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First Bible of the Saint-Martial Abbey

L'acquisition de la plupart des manuscrits de l'abbaye Saint-Martial de Limoges sous le règne de Louis XV, en 1730, a constitué pour la Bibliothèque royale un apport considérable, en particulier dans les domaines biblique, patristique, hagiographique, liturgique et historique.


Parmi cet ensemble, le manuscrit latin 5, dit Première Bible de Saint-Martial de Limoges datable du milieu du Xe siècle, est sans doute le plus célèbre des manuscrits de l'abbaye. Le soin de l'exécution, la beauté et la régularité de son exécution, son décor extraordinaire et déconcertant méritaient bien de retenir l'attention des érudits. Cependant, cette Bible n'est jamais citée qu'avec la plus grande réserve par les historiens de l'art. Sa date probable est en effet si controversée qu'elle varie du IXème siècle au début du Xème siècle. On comprend évidemment que, dans ces conditions, le manuscrit ne soit jamais évoqué qu'avec prudence. Il est pourtant l'un des rares témoins d'un art de transition entre l'âge carolingien et l'âge roman, d'autant plus précieux que les destructions normandes ont, presque partout, provoqué une faille entre ces deux mondes.


(Source - La décoration des manuscrits à Saint-Martial de Limoges et en Limousin du IXème au XIIème siècle)


First Bible of the Saint Martial of Limoges

It is possible that this important Abbey, a major pilgrimage site, experienced an exceptional intellectual and artistic activity as soon as the end of the IX Century. However, two fires which occurred during the following Century – one damaged the Monastery and the other the crypt with all of its valuables, amongst which a number of manuscripts- credibly explains the lack of manuscripts prior to that period.

Currently bound in two volumes, the Latin 5, modelled on the important Carolingian Bibles, nevertheless presents a largely aniconic decoration. The ornamental theme inherited from early Works from Touraine experiences a fresh impetus. The body of initials break down into animals or fantastic plants.

Much inspired by Greco Roman Antiquity, artists are not insensitive to Middle-Eastern patterns portrayed through furnishing and precious fabrics. Colossal input in the sanctuary of the Divine Word, the architectural setting of the Canons Tables, intending to establish the concordances between Gospels, testify to this brilliant assimilation which highlights the subtle transition between Carolingian Renaissance and Romanesque Art.

(Source - Marie-Thérèse Gousset / BnF - Département des manuscrits)


Limousin monks were aware of the value of their Bible, since it features at the top of the most ancient inventories of the library and since they recorded, as early as the end of the X Century, the most significant deeds relating to their Abbey, arguably to bestow them greater solemnity.

Early in the XI Century, an illuminator was commissioned to reproduce a missing page while copying accurately the script style and the versal letters of the Bible. Proof that it has been nurtured respectfully since a very long time. In its present state, it comprises of two volumes. However, as attested by the signatures on the quaternions, the quires were mixed up during the binding; moreover, many are missing, notably at the beginning of the first part.

The smooth and supple parchment is regulated at the dry point. The text is spread out across two columns and credibly seems to have been  by a single scribe. The headings, in painted capitals, include some enclosed letters.

The script, rounded and very even,  has been dated back to the X Century by the Lauer catalogue. It is indeed very similar to the Carolingian minuscule. The copyist wrote his name, in tironian notes, in the colophon??, and this signature was deciphered as Bonebertus or Bonibertus by specialists. It would understandably help to know if the copyist and the illuminator are the same person. Nonetheless, the decoration of the first Bible of Saint-Martial poses some serious difficulties regarding the dating of the manuscript.


(Source - La décoration des manuscrits à Saint-Martial de Limoges et en Limousin du IXème au XIIème siècle)



First Bible of the Saint Martial of Limoges
First Bible of the Saint Martial of Limoges

Dating of the first Bible of Saint-Martial of Limoges


The first Bible of Saint-Martial of Limoges (National Library, remains a bone of contention amongst art historians who mostly disagree on the period of its decoration. Mrs Gaborit-Chopin seems to have resolved this pending issue once and for all. As we know, the ornamention solely consists of versal letters in the prime books’ headings; the only full page paintings are those of the canons. Although paleographers date the script back to the Xth Century, art historians think that the ornamentation is not anterior to the second-half of the Xth Century or even to the years 1000. This discrepency is barely feasible for a manuscript of such luxury.

