The Vienna Genesis

The Vienna Genesis

The Vienna Genesis

The Vienna Genesis


The Vienna Genesis (Cod. Vindob. theol. graec. 31) was transferred to the Imperial Library in 1664. The Librarian who discovered the manuscript among the works of art left to the Emperor Leopold I by his uncle, that great collector and connoisseur, the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, recognized at once its unique significance. He wrote to the Emperor: 'Exultavi pro gaudio ubi eximium hoc cimelium conspexi'--'I was transported with joy when I discovered this gem'. In fact, ever since it became known, the Vienna Genesis has been regarded as one of the outstanding manuscripts of all time. It has great aesthetic qualities: the fine uncial writing is done in silver on purple parchment, the lower half of each page being reserved for the painter. Script and paintings, together with the sumptuous background, form an admirable unity. Since most of the illustrations are in two superposed rows, the manuscript contains many more pictures than pages.

Apart from its appeal as a work of art, the Vienna Genesis is also outstanding as one of the main sources for the study of late classical book illustration in general and, in particular, of the beginnings of Bible illustration.

In order to realize how important it is in this respect, we must remember that it is one of two Greek illustrated Old Testament manuscripts, which alone have survived from pre-Iconoclastic times. The other is the Cotton Bible in the British Museum (Cod. Cotton Otho B.VI) attributed to the V Century A.D.1 There is a similar scarcity of early Latin illustrated documents. Here, again, only two fragmentary Old Testament manuscripts have been left from pre- Carolingian days: the 'Quedlinburg Itala' in Berlin (State Library, Cod. theol. lat. fol. 485), and the 'Ashburnham Pentateuch' in Paris (Bibl. nat. nouv. acq. lat.2334).

The Vienna Genesis is by far the richest and best preserved among all these fragments, Latin and Greek alike. It has therefore, since its discovery, been the subject of the most intensive research which has given rise to extremely violent controversy.

Before entering into the many questions involved we shall try to give a short description ot the manuscript and of its paintings. The Vienna Genesis is of considerable size, consisting of forty-eight pages, which measure in length between 30.4-32.6 cm. and in width 24.5-26.5 cm. On the whole the text follows the Septuagint's first book of Moses, but it ranges only from the Fall of Man to Jacob's death. Apart from the fact that beginning and end are missing, there are considerable gaps in various other parts of the existing manuscript. Careful investigations have shown that originally the codex must have contained at least 96 pages with 192 illustrations. Since the great majority of the pictures is composed of several scenes, the complete number of scenes--or 'iconographic units'--has been estimated at 400-500.

A comparison of the surviving text with the analogous sections of the Septuagint shows that some passages were left out, others shortened and condensed, with the result that, with very . . .

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