The Creation and History of Salvation

Bologna, 1250-62
The Abbey Bible, pages 3v and 4r
The Getty Center, Los Angeles

Page 3v of the manuscript contains St. Jerome's prologue to his translation of Genesis. In it he makes the common Christian claim that the Creation narrative testifies to the future coming of Christ and to the Trinity. The illustrations extend this idea into an interpretation in which the Creation is the first stage in God's plan of salvation.

On page 4r is a tall illuminated capital "I" with angels at the top representing the Heaven from which the Lord performs the work of creation. Their hands are covered with white cloths, a detail possibly derived from the covered hands on some images of the Presentation in the Temple and of the Adoration of the Magi. The covered hands derive ultimately from Byzantine court etiquette regarding the giving and receiving of gifts.

Then the first six roundels illustrate the six days of creation:

  1. In the first, the blue sphere represents the light created on the first day.
  2. The second roundel is a bit confusing. It should show the heavens being separated from the waters, but it represents two trees, which really belong in the third day.
  3. The third roundel does indeed represent the trees; God points to one to signify his work of that day.
  4. A dove bearing a halo is in the fourth roundel, a reference to the Holy Spirit's work of spiritual illumination on the day when God creates the lights in the sky.
  5. The fifth day is for birds, whales, and fish. The birds are on the right, and creatures that do not look very much like fish peer in from the left.
  6. Finally, in the sixth roundel God is half-way through the creation of man: Adam's flesh-colored head and trunk have been brought forth from the vaguely man-shaped gray slime below.

Then come two more roundels that focus on God's work of salvation. First, the sinfulness from which mankind needs to be saved, expressed by the image of Adam, Eve, and the serpent. It is this "original sin" that explains the image of Christ in the final roundel: It is he who will sacrifice himself to atone for that sin through his incarnation and sacrifice on the cross. The incarnation is then pictured in the block below, with the Annunciation in the center and the evangelists' symbols at the corners (Matthew's angel, Mark's lion, John's eagle, and Luke's ox).

The five roundels along the bottom of the pages complete the story with the birth of Jesus, his arrest, the Way of the Cross, the Crucifixion, and the announcement of the Resurrection to the three women of Luke 24:1-10. (See below.)

The genius of this illumination is that its tight form responds to the insight that Creation was part of the plan of salvation, which advances as if in a procession from the world's first day through to the Resurrection and its proclamation by the three women, who represent the Church ("they told all these things to the eleven, and to all the rest," Luke 24:9).

In the roundels on the bottom of the two pages Jesus is born, arrested, stripped of his garments, and crucified. In the final roundel the angel announces the Resurrection to the three women of Luke 24:1-10. Luke identifies them as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and "Mary of James," but in the roundel one of the women is probably the Virgin Mary, dressed like the Virgin in the previous roundel in a red robe and blue mantle.

The two pages of the manuscript. On the left is page 3v, with St. Jerome's prologue. On the right, page 4r, the capital "I" begins the phrase incipit liber genesis, "the Book of Genesis begins."

Read more about images of the Creation.
Read more about images of Jesus' arrest, trials, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Photographed at the museum by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.