Girona Beatus

Girona Beatus f. 126r, The opening of the first four seals

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f. 126r, The opening of the first four seals

The illustration is divided into four bands with the Lamb in the centre holding a pattée cross. Depicted are the four visions of St John all of which show him accompanied by one of the four living beings who, in line with the Hispanic model of representation, are anthropozoomorphic in appearance with a disc decorated with star or spiral shapes upon their lower limbs, in reference to the fiery wheels described by Ezekiel. This is an interpretation of the waves used to represent them originally to produce the visual effect of them turning round. The four living beings with the appearance of theriomorphous monsters were interpreted like the evangelists. Their definitive traits were defined by St Jerome, inspired by Ezekiel’s vision, and completely defined in Sedulius’s Carmen Paschale (P.L.: XIX; col. 591), written in the mid 5th century. The earliest models are to be found in Iberian Peninsula sculptures from the 6th and 7th centuries onwards. The model used for the miniature dates back to three groups in the 8th and 9th centuries headed by the insular and Breton Gellone Sacramentary. Their anthropozoomorphic appearance originated in a variety of sources and can be found in Carolingian and Irish manuscripts and the Romanesque monumental art of Hispanic kingdoms and other areas. However, the circle around a star shape is an ancient representation of the sun exclusive to early medieval Hispanic miniatures in relation to the tetramorph and is, in particular, one of the transformations that arose in the early 10th century when the pictorial part of the third textual version took place was renovated – to be found in reliquaries made for Alfonso III – which are absent in manuscripts belonging to the first illustrated stemma of the Commentaries. However, these sun-shaped discs only appear in miniatures and not in mural paintings which employ other sources.

The fact that St John appears four times is related to the narration in Revelation and is a procedure typical of book illustration in primitive Christian art in which each image was usually positioned next to the corresponding text and separated from the other images by a few lines either inside the same column or in three successive ones as in the Roda Bible (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, ms. lat. 6, vol. IV, f. 106r), based upon an Italian prototype that is now missing. In the case of the stemma II Beatus, the four images must have been grouped together subsequently into a single, independent unit, like the present one, located after the storia and before the explanatio so that what the images depict can be read in a sequence that is neither interrupted by the text nor requires the text to be consulted, in addition to being a reminder of the main points narrated in the Revelation concerning the following exegesis. This type of full-page illustration produced by bringing together ancient column miniatures, was transformed into a model book that was easy for other painters to use , as shown by the copies belonging to stemma II. The image does not however always depict the text, and particularly the explanatio, exactly for it transforms these figures into four ordinary riders. The image shows St John at the top taking St Mark’s lion by the hand. Beneath is the first rider firing a bow in Parthian style without an arrow. He wears not a crown but a sort of pointed helmet and his mount’s hide is mottled with highly decorative heart shapes. Next is St Matthew depicted as a winged man holding St John. Underneath them is the second rider also wearing a pointed helmet and wielding a spear instead of a sword. As in the exegesis by Beatus, borrowed from Victorinus of Pettau according to the Commentary by St Jerome and Tyconius, basically, the first rider is identified with Christ and the second with the enemies of the Church or the devil. In stemma II Beatus, both are depicted as if in combat, with the former turning to fire an arrow at his companion who tries to run him through with his spear. Following this is the ox of St Luke holding the beloved disciple up, and below, more in keeping with the text than the previous instances, is the third rider upon a black horse turning his head to look at the scales without plates in his hand. Finally, beneath St John’s eagle taking the author of the Apocalypse by the hand is the fourth rider, symmetrical with the previous rider, turning towards a demon that symbolises the abyss. Little attention was paid to this demon in other traditions but the Beatus manuscripts emphasise it considerably, to the extent of personalising it with the traits of a dreadful-looking humanoid. Rather than being a representation of hell, conceived of in the European tradition of that time as a devouring monster or chamber, it is a representation of the devil in monster’s guise typical of the Hispanic tradition.

This scene was enlarged in a variety of ways in the Beatus codices. The ones in stemma I are more synthetic: they eliminate the image of the living beings and focus exclusively on the image of the horsemen, the first of whom is crowned , which could indicate a more advanced stage in the illustration of this scene. Those in branch IIa, on the other hand, introduce the figure of a personalised hell in the form of a great devil in the air following the last horseman with a sword (a weapon that was to disappear in branch IIb) not mentioned in the text of Revelation, and sometimes an angel also lacking in the other branch of stemma II, the former with a crown. Finally, the images in IIb feature the Lamb inside a central medallion – bearing not the sealed book but a staff topped by a cross – along with the four living beings set out in the arrangement mentioned earlier.

Carlos Miranda García-Tejedor
Doctor in History
(Fragment of the Girona Beatus commentary volume)


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