The Winchester Bible: A Masterpiece of Medieval Art offers an unprecedented opportunity to examine one of the great surviving monuments of twelfth-century art. Presented together with the Morgan Leaf, which is reunited for the first time with the book to which it once belonged, the exhibition occupies the heart of the Museum's medieval European galleries. This setting offers an ideal context for exploring the Winchester Bible.
Although it was produced in the scriptorium of Winchester Cathedral, the collective work of the book's creation, which involved close collaboration between a scribe and a team of artists, was remarkably international in scope. The painters involved in the book's decorative program drew from artistic traditions indigenous to England and from sources as far away as Spain, Rome, and Norman Sicily. Seen within the context of our own collections, the Bible emerges as a commission that blended some of the most revered traditions of biblical illustration with contemporary trends in narrative painting. In addition to embellishing the scriptures with beautiful figural initials, the painters were especially adept at visualizing selected episodes from sacred history.
Since the exhibition first opened, I have been struck by the exceptional opportunities this show offers to consider the importance of Old Testament narratives illustrated in works of different media during the medieval period. Perhaps one of the most important characters in the medieval retelling of biblical history is King David, who was widely revered as an exemplar of divinely ordained kingship as well as the author of the Psalms. Episodes from his life are prominently featured on the Morgan Leaf, above, where we see his epic struggle against Goliath, his rise as king to succeed Saul, and his struggles against his own son Absalom, who rebelled against him. Some of these same episodes are featured in a spectacular set of Constantinopolitan silver plates on view in gallery 301, adjacent to the exhibition. Indeed, one of the things that makes this exhibition so exciting is that it serendipitously gathers under one roof some of the most remarkable images of David produced during the Middle Ages.
A gift of J. P. Morgan, the David plates are some of the earliest surviving examples of narrative illustration derived from the Old Testament and rendered in silver. Based on their marks, we know that the plates were made during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Herakleios (r. 610–41), long before the present Winchester Cathedral existed. While the style of these fascinating objects finds its roots in the classical world, the David plates feature the same scriptural episodes treated in the Morgan Leaf (1 Samuel 17: 41–51).
In the largest plate of the group, the Battle of David and Goliath, above, the young David faces off against the giant Goliath across the Jordan River, here personified by a classical river god. Immediately below, David squares off in the climactic battle against the giant, each champion standing in the presence of his own armies, the Israelites and Philistines respectively. As if sensing David's victory, the Philistines are already fleeing, their bodies turning away from the combat. David's sling, which holds the fatal stone, hovers in the air behind the young shepherd. In the lowest register, David, now appearing smaller than Goliath for the first time, severs the head of his enemy.
In the Morgan Leaf, the epic narrative of David's battle against the champion of the Philistines is similarly arranged in a series of horizontal registers. The episodes that form the centerpiece of the plate are illustrated across the topmost band of the manuscript leaf. At the left, King Saul stands with the Israelites, presenting his young champion. Out in front of this army, David stands astride a hill, swinging his sling above his head. The giant Goliath advances against him, his spear raised and his body hunched behind his shield. In the next frame, David straddles the defeated giant and lifts his decapitated head. The Philistines scatter.
There is no historical connection between these two treatments of the life of David. Nevertheless, the opportunity to see these two epic renderings of sacred history under the same roof during the run of the exhibition is remarkable indeed. These two virtuoso examples of biblical illustration are both deeply informed by the specific political and artistic contexts that brought them into being. While their textual sources are identical, their artistic sources appear to be much further apart. Or are they? Having the chance to consider them together poses questions that can help us better understand what makes the Morgan Leaf such a remarkable work of art. How novel was this kind of treatment of the Old Testament in England at the end of the twelfth century? What is the nature of the relationship between this long-separated leaf and the larger program to which it belonged? Why was the leaf, with its comic book–like treatment of the Book of Samuel, produced, and what kinds of models informed its creation? These are some of the issues we plan to revisit in future posts.
Morgan Library & Museum Online Catalog: Verso, David: slinging at Goliath