The Rabbula Gospels

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Facsimile 1b: The Holy Virgin in a shrine

Facsimile 9b: Canon Table with St. John and St. Matthew

Facsimile 9b: Canon Table with St. John and St. Matthew

Facsimile 13b: The Ascension

Excerpts from

Facsimile Edition of the Miniatures of the Syriac Manuscript (Plut. I, 56) in the Medicaean-Laurentian Library
Edited and Commented by Carlo Cecchelli, Guiseppe Furlani and Mario Salmi

© Urs Graf-Verlag, Publishers, Olten and Lausanne 1959

The Miniatures:

MiniatureFolio #
The gathering of the Apostles for the election of a twelfth witness in the place of Judas1a
The Holy Virgin in a shrine1b
Eusebius of Cesarea and Ammonius of Alexandria2a
Letter of Eusebius to Carpianus2b
Letter of Eusebius to Carpianus3a
Canon Table with Moses and Aaron and the Annunciation of the Angel to Zacharias3b
Canon Table with the Prophets Samuel and Josuah and the Annunciation to the Virgin4a
Canon Table with Solomon and David and three scenes from the life of Christ: the Baptism, the Nativity and the massacre of the Innocents. 4b
Canon Table with the Prophets Joel and Hosea and the miracle of the Marriage at Cana5a
Canon Table with the Prophets Obadiah and Amos and two scenes from the life of Christ: the healing of the woman with the issue of blood and another, unidentified miracle5b
Canon Table with the Prophets Micah and Jonah and two scenes from the life of Christ: the episode with the woman of Samaria and the healing of the woman who was «bent together» 6a
Canon Table with the Prophets Zephaniah and Nahum and part of a scene from the life of Christ, probably raising of Jairus' daughter6b
Canon Table with the Prophets Isaiah and Job and three Apostles, probably part of a transfiguration scene7a
Canon Table with the Prophets Haggai and Habbakuk and Christ healing a man7b
Canon Table with the Prophets Jeremiah and Zachariah and an unidentified scene from the life of Christ. 8a
Canon Table with the Prophets Daniel and Ezekiel and Christ healing the possessed by the devil. 8b
Canon Table with the Prophets Elisha and Malachi and the episode of the tribute money found in the mouth of the fish9a
Canon Table with St. John and St. Matthew9b
Canon Table with St. Marc and St. Luke10a
Canon Table with Christ teaching and different sick men11a
Canon Table with the Communion of the Apostles and the entry into Jerusalem11b
Canon Table with Judas' betrayal12a
Canon Table with Jesus before Pilate12b
The Crucifixion and the Holy Women at the Sepulchre13a
The Ascension13b
Christ enthroned14a
The Pentecost14b



...The four Gospels constituting the original content of the MS. were written in exquisite Estrangela script and completed in the Greek year 897 in the fourth indiction. This corresponds to 586 of the Vulgar Era, in the month of Shebat at the full moon, as stated on folio 291 a 1. The text of the Gospels in that known as the Peshitta or Simple version.

The folios are of parchment and in a good state of preservation. The numbering is in duplicate with Arabian figures in modern writing in the top outer corner of each folio...

...We cannot give the exact original size of the folios, because they have been cut along their edges at the top and the sides, both on the right and left by clumsy bookbinders, but not by the last of them, G. Fagiouli of Florence. In their present state, the folios measure from 33.6 to 33.8 cm. in height and from 26.7 to 27.9 in width. Each parchment folio comprises two columns with different numbers of lines. At the bottom of many of the columns there are red footnotes referring to the canons of the lessons. These notes occupy several lines, and the greater is the number of lines devoted to the notes, the fewer are the lines of the corresponding folio.

It would be superfluous for me to describe the exquisite calligraphy of the manuscript; the elegance and supreme decorative value of the good scribe's hand is plain to see in the pages I have reproduced. According to the signature he was one called Rabbula, a person completely unknown. The MS. was written at the monastery of St. John of Zagba, a monastery which apparently receives no mention in any other Syriac codex. I should like to further mention that the MS. is written in black or dark brown ink in the columns and that the annotations relating to the canons are in red. The indications in the upper margins of the numerous folios I refer to on the following pages are likewise in red.

The great majority of the Syriac annotations regarding the illustrations are not in the same hand as the Gospels and not contemporary with the writing of the MS. Although written in Estrangela, those of f.1 are some centuries later than 586. They must certainly have been inserted in the illuminations after the latter was completed and are written in a hand of more recent date than those giving the names of the figures represented on other pages.

I have reproduced a few lines of the letter from Eusebius of Caesarea to Carpianus in the Syriac version of the MS. and on the right side I have added the original Greek text of the letter [1]. Comparison of the two texts show that the translation is somewhat free.

