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Picture Bibles

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In the Middle Ages the Church made use of pictures as a means of instruction, to supplement the knowledge acquired by reading or oral teaching. For books only existed in manuscript form and, being costly, were beyond the means of most people. Besides, had it been possible for the multitude to come into the possession of books, they could not have read them, since in those rude times, education was the privilege of few. In fact, hardly anyone could read, outside the ranks of the clergy and the monks. So frescoes of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, stained-glass windows, and the like were set up in the churches, because, as the Synod of Arras (1025) said, "The illiterate contemplated in the lineaments of painting what they, having never learnt to read, could not discern in writing". Especially did the Church make use of pictures to spread abroad a knowledge of the events recorded in the Bible and of the mutual connection between the leading facts of the Old and New Testaments, whether as type and antitype, or as prophecy and fulfillment. For this purpose the picture Bibles of the Middle Ages were copied and put in circulation. The most important of the picture Bibles of the Middle Ages which have survived is that variously styled the "Bible Moralisée", the "Bible Historiée", the "Bible Allégorisée" and sometimes "Emblémes Bibliques". It is a work of the thirteenth century, and from the copies that still survive there is no doubt that it existed in at least two editions, like to one another in the choice and order of the Biblical texts used, but differing in the allegorical and moral deductions drawn from these passages. The few remarks to be made here about the "Bible Moralisée" will be made in connection with copies of the first and second redactions which have come down to us.

The copy of the first edition, to which reference has been made, is one of the most sumptuous illustrated manuscripts, preserved to us from the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, it no longer exists in the form of a single volume, nor is it kept in one place. It has been split up into three separate parts kept in three distinct libraries. The first part, consisting of 224 leaves, is in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. The second part of 222 leaves is in the National Library in Paris; and the third part, made up of 178 leaves, is kept in the library of the British Museum. Six leaves of the third part are missing, so that it ought to contain 184 leaves. When complete and bound together, therefore, the whole volume consisted of 630 leaves, written and illustrated on one side only. This Bible, as indeed all the picture Bibles of the Middle Ages, did not contain the full text of the Bible. Short passages only were cited, and these not so as to give any continuous sense or line of thought. But the object of the writer seems to have been chiefly to make the texts cited the basis of moral and allegorical teaching, in the manner so common in those days. In the Psalter he was content with copying out the first verse of each psalm; whilst when dealing with the Gospels he did not quote from each evangelist separately, but made use of a kind of confused diatessaron of all four combined. An attempt was made to establish a connection between the events recorded in the Old Testament and those recorded in the New, even when there does not seem to be any very obvious connection between them. Thus the sleep of Adam, recorded in the beginning of Genesis, is said to prefigure the death of Christ; and Abraham sending his servant with rich presents to seek a wife for his son is a type of the Eternal Father giving the Gospels to the Apostles to prepare the union of His Son with the Church.

The entire work contains about 5,000 illustrations. The pictures are arranged in two parallel columns on each page, each column having four medallions with pictures. Parallel to the pictures and alternating with them are two other narrower columns, with four legends each, one legend to each picture; the legends consisting alternatively of Biblical texts and moral or allegorical applications; whilst the pictures represent the subjects of the Biblical texts or of the applications of them. In the manuscript copy of the "Bible Moralisée", now under consideration, the illustrations are executed with the greatest skill. The painting is said to be one of the best specimens of thirteenth-century work and the manuscript was in all probability prepared for someone in the highest rank of life. A specimen of the second edition of the "Bible Moralisée" is to be found in the National Library in Paris (manuscript Français No. 167). Whilst it is identical with the copy which has just been examined in the selection and order of the Biblical passages, it differs from it in the greater simplicity and brevity of the moral and allegorical teaching based on them. Another important Bible, intended to instruct by means of pictures, was that which has been called the "Bible Historiée toute figurée". It was a work of the end of the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth century. In general outline and plan it resembles the class of Bible which has gone before, but it differs from it in the selection of Bible passages and in the allegorical explanations derived from them. Coming to the life of Our Lord, the author of the "Bible Historiée toute figurée" dispensed with a written text altogether, and contented himself with writing over the pictures depicting scenes of Our Saviour's life, a brief explanatory legend. Many specimens of this Bible have come down to us, but we select part of one preserved in the National Library in Paris (manuscript Français No. 9561) for a brief description. In this manuscript 129 pages are taken up with the Old Testament. Of these the earlier ones are divided horizontally in the centre, and it is the upper part of the page that contains the picture illustrative of some Old Testament event. The lower part represents a corresponding scene from the New Testament. further on in the volume, three pictures appear in the upper part of the page, and three below. Seventy-six pages at the end of the volume are devoted to depicting the lives of Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin.

