This remarkable manuscript is very different to what the casual glance might suggest: despite the Islamic style carpet page, and the Arabic script, this is a Christian document - an account of the Gospels - made in Palestine in the 14th century.
The Four Gospels in Arabic, Palestine, 1337. Gospel of Luke
BL Add. MS 11856, ff. 94v–95
Copyright © The British Library Board
What is a gospel?
A gospel recounts the life of Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings, which form the foundations of the Christian faith. He lived in Israel during the Roman occupation of the country. His mission to reform what he saw as corruption in the Jewish faith caused conflict with the religious hierarchy and led to his execution by the Roman authorities. After his death and subsequent reports of his rising from the dead, followers of Christ - meaning 'the anointed one' - developed his teachings into a new faith, independent of Judaism but keeping much of its scriptures.
Several gospels had been written by disciples of Jesus during the centuries following his death, but only four were authorised by the Council of Nicaea in 325 for inclusion in the Christian Bible. These four were attributed to St Matthew, St Mark, St Luke and St John, known as the four Evangelists.
What is a carpet page?
A carpet page is one decorated with the rich, ornate, ingeniously interwoven abstract patterns reminiscent of an exotic carpet. Such pages are strongly associated with Islamic manuscripts, though they also occur in some early 'insular' manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels from seventh- or eight-century England.
Because the Qur'an cannot be illustrated with any representational images, Muslim scribes and artists developed techniques in abstract decoration and patterning to astonishing levels of subtlety and ingenuity. An example is shown in a page from this Mamluk Qur'an.
What is on this page?
The text on the right-hand page - written in Arabic, which runs right-to-left and downwards - is a portrait of one of the four Evangelists, Luke. He was Syrian, born in Antioch. Ancient manuscripts assert that he died aged 84, having never married or had children. He is the patron saint of physicians and surgeons, and is often depicted in western art as a physician. Luke is often associated with St Paul, whose biblical writings refer to Luke at various times.
According to tradition, he wrote not only his Gospel, but also the Acts of the Apostles, the third and fifth books of the New Testament. He is also said to have painted the first icons: pictures of Mary, Peter and Paul. The Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland is claimed to have been painted by Luke.
When were the Gospels translated into Arabic?
The earliest manuscript copies of the Four Gospels in Arabic date from the late eighth or ninth centuries, and were made from a variety of languages, including Syriac, Greek and Coptic. Perhaps the oldest dated Arabic copy of the Four Gospels is in the library at Mount Sinai, dated 859. The Harley Trilingual Psalter, from mid-12th century Sicily, contains an Arabic translation of the Psalms made a century earlier.