Oldest Latin Bible to return to Britain  

08 December 2017

 © Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence

Foot-thick: the Codex Amiatinus

Foot-thick: the Codex Amiatinus

THE world’s oldest surviving complete Latin Bible is to return to Britain for the first time since it was sent to Rome 1302 years ago, as a gift to Pope Gregory II from monks in the north-east of England.

The Codex Amiatinus was one of only three produced at the twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow. One is lost, and the other survives only as fragments. For centuries, it was kept at the Abbey of the Saviour, in Monte Amiata, in Tuscany, before passing in the 18th century to the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, in Florence. The Laurenziana has now agreed to lend it to the British Library, alongside the Lindisfarne Gospels, for its exhibition “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms” next year.

The chief executive of the Library, Roly Keating, described it as “one of the great acts of creative book-production of the entire millennium”. Apart from its rarity, the richly decorated book is singular as it is 12 inches thick and weighs 35kg. It contains both Old and New Testaments, and is written on 1030 leaves made from the skins of at least 515 sheep.

The exhibition’s curator and the British Library’s head of ancient, medieval, and early modern manuscripts, Dr Claire Breay, said: “It is one of the greatest treasures of Anglo-Saxon times, yet it is not very well known by the general public. This loan will give the manuscript the attention it deserves. So much from that time has been lost: it is incredible that this has survived intact.

“I’ve been to see it once, and it is unbelievable. Even though I’d read about it, and seen photographs, when you actually see the real thing it is a wonderful, unbelievably impressive manuscript.”

All three Bibles were commissioned by Ceolfrith, the abbot of Wearmouth and Jarrow, where two of them were retained. He led the party of monks that was taking the third to Rome in 716AD, but died in Burgundy before it was delivered. A digital replica of the Codex Amiatinus is housed at the Bede’s World museum (News, 5 August 2016). The BL show will run from October 2018 to February 2019.

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