Northern Mesopotamia, 6th-7th century
Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris
A Peshitto (Syriac version) manuscript of the Old and New Testaments, written in tiny estrangelo characters, this book is the oldest surviving example of the full Bible with a unified program of illustrations. Unhappily, large sections are missing from the front and back. These were replaced with paper pages during the fourteenth century. Several miniatures have been pasted in.
Although many miniatures (including all but one New Testament picture) have vanished, the system of illustration can be reconstructed from the remaining twenty-three depictions. A single picture stood at the front of each book. Most that survive are simple author portraits: Joshua; Habakkuk; Jesus, son of Sirach; and James the Apostle, for example. A few are more complex illustrations: a lively presentation of Moses before Pharaoh precedes the Book of Exodus; a double miniature showing Aaron and the twelve tribes and the brazen serpent serves as the preface to Numbers; and an illustration of Job on the dung heap illustrates the Book of Job. An allegorical scene before Proverbs represents a third type of miniature: here, the Virgin and Child are flanked by Solomon and a personification of Ecclesia.
The heterogeneity of this program indicates that it was derived from a variety of sources. Standing prophets, not unlike those in this Bible, also appear in the Rabbula Gospels and in the Alexandrian World Chronicle; they are an old type that seems to have been designed for the narrow columns of text in a rotulus. The Proverbs illustration may be a spontaneous invention, but the narrative scenes were certainly culled from richer cycles. In contrast to the static, hieratic portraits, they retain the lively, animated character of their antique prototypes. It has been dated to the seventh to eighth century. Art historical evidence, however, suggests an earlier date. The style of the miniatures resembles that of the illustrations of the Rabbula Gospels of 586. A fluid manner of painting and a tendency toward heavy contours, brilliant colors, and agitated gestures indicate an origin for the two manuscripts similar in date and place.