Nothing else is quite like the Holkham Bible Picture Book. Produced in London during the early 14th century; it contains over 230 illustrations depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments. The manuscript takes its name from Holkham Hall in Norfolk, where it was part of the collection of the Earls of Leicester until 1952.

Fine and detailed images dominate the text. These images are accompanied by explanatory texts of varying length, mostly written in Anglo-Norman French, though Middle English is also present. Significantly, the images were completed first – the reverse of the conventional order of medieval book production. The whole Bible isn’t depicted; only three sections are included: Genesis to Noah (ff. 2–9); the Gospels, supplemented by apocryphal versions of the life of Christ (ff. 10–38); and Revelation (ff. 39–42v).

An unusual scene on the manuscript’s opening page suggests that it was commissioned by a Dominican friar and intended to be shown to an audience of important or influential people. A seated artist turns to look over his shoulder at a standing man dressed in the traditional white tunic and black cape and hood of the Dominicans (image no. 1). Speech scrolls alongside these figures reveal their dialogue in Anglo-Norman French. The friar, gesturing for emphasis, directs the artist to ‘do it well and thoroughly, for it will be shown to important people’ (Ore feres been e nettement kar mustre serra a riche gent). The artist responds: ‘Indeed, I certainly will and, if God lets me live, never will you see another such book’ (Si frai voyre e Deux me doynt vivere Nonkes ne veyses un autretel livere).

View images of the entire manuscripts via our Digitised Manuscripts website.