Maiestas Domini page from Codex Amiatinus (fol. 796v), Firenze, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana and folio 5r from the Codex Amiatinus (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatinus 1), Ezra the scribe. "When the sacred books had been consumed in the fires of war, Ezra repaired the damage."

The Codex Amiatinus: The Skins of 500 Calves Were Used to Create this Monumental Manuscript

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The Codex Amiatinus dates to the end of the 7th century AD; making it the oldest known surviving complete Catholic Bible written in the Latin Vulgate. It has been estimated that over 1500 calves were slaughtered to create the material for just three copies of this text and seven scribes were enlisted to write and decorate the monumental work.

This manuscript was commissioned and written in the famous scriptorium of the Wearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, which was then part of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria. The Codex Amiatinus traveled from England to Italy, where it remained for over a millennium. It was only in 2014 that the manuscript returned for the first time to its place of birth and was temporarily displayed at Bede’s World (now known as Jarrow Hall).

Codex Amiatinus.

Codex Amiatinus. (Remi Mathis/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

Creating the Codex Amiatinus

The story of the Codex Amiatinus begins in 692 AD. In this year, the second abbot of the Wearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, Abbot Ceolfrid, commissioned three copies of the Catholic Bible in the Latin Vulgate. The abbot had acquired a Bible from Italy, known as the Codex Grandior (which means the ‘Bigger Book’) during one of his visits to Rome. It has been suggested that the Codex Amiatinus was modeled on that text. The Codex Grandior was written in Latin, which was derived from earlier Greek translations of the Old Testament. The Codex Amiatinus on the other hand, was based on St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate version, which was held to be more authoritative by the monks at Wearmouth-Jarrow.

Page with dedication; "Ceolfrith of the English" was altered into “Peter of the Lombards.”

Page with dedication; "Ceolfrith of the English" was altered into “Peter of the Lombards.” ( Public Domain )

The Codex Amiatinus was written on vellum, which is made from calf skin. It has been estimated that in order to produce the three copies of this codex, up to 1545 calves were slaughtered. The next stage of production was the writing and decoration of the manuscript. By studying the text, scholars have established that at least seven different scribes were involved in this monumental work. Two of the Bibles produced were placed, one each, in the twin churches in Wearmouth and Jarrow. One of them is now completely lost, whilst only fragments of the other are left, and are kept in the British Library today.

The Third copy of the Codex Amiatinus

The third copy of the Codex Amiatinus was intended to be given as a gift to the Pope, Gregory II. Therefore, in 716 AD, the manuscript left the monastery for the Eternal City. One of the monks who accompanied the codex on its journey was Abbot Ceolfrid himself. Unfortunately, the abbot did not live to see the completion of this journey, as he died in Burgundy en route to Rome. Some sources claim that the Codex Amaitinus was lost in France after the death of the abbot. Others, however, state that Ceolfrid’s companions continued the journey and made it to Rome, where they presented the Codex Amiatinus to the Pope.

Somehow, the Codex Amiatinus found its way to the Abbey of San Salvatore, which is located on Mount Amiata in Tuscany. It is from this location that the manuscript obtained its present name. In any case, the Codex Amiatinus remained in Tuscany for several centuries. During the 1570s, church authorities in Rome requested the Codex Amiatinus be brought there. In the wake of the Reformation, the Catholic Church was eager to produce a new edition of the Vulgate, and the Codex Amiatinus was used as a reference. The priceless manuscript only came to Rome about 15 years after the first request was sent; it was accompanied by Tuscan monks who were given orders to keep a close eye on it at all times.

Abbey of San Salvatore, Tuscany.

Abbey of San Salvatore, Tuscany. ( Public Domain )

Bringing the Codex Amiatinus Home

In 1782, the abbey was closed as a result of the suppression of the religious orders by Pietro Leopoldo I, the Grand Duke of Tuscany (who would later become the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold II, and who was the brother of Marie Antoinette). The manuscript was then taken to the Laurentian Library, in Florence, where it still resides today. Interestingly, the Codex Amiatinus was long thought to have been made in Italy. It was only during the 19th century that the manuscript was found to be of Anglo-Saxon origin.

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