Besides Mrs. Gaborit-Chopin points out that the ink used for the decoration of the versal letters is similar to that used for the text. Moreover versal letters blend so perfectly well that it appears difficult to isolate them.

The author points out that, as early as the second-half of the Xth Century, this Bible was copied in the Scriptorium of Saint-Martial by the Lectionary’s draughtsman. Yet, it is the author of the latter manuscript who restored a damaged page of the Bible, by painstakingly copying, with absolute accuracy, the works of  Bonebertus, who wrote the text of the Bible. Other manuscripts from the second-half of the Xth Century, borrowed  their ornamentation from the Bible while totally drying out the drawing.  All this comments compel us to date the Bible prior to mid-Xth Century. Furthermore, It can be assimilated to a text found in a  codex displaying versal letters consistent with those found in the Bible. 

 Moreover, Mrs. Gaborit-Chopin observes that the colours used are those of the first Bible of Charles the Bold, on the proviso that the expansive gold and silver highlights were replaced with a pale yellow and with inked up backgrounds. The claim that it was of Romanesque work was based on the decoration of this Bible. The author demonstrates through revealing reconciliations that the sources that inspired the artist are all anterior to that period and are antic or Carolingian.

These are effectively classic or antique features that prevail in this piece of work, to the extent that one could see as a Carolingian or post-Carolingian production, dating back to the last third of the IXth Century, which denotes the transition with Romanesque Art.

(Source - Danielle Gaborit-Chopin, La première Bible de Saint-Martial de Limoges, dans Cahiers  archéologiques, t. XIX, 1969, p. 83-98, 29 fig.)

The Bible is illuminated with large letters at the top of each book and with canons filling in the surface of the whole page. The themes of the ornamentation are mainly plants and animals: acanthus leaves, Greek scrolls, friezes of animals fighting, animals bearing on their back the weight of the columns or the dome-shaped arcs, inhabited scrolls… The ornamentation is thus very remote from those of the Touraine Bibles, of the paintings of biblical sceneries aligned in long horizontal bands.

 During the IX Century, Bibles of Theodulph and the second Bible of Charles the Bold alone are also aniconic but the gold, silver and purple that enhance them are very much in keeping with the tradition of that period. In contrast, the colours of Saint-Martial Bible are entirely different to the Carolingian colour scheme. On the parchment, still in its natural colour, bright yellows, oranges and violets burst out, meekly dampened by browns and red ochres. The dominant hue is a luscious green, oscillating from sea green to turquoise green, splashing light on the luxurious flora. Gold, silver and purple are nowhere to be seen.

The decoration and the colours of this luxury manuscript differing from the great Carolingian manuscripts, experts in illumination dated it to the second half of the X Century or even to early XI Century.  The hypothesis that the Bible, once written, would have been decorated much later, would undoubtedly have the advantage of proving everyone right. It is nonetheless unsustainable: the manuscript would have had to remain unfinished for a Century, or over half-Century in the best scenario, which is unlikely, at least for a costly manuscript. 


Furthermore, the Bible is flawlessly laid out, the large versal letters fit effortlessly in the drawn text frame; quill illustration and letters are drawn with the same ink, the same hue of orange-red colours the capital letters in the headings and the leaf lobes and there are no overlaps of illumination and text, characteristic signs of revamping of manuscripts. All indications are, in contrast, that all copy and ornamentation works were carried out simultaneously. We have proof that Bonebertus was both copyist and illuminator in another manuscript from Saint-Martial, a Book of Homilies, which opens on a large versal letter where unfurls green and brown, with orange hues, acanthus foliage, and which can be traced back to the same hand as the Bible’s; the quires are similarly signed; the text has been transcribed by the copyist of the Bible.

These affinities between two manuscripts can only be explained by the fact that they are the works of the same author, and the Book of Homilies ascertains that the big Bible is exclusively from Bonebertus’ hand and, given the source of two codices, that it was indeed produced in the Scriptorium of Saint-Martial.


(Source - La décoration des manuscrits à Saint-Martial de Limoges et en Limousin du IXème au XIIème siècle)


First Bible of the Saint Martial of Limoges
Enluminures de la Bible
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