The best description known of the MS. is that of ST. E. ASSEMANUS, Bibliothecae Mediceae Laurentinae et Palatinae codicum mms.orientalum catalogous.., Florentiae, anno. 1742. Assemani reproduced in Syriac various parts of the MS. and in Latin translation the notes in Syriac, Arabic, and Garshunic concering the movement of the Codex from one convent to another.


The two pages facing each other which contains the images of the four Evangelists serve almost as a separation between a first and second series of marginal miniatures and in the second one no figures of prophets appear in the upper zones. The decoration has a somewhat different character, but not so different as Macler would have us believe, when he speaks of a clear distinction. The types shown here have already been foreshadowed in the preceding part. However this may be, stylistic analysis is not within our competence and we only express our modest opinion.

f.9 b In the margin of the page, in one line and in the usual writing:
Seventh canon in which two Evangelists agree with each other.

Above the man sitting in the left shrine: John,
Above the man sitting in the right shrine: Matthew.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God [John 1, 1]

Matthew holds on his knees a book in which may be read these words arranged in two sets of three lines:

The birththe Messiah
ofhas been
Jesusthis.[Matthew 1, 18]

Subscription of all the Gospels of the Codex:

Here endeth the writing of this book, the holy Tetraevangelium which have spoken and proclaimed and preached in the four corners of the world Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. And there are in the preaching of John one thousand nine hundred and thirty eight sentences.

But the sum of all the sentences in the Tetraevangelium is nine thousand two hundred and twenty four. Pray for me who have written.

Glory to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Ghost, now and at all times and in eternity, amen, who conferred strength upon his sinful servant, humble and despised Rabbula, the scribe who wrote. Therefore, through our Lord I beg whoever reads this book to pray for me so that I may obtain mercy on the terrible Day of Judgement as the robber on the right side found mercy through the prayer of our Lady Mary, the Godbearer, the ever-virgin, and through your prayers who are of the house of Monsignor John in eternity, amen. In the month of Shebat of the fourth indiction, at the full moon, in the year eighteen hundred and ninety-seven of Alexander. Our Lord confer peace upon Thy church, in all the corners [of the world] may all the saints of our Lord, Who is everywhere, be remembered.

This book has been written and finished in the holy convent of Bet Mar Yohannan of Zagba in the days of the lover of God, Sergius, presbyter and abbot this convent, and of the monks Thomas, Thomas [?] and of the martyr presbyters and of Ahbeshab and Tatqana and Damian, deacons and of all other brothers with them in Christ. God, the Lord of all, protect this dwelling and all who dwell therein from all evil, hidden and manifest, and grant that peace and harmony dwell there in all the days of the future century through the prayers of the martyrs who loved Him, have loved His revelation and died for the His preaching, in eternity, amen.

[Owing to serious damage to the Codex, f. 292 a 2 is completely illegible in the first four lines. Of the following lines of the same column only some are legible, and these I reproduce in so far as I was able to read them. We begin the English translation where the text is perfectly legible.]

....With the prayers of the blessed Apostles and the saints that have done the will of God in eternity, amen. Whoever reads this book pray also for those who are pure, God-loving and worthy of good remembrance, John, presbyter of the convent of Larbik, John deacon of Aynata, who have gone out of this world and migrated to our Lord, through whose work and hands a beginning was made on these books, and for the renowned Christopher, monk, and martyr presbyter of the same convent and the noble Monsignor Damian, learned in law, of Bet Perotagin, who have devoted themselves to revising and finishing and arranging and collating and sewing and writing these books in the convent of Bet Mar Yohannan of Zagba. And everybody who has had a share in [the writing of] these books, with either the word or with the Spirit of our Lord and Our God and Our Saviour Jesus Christ, bless all those who have ...

This book is, therefore, of the holy convent of Bet Mar Yohannan of Bet Zagba. Whoever takes it however, or who ... to read it or to copy from it or to collate it and hides it or cuts from it some folio written or not written, whether he does this without damage, or [by so doing] damages it deliberately, may he be put among the robbers of the sanctuary. With the prayer of all the saints everywhere. In eternity, amen.




The Syriac Gospel book in the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence [Plut. I, 56], that invaluable source for the history of East Christian art, is mentioned in most works on Byzantine art and also in great many which are concerned with the history of art and of Christian archaeology in general, yet there has hitherto been no monograph on the subject [except for a study by Macler consisting of a few pages only]...

