Gospels of Luke and John
Gospels of Luke and John (Dumbarton Oaks MS 4)
Middle Byzantine, late 12th-early 13th century
Tempera, gold leaf and ink on vellum, 24 x 17 cm
The revered phenomenon of Luke's writing of the third Gospel is here expressed in terms of the physical act of writing. He works on a manuscript in his lap, copying from a version of his gospel on the bookstand in front of him, open to the beginning: "In as much as many have undertaken [to compile an account]" (Luke 1:1). On the table we see a series of writing tools; a dual inkwell containing black and red ink (red for emphasis), an unidentified object, perhaps a protective white pouch with red ribbons for protecting reeds and other instruments, a pair of calipers for exact measurements, and a wheel for ruling lines. There is even a glass bottle containing a reserve supply of ink hanging from the right side of the tabletop, partially obscured by the flaking of paint. The appearance of such tools is no anachronism, as they had been in use equally in ancient times as in the middle ages when this manuscript was written and painted, and even continued in use into the nineteenth century.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are usually painted in this fashion, seated in profile at a desk, a type that seems to have derived from statues of ancient philosophers and poets in flowing garments. The elongated pedimented building behind Luke is typical of the sort of improbable townscapes that illustrators employed as backdrops. They resemble the fictive architecture seen also in Roman wall paintings, Roman theatres, and early Christian and Byzantine murals and ivory reliefs.
The Dumbarton Oaks Gospel book-really about half of a Gospel book, containing only Luke and John-has been dated by some scholars to the latter twelfth century based on the style of the paintings. The dynamic drapery folds and compelling facial expression compare well with certain monumental cycles of paintings of the twelfth century, such as the late twelfth-century frescoes of the church at Nerezi. On the other hand, the text is written in an archaizing script of a kind that was current in the latter half of the thirteenth century. Whether we set greater store by pictorial or paleographic evidence, we can tell that the miniatures were later additions. The illustrator, contrary to common practice, painted Luke's author portrait on a ruled folio overleaf from the tail end of the table of contents. The portrait of John, moreover, is painted on a separate sheet which was inserted into the manuscript. Such technical evidence supports the later dating, although it is impossible to say how much time might have elapsed between writing the book and adding the miniatures.