Marvellous to Behold: Miracles in Medieval Manuscripts

Stuart Hannabuss (Gray's School of Art, Aberdeen, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 27 June 2008




Hannabuss, S. (2008), "Marvellous to Behold: Miracles in Medieval Manuscripts", Library Review, Vol. 57 No. 6, pp. 474-476.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

We might believe, or not believe, in miracles, but it makes little difference to the study of miracles in medieval manuscripts (and in wider areas like the cultural history and religious studies). The British Library have produced an attractive introduction to miracles in Marvellous to Behold. It is in the style of a guide to an excellent exhibition. It also set out to present miracles in Western and Eastern manuscripts in a comparative manner – by looking across the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Divine interventions in human affairs take the form of natural wonders, healing powers, great escapes, and examples of where God “provides”, and these are the four sections of the introduction. It is highly illustrated in full colour, with an incisive commentary well‐developed alongside a sequence of illustrations, explaining as it goes along so that readers get background as well as discussion of the manuscripts themselves. A generous bibliography identifies a wide range of material for further consultation and research.

Rather than take a strictly chronological approach, the book follows that thematic structure, and within each section further themes are examined. Starting at the end, we see clear examples of this under the banner “God Provides”. When the Israelites were escaping from Egypt, they needed water. God provided it by asking Moses to strike a rock with his staff. Later God provided water in the wilderness to Hagar (whom Abraham took as his concubine, and who bore him a son called Ishmael). These two storylines are accompanied by illustrations from manuscripts held in the British Library, and they allow us to see examples from Christian, Judaic, and Muslim sources from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries. Supporting the discussion on a regular basis are comments about contemporary culture and book production. Scribal and illustrative traditions from the West as well as what are Iraq and Iran and elsewhere today are on show. The sacrifice of Isaac, Daniel in the lions' den, the wedding at Cana where water was turned into wine, and the feeding of the multitude are also there, and comparison is easy.

This approach means that the book is a good introduction for non‐specialists in the field and can readily be used by readers (as much the general reader as students and teachers) as a source‐book for both religious topics as for the study of early books and manuscripts. The comparative approach makes it relevant, too, to any cross‐cultural study with a historical and historiographical dimension to it. Perhaps the most striking account in the book is the story of Job. This appears in the section called “Healing Powers”. A later section on “Great Escapes” provides an examination of escapes such as Jonah's from the whale as represented in sources from the Haggadah (like The Golden Haggadah created in fourteenth‐century Spain), Books of Hours and breviaries, and Muslim texts like Nishaburi's Stories of the Prophets. Parts of the stories appear in historiated initials and marginal images. Traditions borrow from each other, contrasts are drawn between Old and New Testament, and, underlying this, figures like Moses and Job appear in the scriptures of the three main faiths.

Throughout, Deirdre Jackson (who is a project officer of the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library) maintains an objective stance on the religious matter, handling issues of faith and belief objectively. Her own research (on the miracles of the Virgin Mary) shows through at times in ensuring that the Christian miracles are best represented, but this is clearly because of holdings and access rather than for ideology. Understandably the section on “Healing Powers” highlights the miracles of Jesus, like healing the leper and raising Lazarus, stories that appear, with fascinating similarities and differences, in the manuscripts, but not in Jewish sources. Some images derive from accounts of the Holy Grail, others from the healing powers of St Cuthbert, and yet others, of the resurrection from the tomb, in works like the Syriac Lectionary.

Many wonders appear in nature, or as if in nature, like the creation itself, the annunciation to Mary by the angel Gabriel, St Francis preaching to the birds and the beasts, and others. The text presents and explains these, sign‐posting deeper research cited in the bibliography (where there is a useful review of recent, as well as mainstream, commentary). Works there, also, cover miracles as such as well as manuscripts and the illustrations in them. There are notes as well. The book is a pictorial survey “taking us from the English monasteries to the courtly workshops of Persian princes”. It “focuses on the depiction of miracles in a wide variety of Jewish, Christian and Islamic manuscripts”.

The comparative and thematic approach allows the book to shed light on how key stories were represented (there are hints too of why they were produced and how they were received) and how, by juxtaposing images, we obtain a richer understanding of the cross‐fertilization between the faiths. Other BL publications (like those by Peters, Tahan, and Morrison) are worth considering by a library building up materials here. We find some images of the prophet Muhammad (not always proscribed) and even some of God or Allah (theologically Christians argued that representations of Jesus were fine!). Jackson realistically admits that we find evidence that some writers and illustrators set out to assert the superiority of their own point of view. She also retells the stories, and interprets the scenes, in a witty but scholarly way, and this makes the text well worth reading in its own right: it is no dull commentary to what might otherwise be arcane but pretty pictures.

Already by the late thirteenth century scribes and artists worried that readers might not know the underlying story – in the Hebrew Miscellany (northern France, c. 1278‐98), for instance, a comment in Hebrew is added under a picture of Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac (and an angel holding back his sword) saying what was happening. Today, much of the cultural frame of reference to medieval manuscripts, as indeed to religious knowledge, cannot be taken for granted. Jackson and the publishers anticipate this by providing explanations and references (to the sacred books) just in case. This makes the book highly accessible and, at the price, highly attractive. One or two small editorial slips do not detract from this. A useful addition to the specialist and academic (including appropriate school) libraries as well as an informative gift‐book for the general reader and addition to the art shelves of an ambitious public library.

Further reading

Morrison, E. (2007), Beasts: Factual & Fantastic, The British Library, London.

Peters, F.E. (2007), The Voice, the Word, the Books: The Sacred Scripture of the Jews, Christians and Muslims, The British Library, London.

Tahan, I. (2007), Hebrew Manuscripts, The British Library, London.

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