The Cotton Genesis

Alexandria, 600 ?

The British Library in London

The fire that swept the library of Sir Robert Cotton in 1731 all but destroyed one of the most important Early Christian manuscripts, a Book of Genesis written in tall Greek uncials and decorated with a remarkable series of framed miniatures. All that remains of the magnificent volume are badly charred fragments, seventeenth-century copies of two leaves prepared for the French antiquarian Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, and engravings made shortly after the fire for the Vetusta monumenta. One of the best-preserved folios, on which is depicted the encounter of Lot and the Sodomites (Gen. 19:4-11), bears the literal and dramatic rendering typical of the biblical narrative in the Cotton manuscript. Lot, still waving his arms in a futile attempt to turn back the crazed crowd, is shown being pulled into his house by one of the angels he is trying to protect. The action is conveyed by robust, well-articulated figures and is set in a receding space. The Cotton manuscript originally contained approximately 330 such miniatures interspersed through the Genesis text on some 215 folios. The style and narrative technique are deeply rooted in Greco-Roman art, but many details betray a weakening of Hellenistic traditions. A reliance on outline flattens the forms and a tendency toward pattern is evident in the garments and landscape. These characteristics and more specific features, such as the squat figural proportions and darkened eye sockets, have induced some scholars to conclude that the Cotton manuscript was produced in Alexandria during the sixth century. 
The illuminators of the Cotton Genesis adhered closely to the text, but they also elaborated the biblical account with elements drawn from legend and commentary. Certain extra-biblical features in the miniatures can be traced to Jewish sources, and these, together with other evidence, indicate that the pictorial cycle may have been copied from a much earlier model. The archetype of the Cotton Genesis generated a number of other narrative cycles during the Middle Ages. Among its descendants are the frescoes of S. Paolo fuori le mura in Rome, the Joseph plaques on the Maximianus cathedra, the Coptic textile in the Metropolitan Museum, and four ninth-century Bibles and the Millstatt Genesis. The most complete dependent is the thirteenth-century mosaic cycle in the atrium of S. Marco in Venice, which seems to have been copied directly from the Cotton manuscript. 
An inscription on the now lost flyleaf stated that the volume was brought to England from Philippi by two Greek bishops as a gift for Henry VIII. Because of its age, the book was revered in England. It changed hands several times, was collated and studied, and plans were initiated to reproduce it. Unfortunately, the facsimile project was aborted before the manuscript was destroyed.