Temporary exhibitions

The Manuscript room (also known as The Treasure Chamber) of the Scriptorial of Avranches exhibits precious volumes coming from the Heritage library of Avranches. The digital exhibition of the works of the Mont that can be found in the Museum can be accessed here. Based on these descriptions, the catalogue record completed within the framework of the project Digital Library of the Mont Saint-Michel can also be viewed.

Autumn exhibition – October-December 2019

Along with various commentaries and treaties written by the Church Fathers (Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory), the most important part of the ancient Benedictine library of Mont Saint-Michel was formed of copies of the Bible (or parts thereof), as well as books containing Biblical glosses. With one exception, these manuscripts all date from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.

Three manuscript copies of the Bible produced at Mont Saint-Michel have survived. Since the French Revolution, they have been conserved at Bordeaux (ms. Bordeaux, BM, 1: a superb Romanesque Bible, richly illuminated, in two volumes, produced in the second half of the 11th century) and Avranches (ms. Avranches, BM, 1: a Gothic Bible, little decorated, in a single volume; mss. Avranches, BM, 2 and 3: a splendid Gothic Bible, richly illuminated, in two volumes, copied around 1230). The second part of a handsome pocket Bible, in two volumes, which also dates from the 13th century, was acquired in 2003 by the Musée Champollion (at Figeac). There are also four complete folios of a manuscript of the Gospels, produced in the south of England in the 8th century: three of these folios are conserved at Avranches, and the fourth at St Petersburg. These fragments of the New Testament are the oldest manuscript witnesses to survive from the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel. Finally, the town of Avranches conserves twenty-eight volumes containing Biblical glosses, copied in the 12th and 13th centuries either at Mont Saint-Michel itself or at Paris. These volumes allow us to trace the ways in which manuscript decoration and layout evolved throughout these two centuries, during which there was a transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic style, which influenced both handwriting (change from Carolingian to Gothic) and the appearance of coloured, decorated and historiated initials. Under the influence of Parisian schools, colleges and universities, these Biblical glosses were considered, from the second quarter of the 12th century to the end of the 13th, to be an indispensable part of any monastic or capitular library. At Mont Saint-Michel, it was most likely under the direction of the abbots Bernard of Le Bec (1131-1149) and Robert of Torigni (1154-1186) that the library began to acquire books with Biblical glosses, first by copying the texts in house, then by obtaining them via Parisian workshops.

What is known as the “Parisian” gloss, which appeared from the 1170s onwards, uses a layout that is at once functional and aesthetic. The text of the Vulgate – that is, the Latin version of the Bible translated by St Jerome – appears in large characters in the central column. Between these lines, the interlinear gloss takes the form of a short commentary designed to explain, clarify, and interpret difficult passages. The inner and outer margins contain what is known as the ordinary gloss, which consists of extracts from the Church Fathers (Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome and Gregory) and/or sacred authors (The Venerable Bede, Origen, etc; Carolingian commentators: Rabanus Maurus, Hamon of Auxerre, Remy of Auxerre, etc.), who devoted themselves to commenting on Holy Scripture. It was on these two glosses that any reader (be he a master, a student, or a monk in reflection) had to focus in order to understand the Bible, with all personal interpretations being disallowed.

Gospel (fragments)

Avranches, Bibliothèque patrimoniale, feuillets volants (anciennes gardes des mss 48, 66 et 71)

Southwest England (Canterbury?), 8th c.

These fragments represent the oldest manuscripts conserved in the library of Avranches: they come from a Gospel book of insular origin (near Canterbury, southeast England), and are written in Anglo-Saxon uncial.

Uncial writing differs from angular Romanesque capitals by its rounded form (note the letters M, D and E). Attractive and legible, but time consuming to write and occupying a lot of space, the uncial capital was later abandoned (except in titles) in favour of Carolingian minuscule (9th-12th c.) and Gothic minuscule (13th-15th c.).

