Florence’s Laurentian Library, commissioned in 1523 by Pope Clement VII to celebrate his family’s political and ecclesiastical ascension to power, continues to be the home of numerous remarkable manuscripts. One of which, the Codex Amiatinus, has returned to England as a crown jewel in the critically acclaimed Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition at the British Library in London. This monumental tome is no ordinary bible.
Although the manuscript made its way to Italy 1,300 years ago, the codex was produced by the Anglo-Saxons in Northumbria. These Germanic tribal peoples entered the British Isles at the time of the fall of Rome in the fifth century and they controlled the region until the Norman conquest of the eleventh century. Their cultural production is complex, in part because of a mixing of Irish and Roman influences as the Anglo-Saxons entered a late, albeit rather enthusiastic, conversion to Christianity. That enthusiasm is evident in the creation of the Codex Amiatinus, which is the oldest surviving complete bible written in the Latin Vulgate. Since it is considered the most accurate copy of the rather prickly Saint Jerome’s original Latin translation of the bible from the fourth century, the codex gained permanent notoriety when it was used by Pope Sixtus V to revise the Church’s official bible in 1590.
The Codex is also famous for being deeply connected to the Venerable Bede (673–735). The patron saint of historians, Bede was the abbot at Wearmouth-Jarrow and in his historical musings he tells us that the former Benedictine Abbot Ceolfrid was the patron of a grand project to craft three large bibles. Two were made for churches in sister abbeys in Northumbria, while the third was to be a gift for Pope Gregory II. Under the direction of Ceolfrid, this bible was painstakingly and gracefully written by seven different scribes.
It contains two grand illuminations, one of a Christ in Majesty highlighting the authors of the New Testament gospels, and the other of Ezra writing the Old Testament. Ezra is depicted working in one of the oldest illustrations containing bookshelves displaying volumes of manuscripts.
In 716, a determined Ceolfrid set off to Rome to deliver the 75-pound bible, but he died en route, leaving other monks to transport the priceless gift to Gregory. While we know little about how Pope Gregory received the manuscript, we do know that it soon made its way to the San Salvatore Abbey at Monte Amiata, one of the most powerful monastic houses in Tuscany, before becoming part of the Laurentian Library in 1782 after Duke Pietro Leopoldo I suspended the religious orders.
Like many manuscripts, its origins remained mysterious for centuries. The bible included a great deal of Byzantine influence in the illustrations, probably because they were copied or inspired from sources produced in late antiquity, which helps to explain why it was not thought to be English in origin. In the late nineteenth century, it was determined that the dedication page had been altered to claim that it was a gift from the Lombards directly to the Benedictine monastery at Monte Amiata. That’s one way to try to keep such a treasure in your possession.
The British Library is thrilled to have this work back in England, but it’s not the first time. The manuscript made its way back to Jarrow for an exhibition about Bede in 2014. After spending 1,300 years in Italy, the complexities of cultural diaspora are highlighted anytime this manuscript travels. While the text’s production might have been in the British Isles, it is emblematic of Mediterranean influence, created to leave for Italy as soon as it was completed. The Codex spent more than 700 years as a focal point in the life of a vibrant and politically significant monastery in Tuscany before becoming a rock star in a Medici collection. English by birth, Tuscan by proxy, and the wave of a pen on a dedication page, the Codex will be back in Florence next year.