A Scholar (King Solomon ?), from the Coburg Pentateuch by Unknown German artist

Unknown German artist

A Scholar (King Solomon ?), from the Coburg Pentateuch, c.1390–96, Illuminated manuscript, 180/175 x 135 mm, The British Library, London, Add MS 19776, fol. 54v, © The British Library Board (Add MS 19776, fol. 54v)

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Sage and Naturalist

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That Solomon had two named secretaries and a recorder among his very highest officials (1 Kings 4:3), that he composed numerous proverbs and songs (4:32), and is credited with the authorship of several biblical books (Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes) has been much celebrated, particularly in Jewish culture. Furthermore, his encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural world—trees, animals, birds, reptiles, and fish (1 Kings 4:33)—spawned many imaginative legends both in Jewish and Islamic folklore.

An exquisite miniature—one of only three—in the Coburg Pentateuch combines these two distinctive aspects of Solomon’s character (although he is not named, it is generally agreed that the figure’s attributes identify him as none other than Solomon). In this manuscript—which also includes sophisticated grammatical treatises on Hebrew punctuation—the figure of Solomon is flanked by two large scrolls inscribed in Hebrew which represent the books of Exodus and Leviticus. His elaborate throne is decorated in floral motifs, with animals at his feet (a lion and what seems to be a griffin).

The king examines one of these learned texts—held in his right hand and conveniently secured at the other end to the collar of his dog—which consists of a compilation and juxtaposition of biblical verses containing the Hebrew word Ohel, ‘the tent of meeting’ (created for Moses’s encounters with God) with which the book of Exodus is much concerned (Exodus 28–39). The scroll on the left contains a compilation of verses containing the Hebrew word Vayiqra (‘and he called’) which opens Leviticus and is the name given to the entire book in Jewish tradition (Leviticus 1:1).

That Solomon should appear among the most sacred of Jewish scriptures and engage with them in such a learned manner reflects the tradition, emanating from 1 Kings 4, that Solomon applied his wisdom to literary pursuits and, in particular, to the dissemination of the Torah: according to the midrash (Exodus Rabbah 15.20) he is reputed to have built synagogues and centres of learning in which the Torah was studied by himself, by a multitude of scholars, and even by young children. 

That the miniaturist should combine this aspect with the tradition of Solomon’s engagement with, and control over, the natural world, highlights the detailed attention given to these attributes of the biblical Solomon in Jewish and Islamic tradition—attributes that remained much less developed in Christian culture and iconography.



Narkiss, Bezalel. 1969. Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts (New York: Macmillan), p. 114

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