...After the various discoveries of manuscripts of the Syriac version of the Gospels, we can no longer extol the pre-eminence of the text contained in our codex, as Bandini does, but it must always be considered a highly authoritative one. A version of this kind is called "Pesitta" [i.e. "simple"]. The four Gospels [deriving from the Greek text] are freed from the compilation which Tatian produced in the second century [see his Diatesseron], and which obtained great success in oriental countries. At the beginning of the 5th. century, according to Addai's Doctrine, this fusion was considered the only one which should be read in the Church, but the bishop of Edessa, Rabbula [411-435] ordered: "that the priests and deacons should see that there is in every church and that there be read there the Gospel according to the separated [texts] [de-mepharrase]". A little later, Thedoret, bishop of Cyrus, [423-457] collected the copies of the Diatesseron in order to introduce in their stead the Gospels of the four Evangelists. Of these the above-mentioned Rabbula had made an accurate version attempting to bring some sort of order into the diversity of the readings. However, something must have crept in from the earlier preferences owing mainly to the rigorous asceticism of Tatian [which led, as we know, to heretical postulations]. The Peshitta does not, for example, include St. John's pericope with regard to the adultress. Among the best codices of the Peshitta we note: the Cambridge one I, 1, 2 [12th century, containing all the Holy Scripture]; that of the Ambrosiana B. 21 inf. [6th century, Old Testament only]; the Vat. syr. 12 [of 548, New Testament only]; the London one, [British Museum, Add. 14, 470; 5th-6th century, New Testament only] and ours which has the special merit of a full series of figure illustrations whose beauty and antiquity make it without doubt the most outstanding of Eastern illuminated codices of the early Middle Ages.

In Greek territory, the Alexandrian Ammonius, [circa 240-250] had attempted to produce a Gospel harmony taking the Gospel of St. Matthew as a basis and attaching to it in other columns in the corresponding text of the remaining evangelists. He arranged various sections, distinguished from one another by numbers, in 10 tables which he called "canons". Eusebius preferred this system, which constituted a reaction to Tatian's mixed Gospel and he perfected it. The systems was explained by him in a letter to Carpianus [v. the text in Migne, Patr. Gr. XXII, 1276 seq.]. Eusebius' arrangement enjoyed great renown [he even envisaged a decorated version of it, but for this see further on]. The illustrated part of our codex takes into account the work of Eusebius and even contains the letter to Carpianus. [3]

The name of the scribe of the codex, Rabbula [fol. 292, according to the present day numbering] is identical with that of the already mentioned 5th century bishop of Edessa with whom he must not, however, for obvious reasons be confused. Macler [p. 85 art. cit.], after having stated that the form «Raboula est assez rare en syriaque», and, after having mentioned that in Cicero's dialogue De oratore [XIV, 47} the word "rabula" appears, meaning a rowdy person, and he goes on to say that «Il importe peu, en demeurant, que le copiste du tetraevangile, dit le Raboula, soit Syrien, ou Romain. La chose eut eu plus de piquant s'il s'etait agi de l'enlumineur». But we are in a completely semitic environment and there is no reason to linger over this point.

In any case, it should be borne in mind that the copyist, that is, the scribe, has nothing to do with the miniaturist [or rather, with the group of miniaturists] who is completely unknown. Of the monastery of St. John at Zagba [or Beth Zagba] in Mesopotamia we know very little. It is mentioned three times about 571 in the catalogue by Wright and not in any other period. [4]

In part one can be found the text of the original annotations, and in Assemani all annotations of the various times which speak of monks, presbyters, patriarchs of Antioch, donations, consecrations, etc. Various monasteries are also mentioned. One fairly ancient hand informs us that after the death of Romanus, presybter and visitor of Antioch, the codex was given to a church of Saint George. There follows the jump to the 12th century. A note on page 6, of 1490 according to the Greek computation [1179] mentions the monastery of Maiphuc, in the province of Bostra, and one Peter, Patriarch of the Maronites, about whom some information is given. Furthermore, there is mention of the monastery of Maiphuc in a text of 1289 in connection with a donation. In 1361 [Assemani p. 24] the codex at Kanubin in the valley of Job, Mount Lebanon. In the 15th century it was still kept there. [Various notes refer to Kanubin, one of 1460]. Next, there is mention of a gift of vestments made by the pope in 1516 in connection with the journey of brother Francis, [a minorite] Commissarius of Terrasanta, to Peter Patriarchus [who is not, of course, the one previously mentioned].

Broadly speaking, the fortunes of the codex may be reconstructed thus: after an obscure period, the code is at Maiphuc around the 11th. century [?] on the order of the Patriarch of Antioch. Thence it passes [14th or the end of the 13th century] to Kanubin and from there, at the end of the 15th century, [or, in the first decades of the 16th century?] to the Biblioteca Mediceo-Laurenziana.

Evidently, the wealth of annotations [among them one, on the back of folio 7 in the Arabic language with Syriac characters] proves the great veneration in which the codex was held. Not even the miniatures were spared, since intrusions were made into their domain and some of them were even erased to make room for the text. If we must deplore the loss, we must not ignore the historical value of such additions that would in themselves be worthy of further study, even after the explanations and introductions by Assemani. But this is outside the scope of the present study.

