What was the Biblia Pauperum?

Literally translated "Bible of the Poor", the Biblia Pauperum is a type of illustrated book offering a rich display of early medieval iconography. The subject matter-- not a bible exactly, but a graphic depiction of related scenes from the Old and New Testaments-- can be found in similar arrangements in 13th century manuscripts, but it was through the printed blockbook of the 14th and 15th centuries that certain typological conventions were established and repeated throughout monasteries of northern Europe. These books often served as "pattern books" for artists working in many other types of media.

In medieval typology, an argument is made for the unity of the Old and New Testaments. Two scenes from the Old Testament ("types") are often shown to prefigure (i.e., to predict or foreshadow) scenes from the New Testament (called the "antitypes"). Typically, one OT scene will be from the time before Moses (ante legem), and the other from the the time after Moses (sub lege).

The best way to explain how this works is by example. In the first plate (a), the Annunciation is shown to be prefigured on the left by Eve and the Serpent, and on the right by the fleece of Gideon. Eve receives the apple, Gideon receives a miracle, and Mary receives the word, and thus conceives the child. The Virgin Mary is often shown to be the "correction" for Eve-- as one brings sin into the world by her disobedience, the other brings the cure of sin (Christ) by her virtue (virginity). The text above this image explains that in Gen. 3, God tells the serpent that a woman will crush his head, and he should wait for her heel. We are meant to understand that Mary's heel will do the crushing. On the right, Gideon has fallen to his knees after witnessing the miracle of the fleece. The text reminds us that Gideon, weary from battle, asked for a sign that he would be victorious, and asked God to make the ground dry, but the fleece covered with dew. The next morning God gave Gideon his miracle (after which Gideon asked for the reverse, and got that too). This echoes Mary's impossible miracle, by emphasizing the power that God has in the physical world. Gideon's "proof" is in the impossible dew, just as the proof of God's love is the virgin pregnancy. The two OT images are further connected by showing two very different figures nevertheless similar in their impertinence, openly challenging God (to of course different degrees) in order to know the truth, i.e., to know what God knows. Mary, significantly shown reading, promises to answer all sinners' questions when she gives birth to the truth embodied in Christ.

In addition to the content of the central scenes, other elements on the page serve to emphasize the unity of the scenes. Again, in the Annunciation plate, scrolls with announcements echo the shape of the serpent, and in each section there is a haloed figure (God, the Holy Spirit, or an angel) watching or directing the scene. The four prophets comment on the scene or its themes, and supplemental text explains the connections between to the scenes for us. In other plates, the images will be linked by a similar composition, common motif, or a repeated element in the landscape.

OT/NT typologies appear in the earliest Christian art-- Santa Maria Maggiore and the Roman catacombs, for example-- and the typologies used in the Biblia Pauperum were likely modeled on Nicholas of Verdun's Klosterneuberg altar (1181). But whereas 12th century typologies seem to be designed to "answer" contemporary heretical movements, the emphasis here seems less on conversion (to prove Christ is the fulfillment of OT prophecies) than to engage the reader in contemplation and understanding.

Avril Henry argues in her introduction to the 1987 facsimile of the British Blockbook against the didactic interpretation many have assigned not only this book, but all medieval figurative graphic arts:

Little medieval art is merely instructive. Our modern response to medieval typology is sufficient evidence that pictures in this mode only "instruct" if you already know what they mean. They then act as reminders of the known truth. It is not a bit of good staring at a picture of a man carrying two large doors on the outskirts of a city and expecting it to suggest the risen Christ. (p.17)

Henry argues rather that the book was intended to create a carefully structured, meditative experience for its reader, likely in a monastery.

A blockbook is created by carving an image (and often text) into wood, then printing the image with ink on paper. This type of book served as a bridge between very expensive hand-copied manuscripts and later printed books created with Gutenberg's moveable type. These were not inexpensive books, however (no books were), and it is unlikely that they were used by illiterate or poor preachers. More likely, they were distributed (or recopied, reprinted, an redistributed) to less wealthy monasteries which couldn't afford illuminated manuscripts

There are about 80 bibliae pauperum (in part or in whole) known today, and there are various configurations. The most common arrangement in the late 14th century is the 36 leaves (pasted back to back, to form 18 pages) illustrating the life and death of Christ, plus 4 scenes (2 pages) from life after Christ (Last Judgment, The Damned entering Hell, Christ Gathering the Blessed, Christ gives Crown of Eternal Life). These four scenes were likely added after the original manuscript was created.

The type illustrated in the British Blockbook (on which I have based the Internet Biblia Pauperum) is structured architecturally, as though these various scenes were happening in one house, or a church with the pediment chopped off. The "windows" into the scenes or prophets often have gothic elements such as pointed arches and jambs, mimicking the architecture of the churches where this book would be read and copied. This architectural, ordered diagram serves to emphasize the catholic nature of the Bible as well as the Church itself.

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This page was last edited on August 8, 2001.
Please send any comments to me at manning@amasis.com.