In this season of Lent many people focus their attention on the life of Jesus in the Gospels. This is hardly a recent tradition. Manuscripts included many features to engage readers, aid the interpretation of the biblical text, and motivate them to remember the Gospels.
One feature is illumination (paintings, icons, or other decorative work placed alongside the biblical text). Many Greek New Testament manuscripts were decorated with icons of the four evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—before their respective Gospels. Only a few choice manuscripts are filled with other artwork that depicts scenes from the life of Christ. Lectionary 2017 is one of these exceptional treasures. This 12th century manuscript from the Benaki Museum in Athens is adorned with a few illuminations that vividly bring the biblical text to life.
The most interesting illumination in this manuscript displays Jesus casting out a multitude of demons from the Gerasene man called Legion (Luke 8.26–39). This intricate work is filled with detail. In the background is an ancient city—perhaps one of the cities of the Decapolis mentioned in Mark’s account of the story (Mark 5.20)—next to mountains along the Sea of Galilee. The foreground shows Jesus with an authoritative gesture ordering the demons out of the man. The Gerasene man falls backward as demons rush out of his mouth and into the nearby herd of pigs. The swine are stampeding into the lake as they are indwelt by the demons. Jesus’ disciples stand in amazement beside him, and one in a green cloak appears to be involved in the exorcism with Jesus because his hand is outstretched toward the man (which is not described in any of the Gospels [cf. Matt 8.28–34, Mark 5.1–20, Luke 8.26–39]).
The placement of this icon is also noteworthy. The lectionary system of the medieval church prescribed daily readings from the Gospels throughout the year to guide Christians in worship. The Gospel of Luke, for example, was read day by day for fourteen weeks. The story of the Gerasene man was read during the sixth week of Luke, but surprisingly this illumination was placed at the heading of the first reading, before the text of Luke 4.31–36 when Jesus cast out an impure spirit in Capernaum. The illuminator did not confuse these two stories, rather, he or she chose this vivid scene to decorate the headpiece of the Gospel.
Lectionary 2017 includes other exquisite and unique illuminations including gold-leaf images of Christ with a crowd of disciples and the Lord surrounded by the four evangelists, a miniature painting of Jesus carrying the cross, and ornate headpieces featuring peacocks and serpents. You can examine these on Lectionary 2017’s page in CSNTM’s digital library. The scribes who copied and decorated Greek manuscripts like this one did so as an act of great devotion and piety. But it was not only a personal act of worship. Their aesthetic work contributed to the communal worship where this lectionary was read over many years. And now their legacy is preserved and accessible for the modern world in CSNTM’s digital library.