton Mifflin Fellowship for research at Harvard University. She has published several volumes and extensively in international journals, also in various languages. She was on the advisory board for the exhibition Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts from Boston Collections (Harvard University; Boston, September 2016-January 2017), ed. J. Hamburger, W. Stoneman, A. M. Eze, L. Fagin-Davis, N. Netzer. Her research has centered on liturgical and devotional books and manuscript illumination in Avignon and Italy. She is currently working on a book on illumination in Rome during the Great Western Schism.


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