Memory, Liturgy, and Illustrations in Lectionaries

By: Leigh Ann Thompson

If we all took a moment to click through the CSNTM manuscript library, certain images would catch our eyes more than others. Colors, illustrations, and decorations tend to draw attention to the pages of parchment and paper more so than than the standard dark ink text that makes up the majority of the pages. Images stand out. That’s the reason Facebook advertisements contain pictures instead of just blocks of text.

We know that it cost manuscript producers and commissioners a pretty penny to include these features in manuscripts. Such an investment indicates to us that manuscript decoration sprang from an intentional decision. What would the purpose of such investment be? Color and pictures, as already noted, are conspicuous, so they could serve as markers. Even more, the cost of production indicates that they may have been status markers demonstrated by their extravagance. Illustrations could also serve as exemplary or instructional tools, like a diagram in a science textbook. These purposes and more may have influenced the decision to include illustration. We best understand a manuscript’s features when we understand the context in which it was produced and used.

The majority of illustrated Greek New Testament manuscripts were produced in the 10th–14th centuries in the Byzantine Empire. Besides their eye-catching beauty, images on the pages of manuscripts reveal a highly visual religious culture. Liturgy and the lectionary were two important features of this culture. Liturgy is the rhythmic religious practices that follow the calendar, including Easter, Pentecost, Christmas, Lent, etc.. The lectionary was a book that contained Scripture readings assigned to certain days on the religious calendar. Lections could be arranged variously, depending on the lectionary’s intended purpose. It could include only special days, Saturday and Sunday readings, or readings for every day of the week. Therefore, the arrangement of each manuscript is a clue as to how a book functioned within its context. Let’s take a look at the ways the images we see, particularly on the pages of 11th–12th century lectionaries, connect a manuscript to a broader liturgy whose visual and rhythmic nature made lectionary readings particularly memorable.

Memory in the Medieval World

Visual images and visualization often play an important role in forming memories. Medieval thinkers in particular demonstrated the way that they grasped this truth by building up and storing their thoughts. Teachers of mnemonics used architectural metaphors to explain this process. They would “construct” images and “build” off of them, connecting thoughts in a memorable way. For example in the twelfth century Hugh of St. Victor taught his students to memorize by envisioning an arc, which they built in their minds by placing memories in each part of their imagined construction project (see his work Libellus de formatione Arche, the Little Book on the Construction of the Ark). Working with the mind’s sensory associations, especially the visual, teachers and learners of the medieval world immersed themselves in images and practices that “built up” and expanded their “storehouses” of memory. Orthodox liturgy, church practices, and lectionaries shared this approach to thinking and learning.

Understanding of Liturgy in Byzantium (11th–12th century)

Orthodox practices reflected an understanding of the way that sensory involvement influences thought. They took a multisensory approach, leveraging auditory, physical, olfactory, and visual practices in the liturgy of the church; there were visual representations of Scripture, church history, and the orthodox beliefs. Take for example, the prominent practice of iconography which involved painting and contemplating images of Christ and the saints. Church buildings depicted scenes from Scripture and important narratives within the Orthodox church. 

What is striking about these practices, especially considering medieval mnemonics, is how the imagery and practices in Byzantine liturgy correlated with one another. Scriptures and feasts occurred according to a rhythmic liturgical calendar. These events were often depicted on the walls of church, painted as icons on wood panels, and even added to the pages of lectionaries. A picture marking the beginning of a lection often reflects the reading which followed. The same picture might also be pictured on a church wall as a mosaic. Both the physical worship space, the reading, and the accompanying illustration drew a worshiper’s attention to the same account. Liturgical imagery created a web of reference, bringing together thought and practice. Through these associations, a worshiper built their thoughts towards the worship of God and knowing Scripture.

Illustrations in Liturgical Books

Liturgical books are some of the most decorated of all Greek New Testament manuscripts. These illustrated books contain decorated headers and ekthesishistoriated initials, small narrative illustrations in the margins, and full portrait scenes of the biblical authors, some of which took up an entire page. It’s no surprise that these books formed an important part of the highly visual Byzantine liturgy.

Lectionary Decoration

Often, decorations served as elaborate navigational tools for a text to be read aloud. Headers marked the beginning of a month’s reading or other section; ekthesis marked where to begin reading. 


The images above show three different kinds of headers used in GA Lect 1227 to mark the beginning of sections of readings.

Observing their content and style, we find that narrative illustrations reflected the readings and artistic representations seen in other liturgical spaces. The two images below are pages from GA Lect 2017. The one on the right shows Jesus teaching a crowd. The other pictures Jesus casting demons out of the Gerasene demoniac.

Narrative Images

As already mentioned, visual content within Byzantine liturgy often repeated across mediums. Decorations, then, served as connectors, placing the book within the liturgy whose rhythms and practices involving the senses drew worshipers into memory-making activities. 

Mural at St. John's Monastery

The picture above was taken at the Monastery of St. John the Theologian on the island of Patmos. The frescoes painted in the 12th century depict narrative scenes from Scripture and of St. John’s life. 


When we look at manuscripts with illustration or decoration, we notice their beauty, the great expense to the commissioner, and the illuminator’s skill. We should consider these historical and artistic questions. Yet, these visual details also give us a glimpse into the communities that read and listened to Scripture. Their experience with the New Testament was seen and heard and interacted with. Illustrated lectionaries were purposeful pieces of an effective whole which led churches and communities to think about God both in church and daily life.


The above picture comes from the Monastery of St. John the Theologian, and can be accessed at

Charles Barber. “Icons, Prayer, and Vision in the Eleventh Century.” In ​Byzantine Christianity, edited by Derek Krueger. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006. pp. 149-163.

Mary Carruthers. ​The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric and the Making of Images 400–1200​. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 

Mary Carruthers. ​The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture​. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 

Derek Krueger and Robert S. Nelson, eds. ​The New Testament in Byzantium​. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2016. 

John Lowden. ​Luxury and Liturgy: The Function of Books​. Birmingham: Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. University of Birmingham, 1990. 

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