Joshua Roll, Vat. Pal. graec. 431 (sheet 13) by Unknown Byzantine Artist

Unknown Byzantine artist

Scenes from Joshua 10, from the Joshua Roll, c.950, Tempera and gold on vellum, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City, Vat. Pal. graec. 431, sheet XIIIr, By permission of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, with all rights reserved

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On a Roll

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We are not viewing this tenth-century luxury object as its commissioner would have done: the sheets would have been glued together to form a roll slightly more than 10.5 metres long. This explains why this sheet may seem unlocalized—the town of Gibeon, a seated female figure personifying the town, and the sun standing still overhead all appear at the end of the previous sheet. On this sheet we see Joshua speaking to the Lord (Joshua 10:12), the battle beneath God’s cloud of hailstones (10:11), and the report to Joshua of the finding of the five kings (10:16). On the next sheet the five kings hang from their forked staves.

These images must have struck a chord with the wider public, for they were widely copied in subsequent centuries, in illustrated Octateuch manuscripts, and on ivories.

The Byzantines were practised at typology, so they mined the book of Joshua, the sixth book of the Octateuch, for a variety of models. They saw themselves as an elect nation, the new Israel, so would have taken pride in scenes of God raining down destruction on Israel’s enemies (Eshel 2018: 106). Joshua’s role in leading the Israelites into Canaan made him a role model for military leaders campaigning to recover the Holy Land from the Arabs. The parakoimomenos (keeper of the king's bedchamber) Basil, a well-known art patron, and emperors Nicephorus Phocas and John Tzimisces, all of whom campaigned in Syria and Palestine, have been put forward at various times as possible patrons of the Roll.

Joshua belongs to the pre-kingly period of Israel, yet the Roll depicts him enthroned, haloed like a Byzantine emperor and with his feet on a suppedaneum (foot rest), surrounded by his soldiers, as he prepares to pass judgement on the defeated Amorite kings. Here it is clearly the righteous ruler who is being invoked.

The current flattened state of the Roll limits our understanding of the sense of motion it must have originally conveyed, as Joshua’s divinely-inspired victories rolled inexorably on, like those of the Roman emperors related on the triumphal columns which were still standing in Constantinople when the Roll was made.



Eshel, Shay. 2018. The Concept of the Elect Nation in Byzantium (Leiden: Brill)

Wander, Steven H. 2012. The Joshua Roll (Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag)

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