It is thus surprising that Blochet should have thought of the 14 folios [24 miniatures], together with the pictorial series, as an interpolation introduced in a period not earlier than the 10th or 11th century, even if one assumes [as Ebersolt does] that the miniaturist has imitated a more ancient model. [5]

Blochet based his theory on the legends in the cursive estranghelo writing attributed to the 11th century, but he did not realise that these were interpolations. As Furlani was able to establish, the original legends of the miniatures have the same palaeographical quality as regards the lettering as the text of the Tetraevangelium. Blochet could not possibly formulate a tenable opinion without a detailed examination, which in fact he did not carry out. Furthermore, he was an expert on the Turkish, Arabic and Persian passages begun [as far as extent] in a later period. [6]



The two pages facing each other which contains the images of the four Evangelists serve almost as a separation between a first and second series of marginal miniatures and in the second one no figures of Prophets appear in the upper zones. The decoration has somewhat of a different character, but not so different as Macler would have us believe, when he speaks of a clear distinction.[200] The types shown have already been foreshadowed in the preceding part. However, this may be, stylistic analysis is not within our competence and we only express our modest opinion.

Folio 9b and 10a [201]. Canon VII; VIII

We shall discuss them together because they form a unit even if their details show what trouble was taken to avoid monotonous repetition.

On folio 9b may be seen an arcading with 4 openings interrupted by [at the height of the gilded Corinthian capitals] by two shrines [which take the place of outside columns]. The left-hand shrine has a lunette with a kind of grille radiating fan fashion [with brown stripes on a gold background]. Actually on studying the curves in which our so-called rays terminate, we realise that they are lobed, which means that it is a stylized shell. [See the analogy with the miniature containing the image of the Evangelist in the Rossanensis Gospel book, 6th Century]. The right hand shrine on the other hand, is meant to represent a small dome which is gilded and studded with gems. Both the shrines have small, slender, green columns with Corinthian capitals [gilded]. [202] On folio 10 a the artist has indicated by a horizontal line the junction between the pediment and supporting capitals. On folio 9b he has forgotten it, hence the decoration inside the lunette is, as it were, suspended.

Under the right hand shrine on this folio sits the Evangelist Matthew, seen full-face, on a yellowish scabellum with footstool. He has the appearance of an old man and wears a tunic and a pallium [white with bluish shadows]. In his left hand he holds an open codex, on which are written the first words of his Gospel [1, 18]: "Now the birth of Jesus was on this wise:" With his right hand he makes the gesture of teaching.

Under the left hand shrine sits St. John the Evangelist, he also wears tunic and pallium. His seat is a sella plicatilis with a back and oblique arms [which will move when the chair is folded up. In fact the joint of one of the arms stands out from the back, to which it must be fixed with a hinge, on which it moves]. [203] The throne is of light brown colour [indicating wood]. The throne and the Evangelist sitting on it are seen in three-quarter view. There is the usual footstool. The Evangelist's face has a young appearance. He does not hold a codex but a scroll [on which some lines of the Prologue to St. John's gospel are written]. It is curious to find standing in front of St. John a small column with a bird on it [is it a candelabrum with a lamp?]. The bird's head is turned, his tail is fringed, his beak is slightly curved. It is impossible to say what sort of bird it is. [Is it meant to represent a young eagle as an allusion to the symbol of the Evangelist?].

Neither of the Evangelists has a halo, and this detail [even though Evangelists without halos are to be found also after Early Christian era] in conjunction with other points [concerning the arrangement of the two figures] enables us to assume a late classical prototype.

Let us now turn to the main arch. It is supported, as we have said, by two capitals which seem to rest on the shrines, but which presuppose invisible shafts of columns standing behind them [the idea of capitals resting on top of a dome-or semi-dome, like that of St. John's shrine-seems very curious] considering that the lunette is in reality shell-shaped upper part of a niche. In the centre may be seem two divisions with horseshoe shaped arches resting on three slender pillasters, which have no capitals but a simple abacus. The pilasters are golden. In the archivolts are radiations of small triangles, star-fashion, which form graduated facets of pale blue standing out from a dark base [the effect produced is almost that of receding planes].

In the large archivolt a white meander with orange squares stands out from a dark background. On top f the archivolt is a dense growth of green grass interspersed with pink flowers. There are also four birds, two of which are little parrots and other two are birds with long necks [water birds, ? ibis?]. In the large lunette appear, below, three rows, one on top of the other, of leaves and flowers [red and green]; and above, squares on a green background and floral inlays in the middle [in gold and red]. In the centre is a red shield with a large gold cruciform flower. Something like a bright double wing of a blueish tone hangs down on this shield from above. Underneath the shield, what looks like a group of clouds is in reality due to an absence of colour.





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