By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
The earliest extant manuscripts of the Wessex (West Saxon) Gospels and the Old English Hexateuch (covering “Genesis” through the book of Joshua) are designed to engage an audience that needed concepts as well as words translated. The existence of the many poetic, pictorial Biblical translations temper what we are told by ecclesiastical authorities themselves.
The Hexateuch is embellished with more than 400 illustrations which can be read without literacy in any language. Taking this concept even further, we also find cycles of illuminated biblical scenes like those in the St. Albans Psalter, made in the second quarter of the 12th century at that prominent monastery, which are not accompanied by any text at all and are, therefore, meant to stand alone as eloquent visual translations.
Scholars have posited that this particular book was made for a local English anchoress, Christina of Markyate, who may not have been able to read either the Latin or the Old French texts included in it. Instead, she was encouraged to see herself situated in the biblical narrative; when Mary Magdalene announces the Resurrection to Peter and the Apostles, Christina could see herself reflected in the saint’s portrait.
The Vulgate Bible
The existence of so many poetic, pictorial Biblical translations should temper what we are told by ecclesiastical authorities themselves, who tended to condemn the untutored reading of the scriptures by lay people.
Within Latin Christendom, the Vulgate Bible—the translation made by Saint Jerome from Hebrew and Greek texts between 382 and 405—was the only authorized version of the Old and New Testaments; in the Greek speaking East, it was the text established by a series of Church councils and finalized by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria in 367, who determined that the controversial book of Revelation should be included.
Yet missionaries of the medieval Church recognized that spreading a religion of the book to peoples who did not understand the language of that book would be problematic. And such translations had been made before. Indeed, Jerome’s Biblia Vulgata was so called because it was the Bible of the vulgus, the crowd or common people, composed in straightforward prose and updating a previous translation known simply as the Vetus Latina (Old Latin) Bible.
It was also preceded by translations into Ge’ez (the ancient language of Ethiopia) and Jesus’s own Aramaic tongue, as well as a version in the East Germanic language known as Gothic. In the 5th century, there were Nubian, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, and Georgian translations; in the late 9th, the Orthodox missionaries to the Slavs, Saints Cyril and Methodius, began their translation into Old Church Slavonic.
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Depiction of Biblical Stories
In fact, despite occasional grumblings by more conservative theologians, the vernacular translation of biblical texts was normal prior to about 1250—that is, for most of the Middle Ages. Moreover, we can, and should, expand the definition of translation to include the many adaptations that were pictorial and performative, as well as textual.
The depiction of biblical and apocryphal stories in artwork—wall paintings, mosaic, stained glass, manuscript illuminations—was ubiquitous, even during the Iconoclast Controversy in Byzantium of the 8th and 9th centuries, when imperial efforts were made to outlaw the making and veneration of icons depicting Jesus and the Virgin Mary, especially, on the grounds that these were graven images of the kind condemned by God in the Ten Commandments. Many medieval churches and cathedrals are architectural scaffolds for illustrated Bible stories.
And unlike a copy of the Old or New Testament, which must be read one episode at a time, illustrated biblical cycles juxtapose scenes and stories from both in order to make one of Christianity’s central arguments: that the events and prophecies of the Old Testament are always presaging or pointing to their fulfillment in the New.
Christ was the new Adam, the Son of Man, atoning for man’s original sin and destroying the death of the Tree by his own Crucifixion. Abel was a Christ figure, as was Noah—gathering all the faithful into the Ark of the Church; like Isaac, Christ was willing to be sacrificed; like Joseph, he was betrayed by his own people, persecuted, and falsely accused. Mary was the new Eve, born without the taint of original sin, whose Virgin Birth was foreseen by generations of Hebrew prophets.
Biblical Themes in Theatre
These same themes are also reflected in the vernacular arts of theatre. In the earliest extant drama produced in any European vernacular, the Old French ordo representacionis Ade or Jeu d’Adam, the story of Adam and Eve is followed by Abel’s slaughter at the hands of his brother Cain, then by a Procession of Prophets who foretell the birth of Jesus.
Although the sole extant manuscript is missing its conclusion, the play seems to have been intended for the Christmas or Easter seasons, because it draws very clear parallels between Old and New Testament events.
In the same way that the Old English Genesis makes Adam and Eve representative of every man and woman, medieval biblical exegesis allowed for interpretations of scripture that made all of these stories applicable to the lives of ordinary Christians. A given event or figure could be interpreted allegorically or typologically.
Common Questions about Pictorial, Performative, and Textual Translations of Bible
Within Latin Christendom, the Vulgate Bible—the translation made by Saint Jerome from Hebrew and Greek texts between 382 and 405—was the only authorized version of the Old and New Testaments.
Saint Jerome’s Biblia Vulgata was so called because it was the Bible of the vulgus, the crowd or common people, composed in straightforward prose and updating a previous translation known simply as the Vetus Latina (Old Latin) Bible.
Illustrated biblical cycles juxtapose scenes and stories from both the Old and New Testaments in order to make one of Christianity’s central arguments: that the events and prophecies of the Old Testament are always presaging or pointing to their fulfillment in the New.