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The Codex Amiatinus: the Earliest Surviving Complete Bible in the Latin Vulgate, Containing One of the Earliest Surviving Images of Bookbindings and a Bookcase (Circa 688 – 716)


Folio 5r of Codex Amiatinus, showing Ezra. (View Larger)

Under the direction of Abbot Ceolfrid (Ceolfrith), teacher of Bede, the huge Bible, later known as the Codex Amiatinus, was completed in a monastery either at Wearmouth or Jarrow, in the north of England in the late seventh century. It is the earliest surviving manuscript of the complete Bible in the Latin Vulgate version, and is considered the most accurate copy of St. Jerome's text. The codex was "modelled on a lost Vivarium manuscript taken to Northumbria from Rome in 678 by the founder of the monasteries, Benedict Biscop(M. Davies, "Medieval Libraries" in D. Stam (ed.) International Dictionary of Library Histories, I [2001] 105).  This lost manuscript was most probably one of Cassiodorus's Bibles from the Vivarium at Squillace— probably the Codex grandior littera clariore conscriptus. "For centuries it [the Codex Amiatinus] was considered an Italo-Byzantine manuscript, and it was only recognized for its English production about a century ago" (Browne, Painted Labyrinth. The World of the Lindisfarne Gospels [2004] 9).

The frontispiece of the Codex Amiatinus illustrated here shows a saintly figure, presumably the Old Testament prophet Ezra, or possibly Cassiodorus himself characterized as Ezra, writing a manuscript on his lap and seated before an open book cupboard or armarium which contains a Bible in nine volumes, like the Codex grandior, known to have been owned by Cassiodorus. This is one of the earliest surviving images of bookbindings, and also one of the earliest surviving images of an early form of bookcase. Clasps holding the covers of the bindings closed are clearly visible on the fore-edges of the bound manuscripts lying on the shelves—one of the earliest images of this binding feature.  In Twelve Centuries of Bookbindings 400-1600 (1979; 57) Paul Needham suggested that the designs on the bookbindings as they are represented in the miniature bear similarities to the designs of early Coptic bookbindings.

To offer the Codex Amiatinus as a present to Pope Gregory II, Abbot Ceolfrid, made the long journey to Rome in old age, departing in 716. Though Ceolfrid died on the journey, his associates brought the volume to the Pope as a cultural "ambassador of the English nation." It was used in the revision of the Vulgate by Pope Sixtus V in 1585-90. 

One of the largest and heaviest of all medieval manuscripts, the single volume of the Codex Amiatinus weighs 75 pounds. The huge costs involved in its production were discussed by Richard Gameson in "The Cost of the Codex Amiatinus," Notes & Queries, 39, No. 1 (March 1992) 2.

The manuscript, long kept in the abbey of Monte AmiataAbbadia San Salvatore in Tuscany, from which its name is derived, is preserved in the Laurentian Library (Bibliotheca Medicea Laurenziana) in Florence.

Alexander, Insular Manuscripts 6th to 9th Century (1978) No. 7.