The Opening Page of the 12th-century Winchester Bible
This past year (2015) the Metropolitan Museum of Art curated an entire show devoted to a viewing of the Winchester Bible—a 12th-century illuminated manuscript created by a Benedictine monastic community in Winchester, England.
As one of the curators—Julia Perratore—states in a description of the opening page, the grand illuminated initial letter of the Bible is so elaborately designed as to provide an abbreviated history of salvation—the entire text of the Bible—in one grand graphic. The first letter of the text was often a venue for showing-off artistic license. And this case was no different. The first letter “I,” beginning the text of the Book of Genesis was designed to be as large as the page on which it was written: over 27 inches long. The letter is also divided up into several miniature circular disc panels within which are depicted several key scenes from the text of the Bible.
The scenes within the discs include: God creating Eve from Adam, Noah’s Ark, Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac, Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, Samuel anointing King David as sovereign, the Nativity, and Christ Pantacrator sitting in Majesty at the time of Judgment.
This abbreviated synopsis of the Bible might seem simply too curt for most contemporary Christian devotees. But Perratore points out that the selection chosen and visually depicted are not so much a summary of the Bible…as it is a commentary on the Bible’s contents. She reminds us that medieval Christians observed the Old Testament and the New Testament texts as complimentary of one another, and that stories from the Old Testament were often used as foreshadowing prophetic indicators of Jesus Christ and his life in the New Testament. And she provides excellent examples as can be evidenced in this frontice page illumination:
“Medieval Christians understood the Old and New Testaments to form two halves of a single narrative. The first half prepared the world for the second, which would result in the redemption of humanity. Moreover, the New Testament would supersede the Old Testament. Proceeding from this core belief, Christian theologians drew links between the Old Testament and the New Testament. They believed the prophecies of the Old Testament heralded the arrival of Christ in the New Testament, and they understood the personages and events of the Old Testament to prefigure those of the New Testament.
“With this in mind, it is possible to interpret the individual roundels of the Genesis initial as participants in a dialogue about the nature of the Bible… For example, Abraham's attempted sacrifice of his son Isaac was believed to prefigure God's sacrifice of his own son on the Cross. In the initial, Abraham's willingness to offer up his son echoes in the cross of the Crucifixion included in the image of Christ in Majesty. (The tree-like appearance of the cross also alludes to the fruit tree from which Adam and Eve ate, resulting in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.)
“The initial's image of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments represents what medieval Christians saw as the "old law." This was understood to have been superseded by the "new law" with the birth of Jesus, represented in the initial's Nativity scene. Additionally, because King David was seen as a precursor of Christ, the image of his anointing in the initial resonates with the regal depiction of Christ in Majesty. Throughout, the portrayal of God in the guise of his son Christ clearly links the Old and New Testaments. 1
We haven’t abandoned this method of understanding the Bible in our present day. Visual pedagogy in contemporary faith structures and art still use this same method of connecting narratives from the Old and New Testaments. As an example, in the far north apse/transept of the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. are a series of vertical pillar windows within recessed sanctuary altar spaces covered by mosaics depicting scenes from Christ’s gospel narratives on the upper portions, and a corresponding narrative story from the Old Testament in the lower half. The mosaic-windows’ binary scenes (actually, these chapels in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception are dedicated to the Mysteries of the Rosary; there are fifteen small chapels altogether) thus show how the Old Testament either foreshadowed Christ’s coming, or was rectified by his becoming corporeal and sacrificing his life for mankind.
Thus, one chapel depicting the Annunciation of the Gospel of Matthew is contrasted against the depiction of Eve breaking the commandment of God not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden. Why? Because if Eve was considered the downfall of man through her transgression; Mary was considered the medium through which man would be redeemed [since God incarnate as Jesus Christ used Mary as a portal into the physical world].
In another chapel the Holy Spirit descending as tongues of flame and anointing the apostles at Pentecost is contrasted with the Exodus story of Moses bringing the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai. The connecting theme is God’s word and law being given to the Israelites through Moses…and God’s word and new covenant being directly ascribed to men through the Holy Spirit. The Apostles became the tablets of God, and they would journey throughout the land sharing the good news.
Catholics know of yet another way in which Old and New Testaments are comparatively instructed—which is the scriptural readings every Sunday at Mass. During the scriptural readings, a passage from both the Old Testament and the New Testament are read to the congregation. The priest or deacon then gives a homily on these two passages from the Bible, which are meant to complement one another, in order to provide a pedagogical message to the congregation.
Returning to our topic of the Winchester Bible, created between 1150 and 1180 AD, we can presume that the images in the series of discs provided not just a type of pedagogy of the Bible, but another element as well—entertainment. As Perratore speculates,
“…[I]t is easy to imagine many pairs of monastic eyes running up and down this single letter, observing new parallels and drawing new conclusions each time they had a chance to look at it.” 2
…Which of course reminds us exactly of one’s frame of mind and vision when one is inspecting and reading tarot cards in a spread. Bringing me to one of my elemental points about the tarot,…and such storytelling mediums as stained glass windows, and mosaics, and illuminated manuscripts—they are meant to inspire our visual minds; to recollect inspiring stories and lessons, histories and ways of living happy and good lives; to imaginatively envision how the future might be; and to discover new meaning.
 Perratore, Julia. “The Entire Bible in a Single Letter: The Genesis Initial,” Exhibition blog for The Winchester Bible: A Masterpiece of Medieval Art, December 9, 2014—March 8, 2015. http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2014/winchester-bible/blog/posts/the-entire-bible-in-a-single-letter (last accessed Dec. 29, 2015).