The Codex Amiatinus: Britain's Lost Treasure
One of the grandest, certainly one of the largest, manuscripts produced in the medieval West, the Codex Amiatinus is often overlooked as an Anglo-Saxon treasure. Conor O’Brien shows how its makers used it to assert their identity and to establish their place firmly within the Christian world.
Many of the great artistic wonders of early medieval Britain, especially of Anglo-Saxon England, are well known and much loved: the intricate illuminations and mesmerising figures of the Lindisfarne Gospels or the glittering gold and blood-red garnets of the treasure from the Sutton Hoo ship burial. But the Codex Amiatinus, one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon contributions to European culture, rarely inspires widespread affection, or even recognition. Familiarity is key: while the Lindisfarne Gospels and Sutton Hoo treasure can be seen in Britain (albeit in London, rather than the regions with which they are associated), the Codex Amiatinus left the island 1,300 years ago, never to return.
It is a truly awesome book – and an influential one. While the books of Durrow, Kells and Lindisfarne only include the four gospels, the Codex Amiatinus consists of a complete Bible; indeed, it is the oldest complete Latin copy of the Bible in existence. Writing out a full Bible remained an unusual activity throughout the early Middle Ages because it required substantial resources in time and livestock. At least seven scribes worked on the Codex (the uniformity of their handwriting shows their high level of training) and the book consumed parchment from more than 500 calves to produce over 2,000 pages. At the time of its creation it may well have been the largest book ever made, weighing more than 75 pounds and requiring the strength of two people to be carried. Most of this monumental volume is dedicated to the words of scripture written in a clear and well-spaced script (word spaces were still unusual in Latin when the Codex was written, so other manuscripts from the period are rarely as easy to read), but there are also a number of marvellous pages of colourful illumination, using inks in a dozen colours, as well as large quantities of gold and silver leaf.