Thursday, October 30, 2014


Kathleen Maxwell, Between Constantinople and Rome: An Illuminated Byzantine Gospel Book (Paris gr. 54) and the Union of Churches. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014. Pp. xvi, 307; 63 p. of plates. ISBN 9781409457442. $119.95.

Reviewed by Jeffrey C. Anderson, George Washington University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Among the manuscripts produced in Constantinople following the restoration, in 1261, of Byzantine authority is the Gospel book Paris. gr. 54 (henceforth Paris Gospels). It is an ostentatiously rich bilingual (Greek-Latin) copied in four different inks, by at least two scribes, possibly more, and illustrated with evangelist portraits and subjects imbedded in the text; both miniature cycle and Latin text were left in an unfinished state. The manuscript contains no internal evidence regarding its date, patron, or intended reader, if different from the patron. Kathleen Maxwell has now given us a lengthy and well-researched monograph devoted to this enormously complicated manuscript. Her book comprises nine chapters, the first of which is an introduction that offers summaries of the findings in the following eight.

In chapters two through five Maxwell reports on the basic aspects of the manuscript: codicology and handwriting, the stages in which the makers may have produced the work, the Greek text of the Gospels, the subjects of the embedded miniatures, including those intended for spaces left blank, and a division of the miniatures among three illuminators, whom Maxwell calls A, B, and C. The fourth chapter contains the most substantial contribution made in this first part of the book. The unspoken premise is the widely recognized view that the model used for most of the completed miniatures is a manuscript on Mt. Athos, Iviron Monastery, cod. 5. Implied is the question: Was it also the exemplar used in copying the Greek text? After a much too lengthy review of the history of New Testament text criticism, Maxwell focuses on one member of the small group of Gospel books with which the Paris manuscript has traditionally been associated: Princeton Garrett 3, copied near Jerusalem in 1135/36. Using microfilm, she compares the texts of the Paris and Princeton manuscripts and finds them to be (p. 80) "extremely closely related, but not identical," but the few discrepancies, as it turns out, are ultimately irrelevant, and for two reasons. First, a comparison of the Paris and Iviron texts shows that the latter cannot have been the source. Second, Maxwell's careful examination of the Princeton manuscript shows that a later hand, presumably that of the scribe of the Paris Gospels, went through its text and systematically marked each line where the Iviron Gospels had a miniature, reminding him where to leave space when copying the text.

In the final four chapters, Maxwell widens her scope from technical matters to consider the Paris Gospels as a reflection of Palaeologan art and society. Chapter six lays the foundation by examining the relationship between the imagery in Iviron 5 and that of the Paris Gospels. Following an analysis of a pair of evangelist portraits, as emblematic of the close relationship between the two manuscripts, Maxwell turns to the narrative miniatures. The Iviron Gospels has twenty-nine miniatures and the Paris Gospels fifty-one (completed or planned). The guiding principal in Maxwell's analysis of the differences in composition arises from the different formats of the two manuscripts: the size and layout of the Paris Gospels led to the scribe's creation of rectangular fields proportionately much longer than those of the smaller, single-column Iviron Gospels. The author proceeds on the basis of how the three illuminators handled the cinemascope format. She finds the work of painters A and B, which is confined to the illustration of Matthew and Mark, often less than satisfactory in the face of the challenge. In the illustration to Luke and John, the relationship with the Iviron manuscript is less clear, but this is attributed to the miniatures' having been executed by Painter C, who is, in the author's view, far more open to contemporary trends and may even be looking outside to monumental and icon painting as he confidently fills the rectangles. I must admit that at this point, closely following some of her comparisons, my faith in the model-copy relationship between the two works—a staple of the undergraduate Byzantine art survey—began to waver badly; and it should be noted that when the scribe went through the exemplar for the Greek text, the Princeton manuscript, he seems to have marked every place where a miniature would be inserted, not simply those where the Iviron Gospels had an illustration. The sixth chapter ends on speculation of why miniatures were added over what was illustrated in the Iviron manuscript and from what the author thinks may have been a variety of sources. She sees the effect of the liturgical calendar and its great feasts as the primary motivation underlying the expansion, an entirely reasonable conclusion. There follows a brief coda on the increased number of scenes in which St. Peter is a main participant; it is intended to contribute to the later argument that the manuscript was intended for a Western audience, but in fact the scenes containing Peter easily fall within the liturgical emphasis.

In chapter seven Maxwell turns to the place of the work in Palaeologan art, arguing, reasonably, for a date around the middle of the fourth quarter of the thirteenth century. The author thus sets the stage for chapter eight, which is devoted to the patron of and audience for the manuscript. Maxwell opens on a discussion of the knowledge of Latin in Constantinople (and Greek in the West). The goal of her again lengthy review of the secondary literature is to suggest (p. 191) that the years from around 1265 to 1283 presented "something of a 'window of opportunity' for Latin translations in Constantinople." Some knowledge of both Greek and Latin would have been required to correlate the two columns of text and use of inks of different colors. Given the Greek animus toward the Latins, Maxwell considers it unlikely that anyone other than the emperor would have commissioned the work. Her choice is Michael VIII Palaiologos (1259-82), an ardent supporter of the union of the churches, who, in her view, intended the manuscript as a diplomatic gift for Pope Gregory X (1271-76) following the Council of Lyons (1274); at the time of Michael's death, work on the Gospel book stopped, leaving a substantial number of miniatures and the Latin text unfinished. The author lists a number of other possible recipients, but considers Pope Gregory to be the most likely choice. Chapter nine is designated as an epilogue. The core of this brief chapter is the provenance of the manuscript, which surfaces in the West in the library of Niccolò Ridolfi (1501-50), son of one of the daughters of Lorenzo the Magnificent and an archbishop of Florence. Owing to other connections between the manuscript and the Medici family, Maxwell speculates that the Paris Gospels may have come to Florence in conjunction with the Florence-Ferrara Council (1438-39), which again took up the union of the churches with John VIII Palaiologos (1425-48) in attendance. The author does not press the suggestion owing to its speculative nature.

The intended readership is the specialist in Byzantine art, and he or she will find the physical descriptions, identification of the exemplar of the Greek text, and discussion of the illuminators valuable, but the reader may become impatient along the stretches of potted history. Much of the book points to the circumstances surrounding the commission; the argument for Michael VIII, though seductive in tying together the author's observations, nevertheless depends entirely on circumstantial evidence. I wish to note in conclusion that there is a strain of Roman history running from Andreas Alföldi to Paul Zanker; it finds explicit or implicit political content in works of art, both literary and representational. Efforts by Byzantinists to apply the same approach—whether to the Cyprus Plates, the mosaic over the Imperial Door of St. Sophia, the Berlin Scepter fragment, the fragmentary silver cross in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, or the Barberini Psalter (Vat. Barb. gr. 372)—have all led to conclusions that are, if not incorrect, then at least contentious.

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