It must not be supposed that these were the only Bibles of this class that existed in the Middle Ages. On the contrary, from the great number of copies that have survived to our own day we may guess how wide their circulation must have been. We have a manuscript existing in the British Museum (addit. 1577) entitled "Figures de la Bible" consisting of pictures illustrating events in the Bible with short descriptive text. This is of the end of the thirteenth, or the beginning of the fourteenth, century. Of the same date is the "Historia Bibliæ metrice" which is preserved in the same library and, as the name implies, has a metrical text. But we have specimens of manuscript illustrated Bibles of earlier date. Such is the Bible preserved in the library of St. Paul's, outside the walls of Rome; that of the Amiens Library (manuscript 108), and that of the Royal Library of The Hague (manuscript 69). So numerous are the surviving relics of such Bibles, back even so far as the eleventh and twelfth centuries, that it may be safely said that the Church made a systematic effort to teach the Scriptures in those days by means of illustrated Bibles.

Single illustrated books of the Bible

The Bibles that have come under notice so far illustrate the entire Scriptures. But what was done for the Bible in full was also done for its various parts. Numerous beautifully illustrated psalters have come down to us, some of them going as far back as the ninth century, as, for instance, the Psalter of the University of Utrecht. One thing that comes out clearly from a study of the contents and character of these psalters is that a very large proportion of them were executed by artists working in England. So, too, the book of Job and the Apocalypse were copied separately and adorned with numerous illustrations. But, as we should have expected, the Gospels were a specially favourite field for the medieval artists who devoted their time to picture-painting.

Biblia Pauperum

A class of illustrated Bibles to which no allusion has been made, but which had a wide circulation especially in the fifteenth century was the "Biblia Pauperum". As it name indicates, it was especially intended for the poor and ignorant, and some say that it was used for purposes of preaching by the mendicant orders. It existed at first in manuscript (indeed a manuscript copy is still in existence in the library of the British Museum); but at a very early period it was reproduced by xylography, then coming into use in Europe. As a consequence the "Biblia Pauperum" was published and sold at a much cheaper rate than the older manuscript picture Bibles. The general characteristics of this Bible are the same as those of the earlier picture Bibles. The pictures are generally placed only on one side of the page, and are framed in a kind of triptych of architectural design. In the centre is a scene from the New Testament, and on either side of it typical events from the Old Testament. Above and below the central picture are busts of four noted prophets or other famous characters of the Old Testament. In the corners of the picture are the legends. The number of these pictures in the "Biblia Pauperum" was usually from forty to fifty.

Picture Bibles of the Middle Ages did not exhaust the resources of Christians in illustration of the Bible. Since the fifteenth century a host of artistic geniuses have contributed to make the events of Scripture live in colour before our eyes. Most noted amongst them were Michelangelo and Raphael; the former chiefly famous for his Pietà and the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel; the latter for seven cartoons illustrating events in the New Testament. Perhaps no sacred picture has been so often copied as "The Last Supper" of Leonardo da Vinci painted in the refectory of the Dominican convent in Milan. Well known, too, are Fra Bartolomeo's "Presentation in the Temple" in Vienna, and Rubens's numerous Bible pictures, to be found in the Louvre, Brussels, Vienna, Munich, and London, but chiefly at Antwerp, where are his "Descent from the Cross", "Crucifixion", and "Adoration of the Magi", the most famous of his works. These are but a few out of a number of illustrious names too numerous to mention here and including Botticelli, Carrucci, Holman, Hunt, Leighton, Murillo, Veronese, Tintoretto, and Watts.

To study the works of the great Bible-illustrators is not so difficult as might be supposed. For of late years a great number of collections of Bible prints have been made, some containing engravings of the most famous paintings. In the first half of the last century Julius Schnorr collected together 180 designs called his "Bible Pictures, or Scripture History"; and another series of 240 pictures was published in 1860 by George Wigand; whilst later in the century appeared Dalziel's "Bible Gallery". Hodder and Stoughton have published excellent volumes reproducing some of the pictures of the greatest masters. Such are "The Old Testament in Art" (2 parts); "The Gospels in Art", "The Apostles in Art", and "Bethlehem to Olivet", this latter being made up of modern pictures. The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge has not been behindhand, but has issued amongst other publications a volume on "Art Pictures from the Old Testament" with ninety illustrations, and another on the Gospels with 350 illustrations from the works of the great masters of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries.


HORNE, Introduction to the Holy Scriptures (London, 1822), II, 3d ed.; HUMPHREY, History of the Art of Printing (London, 1868); LEVESQUE in VIG., Dict. de la Bible (Paris, 1894), s.v. Bible en image; DELISLE, Hist. littéraire de la France (Paris, 1893), XXXI, 213-285; BERJEAU, Biblia Pauperum, reproduced in facsimile from one of the copies in the British Museum, with an historical and bibliographical introduction (London, 1859).

About this page

APA citation. Howlett, J. (1907). Picture Bibles. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Howlett, James. "Picture Bibles." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Bryan R. Johnson.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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