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Jaharis Lectionary

Byzantine (Constantinople), c. 1100
Tempera, ink, and gold leaf on parchment, leather binding


The Jaharis Lectionary, one of the greatest manuscripts from the height of the Byzantine empire, exemplifies the Byzantine interest in the literary arts. Lectionaries in which the gospels are arranged in order of their reading during the liturgical year were especially popular during the Middle Byzantine era. Written in handsome "perlschrift" Greek, the Jaharis Lectionary's 313 folios include the gospel lections (readings), the Easter liturgy, the church calendar, and a menologion (lives of the saints). The calendar has been identified as being for use in Hagia Sophia, the greatest church of Constantinople, or one of its dependencies. The four evangelist portraits that decorate the lectionary represent the apogee of late eleventh- to early twelfth-century Constantinopolitan art. The delicately detailed portraits are framed by elaborate borders reminiscent of cloisonné enamel. Exquisitely detailed historiated initials in the text include images of Christ and John the Forerunner (John the Baptist). Colophons, or inscriptions in the text, show that in the first years of the eighteenth century the work belonged to Chrysanthos Notaras, patriarch of Jerusalem and one of the important early members of the "Greek Enlightenment."


Illuminated manuscripts written in Greek were considered one of the greatest art forms by the highly literate and sophisticated clerical and secular elite of Byzantium. Over the centuries many works were commissioned for use in important churches. The calendar in this lectionary and the quality of the entire work suggest that the manuscript was made for the great church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.The Gospels were central to the liturgy of the Orthodox church. At the Little Entrance, which introduced the Liturgy of the Word, the deacon presented the Gospel to the faithful. In the middle Byzantine era, the lectionary replaced the Gospel book as the most widely used text by the church. In it Gospel texts were rearranged by the sequence in which they were read during the liturgical year, which begins at Easter in the Orthodox church. Often, as in this manuscript, the liturgical calendar and the lives of saints who were celebrated daily were included in the text. Highly trained scribes wrote the texts to which were added the elaborately colored initials for special readings and the illuminations that added great value to the work.


The Evangelist Matthew (fol. 43r)
The customary decoration for lectionaries included portraits of the Four Evangelists, beginning with John whose text is read at Easter. In this illumination, the white-haired, bearded evangelist Matthew sits before a city wall; his name is inscribed in Greek above. His pose echoes that of ancient philosophers as adopted for Christian use. God's hand descends from the arc of the blue heaven, directly inspiring the writer at his desk. The writing table includes all the implements needed by a scribe, including a scroll ready for the words of the text. The evangelist's face is subtly modulated; his garments and the cityscape behind are defined in pastel hues. The elegantly articulated border echoes the patterns widely seen in cloisonné enamel works of the period.

The incipit, or first letter, of the handsome script written in gold presents a small child raising his hands to a seated image of Christ. The scene reflects the first lines of the reading: "The Lord said: See that you never despise one of these little ones" (Matthew 18:10).

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