Bible Review 18:5, October 2002


A model medieval king

By Richard Leson

The tumultuous world of ancient Israel collides with that of medieval Europe in a lavish 13th-century picture book now housed in the Pierpont Morgan Library, in New York, and used to illustrate the preceding article in this issue (see “David’s Threat to Nabal”). The conflicts of Abraham, Joshua and David are translated into furious cavalry charges reminiscent of 13th-century warfare: The Israelites wear chain mail armor, don great helms and bloody the flanks of their horses with pricked spurs. King David (photo below, top left scene) sits enthroned on the coronation chair of the French monarchy, an elaborate folding stool that still belongs to the royal abbey of St. Denis, outside of Paris. His fleur-de-lis scepter and ornate crown are the effects of a medieval ruler rather than a king of ancient Israel. Delicate Gothic architectural canopies frame more than 340 Old Testament scenes—from the Creation to the death of Sheba—illustrated on 46 parchment leaves.

The history of this picture book is as intriguing as its dazzling imagery. Dated on stylistic grounds to between 1240 and 1260, the manuscript is probably the product of a Paris workshop. The unsurpassed quality of the illumination, as well as the great expense incurred in terms of gold leaf and labor (seven illuminators are believed to have worked on the book), point to a grand patron: Louis IX, the French Crusader king who ruled from 1226 to 1270, is most often credited with commissioning the book.

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