By Andrew K. Bobo and Andrew J. Patton
Every year, thousands of tourists travel across the globe to view great works of art and architecture from history. Though they may not, at first glance, be as grand as towering buildings or impressive sculptures, manuscripts have also become must-see attractions. Travelers to Dublin stop to see the Book of Kells at Trinity College Library, tourists to London visit the British Library to see Codex Sinaiticus, and sightseers to Jerusalem make their way to the Israel Museum in order to see the Dead Sea Scrolls. Although these high profile manuscripts enjoy most of the attention, one of the joys of digitizing manuscripts is that we often come across exquisite items that are hardly known to the world. One of these treasures is a 15th century manuscript known to scholars as Gregory-Aland Lectionary 1807 (GA Lect 1807). This manuscript resides at the National Library of Greece in Athens, where the Center digitized in 2015 and 2016. The manuscript is particularly noteworthy as an artifact because of its ornate silver covers, carefully crafted in the high middle ages. As we approach the seasons of Lent and Easter, we thought it would be worth examining the scenes on the covers, since they depict the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The front cover shows the crucifixion of Jesus surrounded by panes of angels and symbols of the four evangelists. Church tradition developed a specific symbol for each of the four Gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—who are known as the Evangelists. Most commonly, Matthew is associated with a man, Mark with a lion, Luke an ox, and John with an eagle. These four creatures derive from the four creatures in Ezekiel’s vision recorded in chapter 1 of his book. In the corners of our manuscript, you find each of these creatures holding a book, indicating that they represent the Evangelists.
Between the four corners are angels. When you look closely, you will observe that each of the angels is in a different posture and facial expression. Some appear to be in a reverential position and others appear to be downcast or even weeping. Their expressions reflect the horror and divine glory at the crucifixion of the Son of God.
The center panel portrays a scene of the crucifixion. Christ on the cross is the focus of the scene. The cross itself is planted into a small hill of Golgotha. Jesus is surrounded by many grieving people, including John the Apostle who is indicated by the nomina sacra ιω to the left of his head. Angels flank Christ. The two on the left are holding up a bowl, and the two on the right are shown with a scroll. Below the cross, a skull represents death. And above him are the nomina sacra ιϲ and χϲ meaning Ἰησούς (Jesus) and Χριστός (Christ).
The back cover features the triumphant resurrection of Christ. The dynamic scene that unfolds shows Jesus in the middle of his resurrection work. Now that he has himself been resurrected, he is resurrecting those who had previously died. So on the left side there is a group of people wearing crowns to show their victory over death and their reign with Christ. John the Baptist appears most prominently in the foreground: his feet planted in a grave, still wearing his camel hair clothes and leather belt but now with a halo showing his sainthood. On the right side, Jesus is pulling saints with sullen faces out of the grave. These saints are Adam and Eve—a demonstration of the resurrection reversing the curse of death. Below Christ’s feet are a cross and two figures who appear to be in the midst of judgment. Above his head are two angels. The entire event is shown in such a way that not only the reality of the resurrection is displayed, but its implications and meaning as a theological event are communicated visually.
Surrounding the whole scene are those whose task it was to be the witnesses to Christ’s resurrection. At the very top of the frame are Peter (left) and Paul (right). They are flanked on either side by the four Evangelists. To Peter’s left are John and then Luke, whereas to Paul’s right are Mark and Matthew. All six figures are holding codices, probably the bound corpus of their own writings, which testify to the death and resurrection. Another six figures—Simon, Bartholomew, and Phillip on the left; Matthias, James, and Thomas on the right—are holding scrolls and some seem to be speaking or ready to begin speaking. The two figures at the bottom are two Christian martyrs from the first decade of the fourth century, Saint George and Saint Demetrios. The entire cover works together to show the historical reality of Christ’s work, the richness of its meaning, and those who were affected by it. The edges of both sides show the individuals tasked with witnessing to these events, which is appropriate since every manuscript itself is the physical testimony to the continuation of that witnessing work.
Lectionaries were manuscripts intended to be read in Christian worship. They were built around the church calendar. So rather than having the New Testament books in their entirety, like we find in our Bibles today, they instead divided the biblical text into particular readings for the daily worship services of the church. The schedule of the readings developed gradually in the church’s early centuries and later became standardized to form a regular rhythm around the life of Christ. The lectionary covers of this manuscript added another element of grandeur and special reverence to the liturgy, reminding both hearers and readers of the sacred importance of the message contained within.
We are grateful for our partnership with the National Library of Greece whose archival staff cares for this manuscript. We would like to especially thank Director Fillipos Tsimpoglou who granted permission and provided oversight for the Center’s historic two-year digitization project, and to Andreas Vyridis for continuing to collaborate with us to ensure the digital preservation of Greek New Testament manuscripts throughout Greece.