Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Pictures from a Mediaeval Bible

Cologne Bible, Samson and the lion, Judges xiv

I've just been reading Pictures from a Mediaeval Bible (James Strachan, Darwen Finlayson, London, 1959), a lovely collection of woodcuts, with commentary, from the Cologne Bible of 1478-80. The first systematically illustrated Bible - see Past Masters: The Cologne Bible Illustrations - it was the prototype for many inferior copies. The vividness and sharp composition of its depictions of Biblical stories, transferred to contemporary mediaeval settings, are still striking today ... even if the quaintness and cartoon-like encapsulation of scenes make it impossible to resist annotating many of them! (Hat tip to LOL Manuscripts).

(For the benefit of non-palaeontologists: the thing at top left has a remarkable resemblance to the Lower-Middle Cambrian fossil Hallucigenia - or at least Hallucigenia as it was first thought to be. As the Smithsonian's Department of Paleobiology page Hallucigenia sparsa (an onychophoran) explains, this Burgess Shale fossil was first interpreted as a creature walking on long stilt-like spines, with short hooked feeding tentacles on its back. Better specimens from a related species found in China have since revealed that the first interpretation had Hallucigenia upside-down: the tentacles are legs, and the spines are on its back. The other multi-tentacled things in the picture are actually flames; in the Cologne Bible, the scene comes from the Book of Leviticus and depicts Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, being consumed by fire as divine retribution for offering incense lit with unconsecrated fire).

- Ray


  1. What is the "Hallucigenia" meant to be in its original context? I'd guess a cloud hurling down lightning bolts.

  2. Something like that: or heavenly radiance. In some of the pictures where a cloud is doing that, God is depicted sitting in it.