We use the word “marginal” to dismiss something as unimportant or trivial. But images in the margins of medieval books are so important they get their own name, marginalia, a Latin term that simply means “things in the margins.”
Sometimes marginalia are purely humorous. But often they’re much more: sophisticated annotations to the text, continuations of stories pictured elsewhere on the page, or even insightful commentaries on the book’s owner.
The Getty Museum was fortunate to recently acquire an exquisite 13th-century manuscript, the Abbey Bible (Ms. 107), which has hundreds of examples of lively marginalia inhabiting its pages.
The margins of the opening page are absolutely packed.
These images accompany the first book of the Bible, Genesis, which tells the story of the creation of the world. In the left margin, eight roundels depict the days of the creation. The bottom two show Adam and Eve eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, and Christ holding up his hand in blessing.
The two large roundels at the bottom of the right side of the page show the Crucifixion and an angel seated on Christ’s empty tomb after the Resurrection. Although it might seem odd to us to include the story of Christ at the very beginning of a Bible, according to Christian belief it was Christ who redeemed Adam and Eve’s original sin. The pages’ marginal imagery therefore encapsulates the key message of the Christian religion in one fell swoop, giving both the beginning of the story and its ending.
A bit later in the Bible, another marginal image shows how marginalia can help illuminate different facets of a story.
This image begins the book of Deuteronomy, which contains the story of Moses striking a rock and the miraculous pouring forth of water for the Israelites. This scene is depicted in the initial h that begins the text. The water, pooling around the legs of the figure in pink, seems to run down to the bottom of the page for the successful fishermen to throw their net into. You can practically feel the weight of the net as the men struggle to bring it to shore, fish wriggling and gasping within. The theme of water links the two scenes in a clever and unexpected way.
A third image in the margins tells us about the history of the Abbey Bible itself, revealing who ordered the manuscript in the 13th century.
Two groups of friars sing from large choir books set up on lecterns. At left is a group of Dominican friars; at right are Franciscan friars, both sets identifiable from their distinctive clothing. Look how the Dominicans eagerly gesture to their choir book as Christ turns toward them. The Franciscans, by contrast, stare rather forlornly, excluded from Christ’s blessing.
Textual aspects of the Abbey Bible confirm that it was made for a Dominican friary, and here the artist has added his own commentary on the relative merits of the Dominicans and the Franciscans!
We’re delighted to welcome the Abbey Bible to the Getty, with all its entrancing marginal imagery. It will be featured in an upcoming exhibition, Gothic Grandeur: Manuscript Illumination, 1200–1350, on view December 13, 2011, to May 13, 2012. I invite you to stop by and explore for yourself the wonderful (and often surprising) marginal imagery in this beautiful manuscript.