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Eleanor de Quincy (d. 1274), Countess of Winchester. © Lambeth Palace Library. Used with permission (3MB)

  • Detail from London, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 209, fol. 48r
  • c. 1252-67; London
  • Eleanor de Quincy was the probable patron of the 'Lambeth Apocalypse'
  • Treasures of Lambeth Palace Library
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A blacksmith's wife forging a nail from the Holkham Bible © British Library Board. Used with permission

Medieval Picture Bibles

In the later Middle Ages a trend developed that favoured the production of heavily illustrated biblical commentaries. Canterbury possesses 2 of these remarkable works in facsimile.

The ‘Lambeth Apocalypse’ contains the Bible’s final book following the text of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. This book, ‘The Revelation of St John the Divine’, is accompanied by extracts from an 11th-century commentary, and is illustrated by 78 miniatures.

The 'Apocalypse', as this book is sometimes also known, recounts the last days of the world, a period in which Christ was predicted to return and judge both the living and the dead. The book’s powerful imagery and mysterious symbolism have inspired mystics and prophets since Christianity’s earliest centuries.

The ‘Lambeth Apocalypse’, so called because it has been a part of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s library at Lambeth Palace since the early 17th century, provides insight into the English aristocracy’s experience of Christianity prior to the Reformation. The book was produced between 1252 and 1267, most probably in London. Its original owner was almost certainly Eleanor de Quincy (d. 1274), countess of Winchester. Eleanor is identifiable in one of the 28 illuminations that form a visual appendix to the text.

A fashion for illuminated Apocalypses began in England at about the time this book was produced and spread to the continent in succeeding centuries. The commentary is intended to ensure that the reader is guided in their understanding of the biblical text. The expensive illuminations assist in the interpretation of the text but they are also a statement of the owner’s social position. This book was intended to educate, but also to entertain.

The ‘Holkham Picture Bible’, so named for its long association with Holkham House in Norfolk prior to its entry into the British Library, is not, strictly speaking, a Bible.

The text is not taken directly from the Bible, but, in conjunction with the images, seeks to explain biblical stories to its readers. In the process it mixes in much medieval legend, including stories concerning Christ’s adolescence (a topic which the Bible itself passes over in silence).  

Commissioned in the mid-14th century by a member of the Dominican order, the most notable feature of the Holkham manuscript is the series of illustrations that dominate each folio. These depictions are of biblical stories but they include scenes of everyday 14th-century activities ranging from carpentry to midwifery. These tell historians a good deal about life in medieval England.

The text is written in Anglo-Norman French, the language of the English aristocracy following the Norman Conquest. That a luxury text of this sort was the preserve of the upper echelons of society is confirmed by an illustration at the beginning of the book in which its editor is depicted telling the scribe: ‘Do the work well and neatly, for it will be shown to rich people’.

Further Reading

Christopher de Hamel, The Book: A history of the Bible (London: Phaidon, 2001), chapter 6.

Nigel J. Morgan, 'The Lambeth Apocalypse', in Lambeth Palace Library: Treasures from the Collection of the Archbishops of Canterbury, ed. by Richard Palmer and Michelle P. Brown (London: Scala, 2010), pp. 48-51.

Facsimiles @ Canterbury

The Lambeth Apocalypse: Manuscript 209 in Lambeth Palace Library, commentary by Nigel J. Morgan and Michelle P. Brown (London: Harvey Miller, 1990).

The Holkham Bible Picture Book: A Facsimile, commentary by Michelle P. Brown (London: The British Library, 2007).