Only fragments of this rich volume, which the monks of Mont Saint-Michel acquired early in their history, have survived: they were reused (as cover or binding pages) in manuscripts copied at Mont Saint-Michel under Abbot Robert of Torigni (1154-1186).

Song of Songs (gloss of Robert of Tombelaine)

Mont Saint-Michel, second half of the 12th c.

This decorated letter in red and green (initial ‘O’ of Osculetur) opens the Song of Songs, which has been glossed by the monk Robert of Tombelaine. Robert composed his commentary towards the middle of the 11th c. while he was a monk of Mont Saint-Michel and before he became prior of Saint-Vigor de Bayeux (c. 1070-1082). It represents the oldest work of exegesis (a commentary on the Bible) written in Normandy during the ducal period (911-1204). However, this copy was only produced during the abbacy of Robert of Torigni (1154-1186), at a time when the pilcrows introducing the glosses were still traced in black ink, and when initials were still influenced by those of the first half of the 12th century.

Robert’s commentary pre-dates by only a few decades the rich exegetical work of his student, Richard des Fourneaux, monk of Saint-Vigor de Bayeux, later abbot of Préaux (1101-1125). Richard commented at least eleven books of the Bible, but remains little known compared to his two masters, Anselm of Le Bec and Robert of Tombelaine: unlike them, his works, which were soon rivalled by the “ordinary gloss”, were not widely circulated.

Gospel of St Matthew (with ordinary gloss)

Mont Saint-Michel, second half of the 12th c.

Like the previous manuscript, and the one that follows, this volume was copied during the abbacy of Robert of Torigni (1154-1186). The ornate letter “L”, which opens the Gospel of St Matthew with the words Liber generationis (the genealogy of Christ), is formed using the three colours emblematic of manuscripts produced at Mont Saint-Michel in the 12th century: red, green, and blue. Carefully arranged, these three colours give the letter a certain dynamism, thanks most notably to the presence of four fleurettes, arranged in a circular fashion in order to give a sense of movement to the whole.

At this time, the pilcrows used to introduce the interlinear and marginal glosses were still traced in black ink, as is the rest of the text. Note, however, how the pilcrows have different forms, in order to clearly mark the difference between the interlinear and marginal glosses.

Gospel of St Matthew (with ordinary gloss)

Mont Saint-Michel, second half of the 12th c.

Here is a third example of a glossed book copied at Mont Saint-Michel during the abbacy of Robert of Torigni (1154-1186). As with the previous manuscript, the ornate letter “L” that opens the Gospel of St Matthew with the words Liber generationis (the genealogy of Christ) is formed using the three colours emblematic of manuscripts produced at Mont Saint-Michel in the 12th century: red, green, and blue. The style is very different, however, from the previous manuscript, since it takes the form of a puzzle initial with filigrees, which began to appear towards the middle of the 12th century: the body of the letter is formed of two red and blue parts interlaced with one another, and of blue and red filigrees that fill the empty spaces. They end inventively with green and yellow foliage, thereby revealing certain Norman and Mont Saint-Michel influences of earlier centuries.

The pilcrows, which introduce both the interlinear and marginal glosses, are still traced in black ink.

Gospel of St Matthew (with ordinary gloss)

Paris, workshop of Gautier Lebaube, c. 1240-1250

This manuscript was produced at Paris in the workshop of Gautier Lebaube, whose activity is attested around 1240. Its main decoration is formed of two ornate initials (f. 1r and 97v) and two historiated initials (f. 2r and 97v), which open the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. The secondary decoration is formed of small filigreed initials and blue and red pilcrows, which is typical of such work of the 13th-15th centuries.

