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Tsar Ivan Alexander's Gospels

This triumph of late medieval manuscript art was commissioned in 1355 by Tsar Ivan Alexander, the ruler of Bulgaria who presided over a period of a spiritual and artistic revival. Probably reserved for use in the Tsar's church on high feast days, the Gospels' pages are lavishly illustrated with 367 fine illuminated miniatures, executed in colours and gold. The manuscript, which is preserved in near perfect condition, is a remarkable survival and the most celebrated work of art produced in Bulgaria before it fell to the Turks.

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Tsar Ivan Alexander's Gospels

Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander: The Royal Family. Trnovo, 1355-56
British Library Add. MS 39627, f.3
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is a Gospel?

A gospel recounts the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew who preached during the Roman occupation of his country. After his crucifixion around AD 32 and subsequent reports of his rising from the dead, followers of Christ - meaning 'the anointed one' - developed his teachings into the Christian faith. While this new religion retained many of the scriptures of Judaism, it also produced its own holy texts. Among these the gospels sought to communicate the saving message of Jesus.

Of the several gospels that were written by Christ's early followers, four were recognised from an early date as forming together the authoritative gospels. These gospels, attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, formed the core around which the canon, or collection of formally accepted texts, of the Christian Bible took shape.

Before printed Bibles were produced the most common Christian book of scripture was a hand-written copy of the four gospels.

Who was Tsar Ivan Alexander?

'Tsar' was the title given to the rulers of Bulgaria during the Middle Ages. Ivan Alexander came to the throne in 1331 by deposing his predecessor. During his reign he ordered the building of many monasteries and churches and under his patronage the Bulgarian city of Trnovo became an important centre for art and literature. His governing of the world of politics was far less sure, however, and Bulgaria became part of the Ottoman Empire not long after his death in 1371.

In the lower left-hand corner of this page, which deals with the Last Judgement, the figure of the Tsar himself appears. He is interceding with St Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Do we know who made this manuscript?

Yes - and no. The text of the Gospels was copied down by a monk named Simeon. In a long note on the commissioning and making of the manuscript - scholars call this a colophon - Simeon states that the volume was begun in 1355 and completed in one year. He also says the book's binding was encrusted with jewels, but that it was created 'not simply for the outward beauty of its decoration . [but] primarily to express the inner Divine Word, the revelation and the sacred vision'.

Close examination of the 367 illustrations suggests that they are the work of a team of artists, probably at least three in number. Their style of painting, pictorial models and adherence to complete anonymity place them firmly within the wider tradition of Byzantine book illumination.

The Slavonic text of the Gospels is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. The letter forms are a refined form of the script first developed in the middle of the ninth century by St Constantine-Cyril. Cyril worked with his brother, St Methodius, translating the Christian scriptures by modifying the letters of the Greek alphabet to suit the phonetic needs of the local language. The Cyrillic alphabet is much revered in the Orthodox Church, having its own Feast Day of Letters on 24 May.

How did this manuscript come to the British Library?

In 1837, the manuscript was held at the Monastery of St Paul on Mount Athos in Greece, and a young English collector of antiquities called Robert Curzon was astonished to be given it as a gift following his visit there. It was bequeathed to the British Library (then the British Museum) in 1917.