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Manuscrits and illuminations

Nowadays, while visiting a region, all one often sees are the monuments which are still standing and featured archaeological excavations. More treasures are hidden away in museums due to their fragility. Such is the case for manuscripts which however are a testament to both artistic wealth and intellectual dynamism.


Limousin is fortunate, firstly, to have benefited from oneof the most significant libraries in Aquitaine in the Middle Ages, and secondly, to have preserved more than 250 exceptional manuscripts from its abbeys’ “Scriptoria”, assembling a collection of manuscripts either of their own making, (which were) either bought or gifted.

Scriptorium abbey Limoges

According to inventories, it is estimated that, in the early XIII century, the seventy monks of Saint-Martial possessed more than 450 volumes. This collection was, by far, the most important monastic library in Limousin and of Aquitaine.


Presently BNF,  the Library of France in Paris, preserves this unique and exceptional heritage, available on-line through ‘GALLICA’.


Indeed an anecdote tells us that in 1732, due to heavy financial difficulties following their secularization, the Canons of Limousin tried to sell their manuscripts to Colbert, through Baluze, but eventually handed them over to the King.


At that time, the Royal Library acquired 204 works, for a value of 5 000 pounds, from the library of the Abbey of Saint-Martial which were saved during the Revolution. Other manuscripts are preserved today, for example, in the Libraries of Limoges, Oxford or Vatican.




Throughout the Middle Ages, books were precious objects, mainly intended for religious orders. They are sacred manuscripts, specific to liturgy, rare because of their cost and the length of time required to produce them. Finally, they often are part of an Abbey’s treasure mostly because of their precious bindings as illustrated by the  enamelled book-bindings from Limoges.

The numerous journeys that Abbots and Bishops undertook outside the diocese of Limoges contributed to enrich the exchanges of manuscripts copies. On this basis, the Abbey of Saint-Martial of Limoges develops strong networks of ties and linkages with the Monasteries of Cluny, Moissac, Conques, Saint-Victor de Marseille, Maillezais, Saint-Martin deTours, Saint-Benoît sur Loire and the Cathedrals of Bordeaux, Saintes, Poitiers, Bourges and Autun. Saint-Martial Scriptorium includes books coming from neighbouring communities: from Lesterps, Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Yrieix, Charroux, Saint-Jean d'Angély, Saintes, Saint-Géraud d'Aurillac, Saint-Pierre d'Uzerche and Saint-Hilaire de Poitiers.


At an artistic level, the illuminators are fed by influences from manuscripts of the Ottonian style (inter-alia through the Cluniacs although their ties existed much before), of Saxon art (even before the Plantagenêts), of Byzantine art (via travels to Rome) and of Spanish art (through trade links and the military Reconquista).


The evolution of debates during the councils could cause it to modify and bring up to date liturgical books. Saint Martial’s apostolicity, upheld by the chronicler Adémar de Chabannes and stated during the council of 1031, urges monks to etch and rectify ancient books.

Successive fires destroyed a number of precious books, nevertheless, today the testimony of the famous Scriptorium in the Abbey of Saint Martial of Limoges, rests through its 450 volumes that are among the masterpieces of Romanesque art.

(Source - "La décoration des manuscrits à Saint-Martial de Lomges et en Limousin) / GABORIT - CHOPIN

Bible of Saint Yrieix

XII century bible of the Collegiate of Saint Yrieix

The manufacture of books in the Middle-Ages


It requires the work of several persons. The parchment maker turns animal skins into a material called parchment. The copyist writes the text with a quill pen on the parchment leaves. The illuminator decorates the text with very simple or ornate images. Lastly, the binder assembles the leaves (pages) and shapes them into a book that he protects with a thick binding made of wood or leather.


(Source - La fabrication d'un parchemin Abbaye de Clairavaux)

A sacred book, the medieval Book


During the Romanesque period, holy books constitute the core work of Scriptoria. Teaching and meditation, specific to clerical and monastic culture, are based on the study of the Old and the New Testaments. Thus the Bible is the most copied book in the Occident, during the XI century. 

It generally comes in a large format which can reach monumental dimensions; these imposing formats testify both to its use in the liturgical ritual and to the special status of this book, the Book.

The Bible was not, in the Middle-Ages, a mere customary object. Christian religion being a religion of the Book, medieval society gave a special value to religious books. First among them, by order of importance, the Bible, the Book of all books, testified to the promise of Salvation, and, as such, was both a customary object of Liturgy and a sacred object, actor of this very Liturgy. In other words, Christianism did not make a difference between the Bible, bearer of a message and the message it conveyed, between the form and substance: the Bible, did not only contain the Gospel, it was the Gospel.


A way to understand this importance is to examine the catalogue’s iconography. Depictions of the Book are plentiful, in the hands of divine Majesties or those of Evangelists and in those of characters of the Old Testament, for example. Object of sacred nature, the Bible features within sacred images. Moreover a Bible regarded as having belonged to an Evangelist Saint could be worshiped as would a relic or a reliquary casket and exhibited on the altar or preserved as a reliquary.


(Source - Manuscrits DRAC BNSA

Grandmont abbey Speculm

Speculum Grandismontis - Grandmont Abbey

Sacramentary Cathdral Limoges

Sacramentary of the Cathedral Saint-Etienne of Limoges XII century.

A comprehensive study of Saint-Martial library as well as that of the whole of the Scriptorium’s production, highlighted several distinct periods.

The medieval books of the saint martial limoges abbey

A first era, from the end of IX Century, corresponds to the reconstitution of the library, after the invasions, and to the development of studies during Abbot Aimon’s time, who died in 943. Among these manuscripts was the First Bible of Saint-Martial of which the writing, and if not certainly its illumination, is from Bonebertus’ hand, who included his name, at the end of the second volume, using the shorthand system called “notae tironianae”.

