Opening Saturday, December 12 at the Blanton, The Crusader Bible: A Gothic Masterpiece features over forty unbound pages from the one of the most celebrated French illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. We asked Curatorial Research Associate Jeongho Park to explain the impressive journey of the Crusader Bible throughout the centuries.
Medieval knights on horseback charge from the margins of a parchment folio into the scene where they are immediately met by foes. In the chaos of exchanged blows that cleave several heads, a prominent figure in orange knocks an opponent off his horse with his spear. To get the extra thrust from the horse, he kicks the animal’s side with a prick spur (a primitive type of spur used until the fourteenth century), causing the horse to bleed.
The remarkably detailed, lively representation of the scene makes us think that it is a visual record of a medieval battle. It is, however, an illustration from the Crusader Bible—specifically, an episode from the Old Testament, where Saul, king of Israel, defeats the Agag, king of Amalec.
Probably created for King Louis IX of France in the 1240s, the Crusader Bible is filled with such colorful depictions of Old Testament stories set in the king’s time. The book originally did not have any text, so the artists took extra care to guarantee narrative clarity through compelling details. For instance, crowns on the helmets identify the two kings, and different types of headgear distinguish the opposing sides. The artist uses flat-top helmets of the most up-to-date design for the heroes (the Israelites), while illustrating the enemies in outmoded oval helmets with nasal guards.
The Crusader Bible had a wide appeal across different cultures beyond thirteenth-century France. It was taken to places that Louis IX would have never imagined, and at least three of its subsequent owners wrote extensively on the manuscript’s margins, demonstrating their active engagement with the images. In the fourteenth century, Latin captions were added in Naples where Louis’s brother Charles of Anjou probably brought the manuscript with him.
The Bible then reemerged in 1604 when Cardinal Bernard Maciejowski, Archbishop of Cracow, gave up the prized manuscript and presented it to the Shah of Persia, entrusting it to papal delegates passing through Poland on their way to Isfahan. Pope Clement VIII had sent the delegates to negotiate an alliance with the Persian king against their common enemy, the Ottoman Turks. An account of the mission tells us that the king “turned the sacred pages with care and admiration.” He then ordered the Persian inscriptions to be added according to one of the missionaries’ explanation of each scene and kept the manuscript in his royal library.
The Crusader Bible changed hands again about a century later, when the royal library collection was dispersed. Sometime thereafter, a Persian Jew acquired the manuscript and added his descriptions of the pictures in his language, Judeo-Persian.
What would have been the reason for these additional captions? The Crusader Bible’s vibrant images of medieval European arms and armor, clothes, and architecture would have certainly appeared exotic and even fantastical to the viewers in Persia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, necessitating annotations.
But perhaps the more compelling reason would have been that the visual narrative was based on a religious tradition shared by Muslims and Jews. Shah ‘Abbas must have recognized the episodes of Joseph, not only from the Quran but also from Yusuf and Zulaikha, a hugely popular epic derived from the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife.
The Persian-speaking Jew would also have been very familiar with the biblical stories depicted. (Interestingly enough, the Judeo-Persian captions are the most accurate of all the inscriptions.) Furthermore, the Jewish community in Persia had a rich tradition of illustrated manuscripts of religious literature like the Ardashīr nāmāh based on the story of Esther.
It is ironic that the Crusader Bible began its life as a lavish picture book for a zealous king who thought of himself as the defender of Christianity only to be owned and celebrated by the people he considered “infidels.” Their intellectual responses in the form of inscriptions, however, added unexpectedly rich layers of interpretation, which remind us of the active cultural interactions between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism throughout the centuries.
Jeongho Park is the Curatorial Research Associate, Department of Prints and Drawings and European Paintings.