The beginning of the Gospel of St Matthew (Liber generationis, f. 2r) is highlighted by a striking historiated initial “L” showing the Tree of Jesse (genealogy of Christ), a frequent theme in Gothic illumination at the beginning of the 13th century, and one that broke with the traditions of the Romanesque period (compare the two preceding manuscripts). Despite a tendency to standardise production, Parisian artists show here a certain originality in their use of a rabbit motif on the top of the historiated initial. The design, in which blue and deep pink form the two dominant colours, is neat and precise. The use of a gold background is a feature typical of luxury illuminated works from the beginning of the 13th century. The same colours on gold background can be found in the ornate letter P (of Primum) and the historiated letter M (of Marcus evangelista), which open the Gospel of St Mark on folio 97v.

Book of Exodus (with ordinary gloss)

Mont Saint-Michel, last quarter of the 12th century

The ornate letter “H”, which opens the Book of Exodus, and which is formed of a man seizing a dragon by its neck (Romanesque influence), has been somewhat inelegantly embellished with a gold background (Gothic influence), which makes it difficult to read. The colour palette is, moreover, unusual for a Mont Saint-Michel production of the 12th century. It represents one of the rare examples of painted decoration produced by the Mont Saint-Michel scriptorium in the last quarter of the 12th century, a period of general decline in the abbey’s illumination work. From the second half of this century, Parisian workshops produced a letter “H” that was often historiated with the figure of Moses. The initial’s anthropo-zoomorphic style, which is purely decorative and archaic, shows that this is a local production, dating either from the end of the abbacy of Robert of Torigni (1154-1186), or more likely from the reign of Martin of Furmendi (1186-1191) or Jordan (1191-c. 1212).

Note that the pilcrows, which introduce the interlinear and marginal glosses, are still traced using black ink.

Deuteronomy (with ordinary gloss)

Paris, beginning of the 13th century

The initials that open the three glossed books of the Bible contained in this volume (Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) are non-filigreed puzzle initials. However, the small red and blue secondary initials that appear elsewhere in this manuscript sometimes contain discrete filigrees. In this puzzle letter “H”, which opens Deuteronomy, the red vermillion and azure blue parts are interlocked with one another, thereby leaving blank space between them. This is almost certainly a production of the beginning of the 13th century, since filigrees tended to become more frequent, more developed, and finer as this century progressed.

Note that the pilcrows used for the interlinear glosses are black, while those for the marginal glosses alternate between red and blue. So that the text can be more easily followed, the running title “Deuteronomis” appears in the upper margin.

Book of Esther (with ordinary gloss)

Paris, 13th century

The red vermillion and azure blue filigreed puzzle initials “L” and “I” that open this glossed copy of the Book of Esther are typical of 13th-century Gothic productions of Paris. A network of fine red and blue filaments surround the initial and serves to decorate the manuscript. With interlacing and vegetable foliage discarded, the use of filigreed letters helps bring the ornamentation towards a more geometric aesthetic, formed of lines, circles, and hooks… Similar filigreed puzzle initials can be found, with varied geometric motifs, in the three subsequent manuscripts. These stylistic variations in the filigrees have allowed art historians – notably Patricia Stirnemann (IRHT), a leading specialist in this type of decoration – to place and date these productions of the 13th-15th centuries precisely (within ten to twenty years).

The pilcrows of the interlinear glosses are black, while those for the marginal glosses alternate between red and blue. So that the text can be more easily followed, the running title “Hester” appears in the upper margin (“Hes” on the left and “ter” on the right).

Ezekiel (with ordinary gloss)

Paris, 13th century

This red vermillion and azure blue filigreed puzzle initial “E”, which opens this glossed copy of the book of Ezekiel, contains some points of comparison with the two initials of the previous manuscript. Notice in particular the tendency to extend the filigrees to the bottom of the lower margin, as is also the case for the filigrees descending from the pilcrow on the right-hand page of the previous manuscript. However, this similarity is largely due to the fact that filigreed letters of the 13th century are only rarely executed in colours other than blue and red (except in more luxurious manuscripts, which more often use gold leaf for the background).

