Book as Icon

The Rabbula Gospels

The Rabbula Gospels
The Rabbula Gospels
Florence, Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana, MS. Plut. I. 56, ff. 12v-13r
Ink and pigments on parchment; 336 x 266mm
Gospels; Syriac
Syria (Beth Zagba); 586

A colophon near the end (f. 291r) records the completion of this exceptionally luxurious manuscript by an otherwise unknown scribe (perhaps also the painter) named Rabbula in the year 586 at the monastery of Saint John in Beth Zagba, an obscure place apparently inland from the Mediterranean coast between Antioch and Damascus. Its Syriac Peshitta version of the gospels is written in beautiful estrangela script (literally “to write the Gospels”), like other Semitic languages written from right to left. Hence the book itself proceeds in a fashion opposite to that of Greek and Latin manuscripts.

The opening illustrated presents two of the types of decoration found in the Rabbula Gospels. On the right is the last of ten canon tables, listing passages unique to John’s text. On the left is one of several full-page miniatures, this one devoted to the Crucifixion and events immediately following: the Marys at the Tomb and the resurrected Christ Appearing to the Two Marys. The canon table is adorned by paradisiacal symbols—birds and a cross set in foliage; and in the margins an illustration of Christ Before Pilate, the culmination of a continuous series of narrative pictures that begins with the Annunciation to Zacharias on the first canon table and conveys the sense of unity underlying the charts themselves. Most of the other canon tables also picture Old Testament prophets, leading to the portraits of the evangelists on ff. 9v and 10r, thus figuring the harmony of all scripture. Other full-page miniatures include the Choosing of Matthias (f. 1r), the Ascension of Christ (f. 13v), and Pentecost (f. 14v), three episodes actually drawn from the Book of Acts, not the Gospels, portraits of Eusebius and Ammonius who devised the canon tables and the numbering of the gospel passages (f. 2r), the giving of the manuscript to Christ (f. 14r), and an icon of Mary and Christ framed by a double arch and two peacocks (f. 1v). Such anomalies as the transposition of the Dedication and Selection of Matthias suggest that the Rabbula Gospels may have been copied from an exemplar. The model may have been Palestinian; in its general characteristics, the iconography conforms to that on a pilgrim’s box in the Vatican (Museo Sacro) and lead ampullae (pilgrim flasks) commemorating sites in the Holy Land.

A group of Florentine scholars led by Massimo Bernabò of the University of Cremona has recently been studying the Rabbula Gospels’ extensive repainting, which seems not simply to have been a restoration but a concerted attempt to normalize many unusual Syriac features. On the Crucifixion page, for example, Christ was originally portrayed with a spade-shaped face and curly red hair, the so-called “semitic” type found in the dedication page and in the depiction of Christ Before Pilate. The sarcophagus on which the angel sits is also a replacement; originally, he was seated on a rock, which would have worked better with the tholos tomb, its doors shown open to indicate that the Lord had risen.
HLK (author bios)

Cecchelli, 1959; Wright, 1973; Leroy, 1964, pp. 139-206; Mango, 1983; Sö rries, 1993, pp. 94-100; Lowden, 1999, pp. 26-30; Nersessian, 2001, no. 108.

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