The Crusader Bible: A medieval gem reveals its own history


One of the greatest illuminated manuscripts in the world bears its history in a singular way.

The Crusader Bible, on loan from the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, is the centerpiece of a new exhibit at the Blanton Museum of Art.

And though the 13th-century picture book was created without any text, over the centuries three different alphabets have joined the vibrant and highly animated illustrations.

Likely commissioned in the 1240s by King Louis IX of France, who after his death was canonized as Saint Louis, the Crusader Bible illustrates select scenes from the Old Testament, its bright images brimming with medieval castles and battling knights in armor.

But after Louis’ death in 1270, the precious and highly valued book embarked on a centurieslong journey.

First it went to Italy. By the 1600s it turned up in Poland before it was presented as a diplomatic gift to the Shah of Persia. By the 18th century it belonged to a Persian Jew. The bible next traveled to Egypt, then England and finally to New York in 1916.

Along the way, inscriptions were added in the margins — captions that explained the medieval French scenes to people of different cultures and religions. The captions are written in Latin, Persian and Judeo-Persian, proof of the bible’s changing owners. Although the highly valued manuscript traversed through Christian, Jewish and Islamic owners, many of its Old Testament tales would have been familiar to followers of the three religions.

Still, each set of inscriptions demonstrates how new owners would lay claim to the book, use their language to appropriate the bible’s imagery and assimilate it into their respective cultures.

The captions “are a powerful reminder how much these objects traveled and how many intellectual and religious encounters there were with them over the centuries between different cultures,” says Blanton curator Jeongho Park, who organized the Blanton’s exhibit. “And these inscriptions on these pages make that all very evident visually. What is often history’s backstory is here brought to the fore.”

Park included a few choice and rare items in the exhibit for additional context.

From the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he borrowed a medieval sword, war helmet and chain armor shirt as well as a suite of 16th century Persian illustrations — delicate and exquisitely detailed miniatures. And from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Park borrowed the Ardashīr-nāma, a 17th-century Judeo-Persian illustrated manuscript of Old Testament stories.

“We wanted to illuminate how there’s a common source for all three of these religions, that they share many of the same stories,” Park says. “That commonality between Christianity, Judaism and Islam is often forgotten, especially today.”

The Crusader Bible’s selection of scenes from seven books of the Old Testament is not without some political agenda, however.

With France the leading European, and Christian, nation at the time, the ardently devout King Louis IX believed himself to be holy. Therefore scenes and stories that reinforced the idea of divine kingship, or that show a saintly leader vanquishing evil in battle, are frequent.

And artists used details that made that agenda clear to a 13th-century audience. The good guys are rendered sporting the latest in medieval armor and brandishing the best swords. The bad guys, on the other hand, wore outmoded oval helmets with nasal guards.

Scholars believe that seven artists illustrated the manuscript, each working on distinct sections. Although all highly skilled for their time, some had more finesse than others.

“The artist in charge of illustrating the second book was clearly the best,” says Park. “He’s so sure of himself he doesn’t even use any gold leaf.”

The Blanton’s exhibit includes a few helpful interpretative tools. IPads loaded with an augmented reality app allow visitors to read the annotations on some of the illustrated pages in English.

One gallery features different types of animal skin vellum manuscript paper to run your hands along as well as a set of the mineral-based pigments medieval artists would have used.

“It’s ironic that the Crusader Bible started out as lavish picture book for a king who believed he was the defender of Christianity, only to later be owned by people he would have considered infidels,” Park says. “But their interactions with it — which can be seen in the inscriptions — remind us of the active cultural interactions between Christianity, Islam and Judaism through the centuries.”



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