2 Corinthians, from Nicholas of Lyra's Commentary on the Bible by Ugolino Marini Gibertuzzi of Sarnano

Ugolino Marini Gibertuzzi of Sarnano

2 Corinthians, from Nicholas of Lyra's Commentary on the Bible, 14th–15th century [finished 1402], Illumination on vellum, 440 x 272 mm, John Rylands University Library, The University of Manchester, Latin MS 31 v.3 fol. 112r, The University of Manchester

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Illuminating the Letter

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The Latin illuminare means ‘to light up’. This is the origin of the term ‘illumination’ when used to refer to the illustrations that decorate manuscripts such as this one. The biblical text is adorned with designs that are incorporated alongside or intertwined with the text.

‘Illumination’ refers to the brightness of the gold and other colours used in such objects, and also implies that the motifs are enlightening—that they reveal something about or beyond the text that might not be conveyed (or communicated as easily) by the unadorned text.

In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul contrasts the ‘letter’ of the Law of Moses with the ‘spirit’ of Christ; ‘the letter kills, but the spirit gives life’ (3:6 NRSV). This contrast does not necessitate a rejection or supersession of the Law; rather, it can be seen as analogous to the dynamic between word and image in an illuminated manuscript. The illumination does not replace the text but lights it up, and in so doing can reveal aspects of its message afresh.

The page (also known as a folio) seen here is from an early fifteenth-century manuscript of Nicholas of Lyra’s biblical commentary by a Franciscan scribe, Ugolino Marini Gibertuzzi of Sarnano. This leaf has the beginning of 2 Corinthians. The illuminations include rich foliage, and two illuminated capitals (decorated letters). The large illuminated capital ‘P’ is for the start of the Epistle, and includes a portrait of Paul holding the sword of his martyrdom. While the portrait identifies the author, the foliage does not seem to relate directly to the text itself. These adornments express the preciousness of the text, both by beautifying the object, and because the time and materials involved were costly. 

Nicholas’s commentary focuses on the literal sense of the Bible, as distinct from its figurative meanings (allegorical ones, for example). He discusses details such as the language and the historical context of the text. The illumination therefore introduces an element to the page that has a more excursive relationship with the ‘letter’ of the biblical text, which can be likened to the ‘spirit’ that ‘gives life’.

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