Art and Exegesis: Nicholas of Lyra’s Bible Commentary

Dr Sarah Bromberg from Suffolk University, Boston, has spent the last month in Manchester as the Newberry Library – John Rylands Research Institute Exchange Fellow. She writes:

As the 2016-17 Newberry Library and John Rylands Institute Exchange Fellow, I had the wonderful pleasure of examining Rylands Latin MSS 29-31 in the Special Collections reading room for the past month.

These three volumes contain an extremely lavish and unusually luxurious copy of Nicholas of Lyra’s Postilla litteralis super totam bibliam (Literal Commentary on the Entire Bible), written in the mid-fourteenth century and widely copied in manuscript and print into the sixteenth century. Lyra (1270-1349) sought to reconcile Jewish and Christian biblical commentaries and designed diagrams to illustrate his points. The Rylands Postilla contains numerous, brilliantly colorful, highly ornate and stunningly beautiful illuminations.

God creating Adam and Eve, from Nicholas of Lyra's Commentary on the Bible, Latin MS 29, fol. 2v
God creating Adam and Eve, from Nicholas of Lyra’s Postilla (Bible Commentary), Latin MS 29, fol. 2v.

I first became aware of the Rylands Postilla through the Rylands Library’s comprehensive digitization of the manuscript. However, the experience of continuously looking at Rylands Latin MSS 29-31, in person, for a sustained amount of time, was extremely valuable for my research. I noticed many visual elements that were not readily apparent on the digital images in terms of the color, iconography, content of Lyra’s commentary, style of the script, and techniques of illumination. I also enjoyed working with the Centre for Heritage Imaging and Collection Care to use Multispectral Imaging to help me learn about aspects of the manuscript illumination that are not visible to the naked eye. I was grateful to observe this photographic process, which greatly helped me understand this technology, and the ways it can be applied to medieval manuscript studies.

Detail of shield from Latin MS 29, frontispiece, under standard light (left) and a processed Multispectral Image (right).

The Rylands Institute was extremely welcoming to me, especially when they arranged for me to attend their conference, “‘The Other Within’: The Hebrew and Jewish collections of The John Rylands Library.” Listening to the talks about the medieval illuminated haggadot in the Rylands’ collection was fascinating, and I enjoyed the opportunity to view first-hand Hebrew MSS 6 and 7 during the conference.  I found the Rylands Library’s Gothic Revival architecture inspiring for my research on medieval manuscripts, and enjoyed working under ribbed vaults and stained glass windows. And the city of Manchester has terrific architecture as well!

A chapter of my book project, Art and Exegesis: Nicholas of Lyra’s Postilla, focuses on Rylands MSS 29-31. The observations that I made while at the Rylands Library will be very useful to my book’s overall goal: to chart the changes in manuscript and print copies of Lyra’s Postilla from the fourteenth the fifteenth centuries. I am now off to the Newberry Library to look at incunables containing woodcut copies of Lyra’s illustrations, and am thrilled that my fellowship supports research at both libraries because it will allow me to understand the broad extent of the Postilla tradition.

All three volumes of the Rylands Postilla have been fully digitised, and they can be viewed online via Luna.

Leopard and hare in the margins of Nicholas of Lyra's Postilla (Bible Commentary), Latin MS 29, fol. 2v.
Leopard and hare in the margins of Nicholas of Lyra’s Postilla (Bible Commentary), Latin MS 29, fol. 2v.


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