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New Testament from 10th-century Constaninople

In this impressive New Testament - perhaps the most beautiful example in Greek in the British Library - a picture shows the Evangelist St Luke at his desk, his writing implements ready to hand. It serves as the frontispiece to the Gospel of St Luke. The manuscript was made at a high point in the history of the capital of Eastern Christendom, and demonstrates the unbroken tradition of the use of Greek as the literate language of the Eastern Mediterranean.

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Sacred Texts: 10th century New Testament

New Testament, Constantinople, mid-10th century. Gospel of Luke 1
BL Add. MS 28815, ff. 76v-77
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.

Who was Luke?

One of the four Evangelists, Luke 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. 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 be a painting by Luke.

Another artist's impression of St Luke, this time from the 17th-century Ethiopic Gospels by Mahanta Mikael (British Library Images Online)

Why the picture of Luke?

In contrast to the Hebrew Bible and Islamic Qur'an, in which representational imagery is either forbidden or very rare, Christians incorporated imagery into their copies of the holy scriptures from an early period. One of the most common types was the Evangelist portrait, placed at the beginning of each Gospel. These images of the authors were based on classical author portraits, which served to legitimise and authenticate the text.

Luke is shown as a young, rather handsome man, with the sure gaze of the visionary into the middle distance as he ponders his next sentence. The fact that his feet are shown in front the table they should be under is not down to the artist's clumsiness, but to the representational style of the period: modern notions of perspective and 'realism' were yet to be developed. The Evangelist's name is written in Greek above his head: Loukas.

The burnished gold background is as bright today as when it was first made over a thousand years ago. The front cover of the book is also richly decorated, making it both inside and outside a fitting physical symbol of the Word of God it contains.