As with the majority of glossed books from the Gothic period, the pilcrows of the interlinear glosses are black, while those of the marginal glosses alternate red and blue.

Gospel of St Matthew (with ordinary gloss)

Paris, 13th century

The red vermillion and azure blue puzzle initials “P” and “M”, which open the Gospels of St Matthew (f. 1r) and St Mark (f. 100r), contain very fine red and blue filigrees that fill the inside of the bowl of each letter. Unlike the preceding and subsequent examples, the filigrees descend only slightly in the margins.

As with the majority of glossed books from the Gothic period, the pilcrows of the interlinear glosses are black, while those of the marginal glosses alternate red and blue. So that the text can be more easily followed, the running title “Marcus” appears in the upper margin.

Gospel of St John (with ordinary gloss)

Paris, 13th century

The red vermillion and azure blue puzzle initial “h”, which opens the Gospel of St John, itself signalled through the running header of “Joh(an)es” in the upper margin, contains very fine red and blue filigrees that fill the inside of its bowl. In this instance, the filigrees descend very neatly in the inner margin, yet without extending to the lower margin. Thus, despite their similarities (we are dealing here with filigreed puzzle initials of the Parisian style), the Gothic initials of this volume (and of the preceding volumes) were executed by different artists and copyists, who no doubt worked in different Parisian workshops at slightly different times.

Note once again that, for the Gothic period, the pilcrows of the interlinear glosses are black, while those of the marginal glosses alternate red and blue.

Book of Kings (with ordinary gloss)

Mont Saint-Michel, around 1230

This glossed example of the four Books of Kings was decorated with gold leaf by the same artist who illuminated both the superb two-volume Bible Avranches, Bibliothèque patrimoniale, mss 2 et 3, and the missal Avranches, Bibliothèque patrimoniale, ms 42. These four manuscripts are masterpieces of early Gothic illumination. They were most likely produced at Mont Saint-Michel under Abbot Ralph de Villedieu (c. 1223/5-1236), the probable commissioner of the Gothic cloister known as la Merveille.

The green outline of the letter and the geometric patterns filling the interior of these dragon-embellished letters, which appear on folios 3r and 135v of this volume, are practically identical to those on folios 32r and 248v of the second volume of the grand Bible of Mont Saint-Michel (ms 3).

Psalter

Paris, Pierre le Rouge, 1490

This incunabular (that is, a book printed before 1 January 1501) is a “Psaultier avecques l’exposition sur De Lira en francoys” (“Psalter with an exposition on De Lira in French”) printed at Paris by Pierre le Rouge in 1490. As its title indicates, it is a psalter (a collection of 150 psalms), accompanied by a commentary written by the famous Norman theologian, Nicolas de Lyre (v. 1270-1349). The text and woodcut, in black, are printed, while the red-blue initial and the similarly coloured pilcrows were added by hand: it is therefore a work that blends printed and manuscript traditions.

This book belonged to the monk, prior and historian of Mont Saint-Michel, Sébastien Ernault (16th century), as various notes in his hand added in red at the beginning of the work make clear: an ex-libris and his signature have been inscribed on the title page; one can read, on the next page, at the beginning of the prologue “Sebastianus Ernault me possidet” (Sébastien Ernault owned me).

Archives

Exhibition 46 : july-september 2019 (summer exhibition).

Exhibition 45 : april-june 2019 (spring exhibition).

Exhibition 44 : july-september 2018 (summer exhibition).

Exhibition 43 : april-june 2018 (spring exhibition).

Exhibition 42 : february-march 2018 (winter exhibition).

Exhibition 41 : october-december 2017 (autumn exhibition).

Exhibition 40 : july-september 2017 (summer exhibition).

Exhibition 39 : april-august 2017 (Cluny).

Exhibition 38 : april-june 2017 (spring exhibition).

Exhibition 37 : february-april 2017 (winter exhibition).

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