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Bibles of the 13th century on display at the Library

Bibles in the 13th century were hand written and drawn by groups of craftsmen called workshops. However, the large amount of detailed drawings and inscriptions produced through the labors of copying verses is much different than the modern-day mass-produced Bible. It was also in the 13th century that bibles were made so that they could be more portable and accessible.

“The Bibles in the Age of Gothic Cathedrals” exhibition will be on display for six months in the USF library. The exhibit, which is the first in the series Sacred Leaves, showcases 25 illustrated pages, or leaves from 13th century Bibles. The series Sacred Leaves is based on the theme of examination of written religious works.

The illuminated leaves were loaned by a private collector. In the fall of 2001 the collector notified Todd Chavez, USF librarian and project coordinator, that he wanted to lend the manuscripts for an exhibition.

“We had not done an exhibition from ground up (before)” said Chavez.” Part of the experience was to work with the students and the faculty. They did all the research that provided the content of the exhibition.”

The 13th century manuscripts, known as “Paris Bibles,” depict important developments in the making of the Bible. Before this era, bibles were typically large books written in Hebrew and Greek. In the 13th century, Chavez said the need for a smaller, standardized and portable book came from university system students and the priests of the church. There were many versions of the Bible. Some contained only the gospels, others only the psalms. They needed a uniform format for the content of the book.

It was through the workshops of groups of illuminators, scribes and other craftsmen that the Bible could be mass-produced in a portable version. In previous times, the production of the Bible was a monastic craft, where the monks alone would perform the hand transcription and illuminations, which are illustrations.

Students of the USF Medieval Manuscripts Seminar and faculty members worked together from the fall of 2002 through January to research and examine the Bible manuscripts.

“When I heard that this collector wanted to lend these leaves, I suggested we use that as a core for my class” said Helena Szepe, an art history professor.

Graduate students Laura Herrmann, Candace Mircovic and Lesley Treace, as well as undergraduate student Shawna Himelright, were all authors in the published catalog of research showcased with the exhibition.

Todd Chavez said the students and faculty looked at the cultural artifacts in the artwork and text. Using the manuscripts first-hand, they carefully examined the illuminations and Latin texts hand scribed on the vellum, or thin animal skin.

Through careful analysis of the text and artwork on the vellum the seminar students made an important discovery. According to the Sotheby’s auction catalogue of 1998, 15 of the manuscript leaves were believed to be from the “Soissons Atelier” a particular workshop of craftsmen and artists. The students traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to take a look at a complete Bible done by this workshop. Through careful analysis, the USF students found that the thinner appearance of the biblical figures and format of the text more closely resembled the rare “Mathurin Atelier,” a different workshop in Europe.

The students compiled a catalog from their research based on the format and text, materials and methods, the art of the illumination in comparison to other arts and the examination of the owners of the portable Bibles. The catalog will help keep the work of the researchers alive in the future, Chevaz said.

“I think all of us, though already interested in manuscripts, have had our eyes opened wider to the potential areas of investigation available to the scholar in the field of manuscript studies”, said Herrmann. “This generous loan is not only a wonderful thing for USF as an institution, but an important opportunity for students of medieval material culture.”

The Sacred Leaves exhibition is a series that will continue for the next four and a half years at USF. Next year, the exhibit, “Book of Hours”, will follow a similar manuscript seminar. Szepe said that the seminar that will accompany the exhibit will be an interdisciplinary course that is open to students with a basis of knowledge in medieval and Renaissance history. The seminar will focus on 14th and 15th century manuscripts made to facilitate private devotion to God through Mary, said Szepe. The books, which were best sellers of the era, contained various prayers, texts and songs.

Some of the other series in the coming years will focus on Korans, Ethiopian and Tibetan materials, medieval music and very early printed books.

“The Bibles in the Age of Gothic Cathedrals” will be on display until Aug. 8, in the Special Collections Reading Room located on the fourth floor of the USF library.

Those interested in more information can visit the Web site at