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This article is taken from PN Review 229, Volume 42 Number 5, May - June 2016.

Pictures from a Library

26: Judging a Book by Its Cover
The Jewelled Binding of a Latin Medieval Manuscript
Stella Halkyard
Jewelled binding of Rylands Latin Manuscript 5

According to Susan Stewart the ‘book sits before me, closed and unread; it is an object with a set of surfaces. But opened […] its physical aspects give way to abstraction’ as the text contained within the book is revealed and takes possession of the reader. In the case of Rylands Latin Manuscript 5, a New Testament, things are perhaps not quite so clear-cut. Encrusted with gold ivory and jewels, the cover of this book cries out for attention in its own right.

Made in Germany in the twelfth century, it measures 29 x 19.5 cm and is composed of a series of panels. At its heart sits a plaque of ivory, which has been carved with figures in high relief, picturing Christ’s crucifixion. Flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John, Christ adopts the defiant, hieratic posture of a heroic warrior. His outstretched arms boldly embrace his fate as the redeemer of mankind, ‘strong and unflinching […] courageous under the scrutiny of many’ (‘Dream of the Rood’).

Surrounding this scene are eight other panels of varying size, decorated in gold-leaf and intricate filigree.
Four golden medallions align to the points of Christ’s cross, worked in repoussé, showing the figures of the Virtues. Arranged in groups around the border is a spectacular assortment of thirty-two carbuncular precious stones, including crystal, carnelian, amethyst and onyx. Some date from classical antiquity and are carved with exquisite intaglio and cameo emblems. Their themes are pagan and ...


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