A second era, focussed on the XI Century and said to be of “Romanesque Aquitaine style” in its decoration, was consequent to the necessity to repair damages caused by two fires, between 974 and 991. It corresponded also with the determination, in Abbot Oloric’s time (1025-1040), to edit ancient liturgical pieces of work and to introduce new ones,  to follow, at times perhaps to prepare, the decisions of the regional councils of 1029 and 1031 tending to present Saint Martial as an Apostle of Christ. Adémar de Chabannes, who was brought up at the Abbey of Saint Martial and nephew of cantor Roger, donated his texts, which are from amongst  rather rare autographed manuscripts of medieval authors. One finds there  several pieces of work that have the character of  written and illustrated documentation for his personal use.


The third era of the Scriptorium, beginning from the second half of the XI Century extending to the XII century, followed the joining of the Abbey of Saint-Martial in the Congregation of Cluny in 1062. At the beginning of Ademar’s term (1063-1114), the Cantor of Cluny came to the Abbey to adapt the existing liturgical manuscripts to Cluniac traditions of  and have new ones copied. Abbot Adémar applied himself to produce luxury manuscripts, among which the ‘Moralia in Job of Gregoire-le-Grand’ of which the first volume is the work of several hands, but the major part of the second and the last volume is the labour of one, Peter, working under the direction of a certain Arleius. Abbot Albert (1143-1156) had executed by a copyist, whose name could be Guillaume Boarelli, a transcription of De Bello judaico de Flavius Joseph.This period also saw the realisation of a new life of Saint Martial, the Vita Proxilior of Pseudo-Aurelien, which might be the lavish illuminated manuscript that Bernard Itier (1163-1225), librarian of the Abbey, attributes to Monk Adémar.

Subsequently, the production of decorated manuscripts did not exhibit the same quality. But the activity of copying did not cease, predominently to provide clerics with texts from new ecclesiastical and secular authors. Bernard Itier further wrote numerous notes added to manuscripts, which were in his custody and some volumes of liturgical assortments while he was cantor or librarian. He also had a XI century manuscript bound together with a Cosmographia of Bernardus Silvestris, of which the first leaf bears a caption suggesting that the text was copied by Jean Potet, recorded amongst the monks from the Abbey early in the XIII century.


(Source - Pierre Campagne / Splendeurs de Saint-Martial de Limoges)



Romanesque Bibles in the Limousin area


In the XII century, the illuminators’ objective was to illustrate the entirety of the Bible which, at the time often comprised many volumes. This is especially true for oversized monumental Bibles. These gigantic Bibles were only produced during the Romanesque period and within large centres of fabrication of manuscripts in the Occident. Romanesque Bibles featured in our catalogue, amongst which that from La Sauve-Majeure is a remarkable example, reveal another particularity of Romanesque Bibles: the art of illuminating initials, one of the most enticing contribution of painters to the art of this period.


Evangeliaries and other texts


 An Evangeliary, as the name suggests, contains extracts of Gospels. These appear according to the order of  the liturgical year, following the ‘table’ of the canons, a double page indicating to the reader which passages are concordant with the different Gospels. The liturgical year, according to which the Gospels are introduced, comprises four major periods, being Advent (celebrating the coming of Christ, period of four weeks preceeding The Nativity to The Epiphany), the Easter Cycle, Lent, (and) the Paschal Season (from the Holy Week to Pentecost) and two intermediate periods named Ordinary Time(s).

Besides monumental Bibles, follow in number, during the Romanesque period, the writings of Church Fathers (Augustin, Jerome, Ambroise and Gregory) and their comments and “glosses” from several authors, more or less recent, (being) pillars of any monastic or canonical library. The tradition of comments and “glosses” spread to Gospels and to the Bible.


Lastly, besides these references to patristic texts, Saints emerge in hagiographic books. Dedicated to the life of a particular Saint, local or prominent in the history of a religious community (Founding Saint of an Abbey, Holy Bishop), they precisely embed this community in history and legitimise its power through the memory of its origin. These books are authentic billboards for those communities, at a time when pilgrimages and relics worship flourish. With time, other scriptures appear in addition to these Vitae; new compositions concerning ancient or recent Saints and compilations of hagiographic recitals, like the Golden Legend of Jacques de Voragine in the XIII century, according to their nature, these tales reach the secular world and punctuate notably the manuscripts of personal worship. Furthermore, some images referring to a specific event in the life of a historical or legendary Saint have become iconic (Saint Michel stricking the dragon, etc.) and were privileged to express an idea, to illustrate a statement throughout a manuscript.


 Gothic Bibles


 With the expansion of schools and universities, the XII and XIII Centuries saw the start of a new practice in the reading of holy texts. As of then, the study of the Bible and other texts from masters and students, entailed the production of more modestly sized manuscripts for study. Thus, librarians committed themselves to produce pocket Bibles on a large scale, more economical, more manageable and readily movable. Decoration is scaled down to a minimum; in some places, mere ‘versal letters’ punctuate the narration tabulated within two columns and in a narrow graphic.


In contrast, the Bible remains scarce in libraries for laypersons who do not attend universities. Admittedly, they remain amongst the pieces of work that important collectors have to possess and are then lavishly adorned. However ignorance of Latin, language of the Bible, by much of the aristocracy, curbs this diffusion.

To solve this issue, towards the end of the XIII century, variants of the Bible blossom, translated in vernacular language and intended for laypersons,. These translations could be complete or more often only relate to certain sections of the Bible (psalms, Gospels, etc.) Consequently, new worship books circulate, intended for laypersons and which success is supported by the number of copies of Psalters and Books of Hours preserved to date.


(Source - Manuscrits DRAC BNSA

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