Syria, 6th century
Silver and gold on vellum
Cathedral Library in Rossano
The fragmentary codex in the cathedral library of Rossano is the oldest illustrated Gospel book known today. Like the closely related Vienna Genesis and Codex Petropolitanus, the Rossano Gospels is a manuscript of great opulence. It contains the texts of Matthew and Mark written in fine silver and gold uncials on purple vellum.
In contrast to the illustrations in its sister manuscripts, the miniatures of the Rossano Gospels do not follow the Bible. Set apart from the text, they are arranged at the front of the volume and follow the sequence of readings recited in church during Lent. Old Testament figures bearing quotations associated with the Gospel episodes are depicted beneath each narrative scene, and they, too, are derived from the liturgy. Fol. 3r, for example, presents the Last Supper as reported in Matt. 26 and Christ washing the disciples' feet as told in John 13, above portraits of David and Zephaniah holding scrolls inscribed with prophetic passages. The excerpt from Psalms 41: 9, "even the friend whom I trusted, who ate at my table, exults over my misfortune," for instance, is clearly associated with the Last Supper and, because of that, was read in church on Holy Thursday. The liturgical character of the Rossano illustrations suggests that they may have been copied from a lectionary, a book used in the church service; the readings from Matt. 26 and John 13, for example, occur on a single page in lectionaries. It has been argued, however, that the immediate model of the Rossano miniatures was a cycle of monumental paintings that reflected liturgical practice. Certainly, the two pages depicting Christ before Pilate were copied from mural paintings. Their arched frames and symmetrical organizations resemble apse compositions, and and a theory has been advanced that they were copied from fifth-century frescoes or mosaics in the domus Pilati in Jerusalem. One miniature, the portrait of St. Mark, belongs entirely within manuscript traditions. Although the Rossano Mark is the sole Byzantine example that survives from the pre-iconoclastic period, evangelist pictures were usual features of medieval Gospel books. They derive from the Hellenistic practice of including author portraits in illustrated books; even the mysterious woman robed in blue (Holy Wisdom?), who inspires Mark's work, has antecedents in the personifications included in many antique portraits.
The Rossano miniatures are painted with extraordinary refinement and economy. Like the illustrations in the Vienna Genesis, they distill the narrative action in a few, convincing gestures. Hellenistic naturalism survives in the soft, highlighted garments, dramatic action, and details of setting. Christ's trial, for example, is depicted as an authentic court procedure. Nevertheless, a weakening of classical verisimilitude and vigor is evident throughout the manuscript; in the Mark page, the personification and garden wall appear flattened and show a tendency toward abstract pattern.
The Rossano Gospels was already a treasure of the cathedral when it first was noted by a Neapolitan journalist, Cesare Malpica, in 1845.