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.

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 32 CE 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 f. 124r (digitised image 25 here), which deals with the Last Judgement, the figure of the Tsar himself appears. He is interceding with St Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Tsar and his family are also depicted in digitised images 1 and 2.

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 Library) in 1917.

What do the pages digitised here depict?

  • Digitised image 1 – f. 2v, Son-in-law and three daughters of Tsar Ivan Alexander.
  • Digitised image 2 – f. 3r, Tsar Ivan Alexander, his second wife Throdora, and two sons. 
  • Digitised image 3 – f. 6r, the headpiece of St Matthew's Gospel.
  • Digitised image 4 – f. 6v, the genealogy of Christ; Jacob and his sons.
  • Digitised image 5 – f. 9r, the three Magi seeking advice.
  • Digitised image 6 – f. 9v, the Magi before King Herod.
  • Digitised image 7 – f. 10r, the Nativity: the Adoration of the Magi and shepherds.
  • Digitised image 8 – f. 10v, Mary and Joseph with Jesus flee from Herod, into Egypt.
  • Digitised image 9 – f. 11r, King Herod orders the Massacre of the Innocents.
  • Digitised image 10 – f. 11v, the return of the Holy Family from Egypt.
  • Digitised image 11 – f. 13r, John baptising Jesus in the River Jordan.
  • Digitised image 12 – f. 45r,  the top image depicts the Feeding of the Five Thousand; below depicts Christ walking on water.
  • Digitised image 13 – f. 46v, Christ reproves the scribes.
  • Digitised image 14 – f. 48v, the feeding of the multitude with loaves and fish.
  • Digitised image 15 – f. 56r, illustration for the parable of the unjust servant. 
  • Digitised image 16 – f. 76v, the top image depicts the Last Supper; below show Christ and the Apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane. 
  • Digitised image 17 – f. 78v, the betrayal of Jesus by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane. 
  • Digitised image 18 – f. 81r, Jesus before Pontius Pilate.
  • Digitised image 19 – f. 82r, witnesses testify against Christ.
  • Digitised image 20 – f. 82v, Pontius Pilate washes his hands as Jesus is led away.
  • Digitised image 21 – f. 84r, the Crucifixion.
  • Digitised image 22 – f. 84v, the Deposition of Christ from the Cross, with the Virgin and St John, and the Entombment.
  • Digitised image 23 – f. 85r, top, the discovery of the empty tomb; below, the Resurrection, Christ descending into hell and freeing Adam and Eve.
  • Digitised image 24 – f. 118r, Gospel of St Mark – Christ curses the fig tree. 
  • Digitised image 25 – f. 124r, the Last Judgement – Christ surrounded by apostles and saints; below, Tsar Ivan Alexander is in discussion with the Virgin Mary; an angel is depicted with scales and souls. 
  • Digitised image 26 – f. 133r, in the upper image Christ is removed from the cross and laid in the tomb; blow depicts the Harrowing of Hell. 
  • Digitised image 27 – f. 126v, Gospel of St Luke – Christ casts out the devils from the man called Legion; the devils possess a herd of swine, who run down to the lake and are drowned.
  • Digitised image 28 – f. 166v, the Transfiguration.
  • Digitised image 29 – f. 171r, above, the parable of the Good Samaritan; below, Christ dines with Martha and Mary.
  • Digitised image 30 – f. 184r, parable of the lost sheep.
  • Digitised image 31 – f. 200r, prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem.
  • Digitised image 32 – f. 213r, the headpiece of St John's Gospel: St John and the Trinity.
  • Digitised image 33 – f. 251r, Christ washes the disciples' feet.
  • Digitised image 34 – f. 259v, Christ prays in the Garden of Gethsemene (top) while the apostles sleep (below).

How can I see more of this manuscript?

This manuscript has been digitised in full and is available to view via our Digitised Manuscripts website

Full title:
The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander
Simeon [scribe]
Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Held by
British Library
Add MS 39627

Full catalogue details

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