Digitising the manuscripts of Lorsch

After my last post, I started looking for evidence of the work of Heidelberg university in digitising Vatican manuscripts.  To my astonishment, I found a website for the now vanished library of the abbey of Lorsch!  It seems that a team from Heidelberg have been attempting to recreate this Dark Ages library, full of very interesting manuscripts, and destroyed and scattered during the Thirty Years War.  Here they discuss their work.

133 manuscripts, which once formed part of the Carolingian monastic library Lorsch, are integrated nowadays into the valuable and large collection of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. In 1622/23 the manuscripts were brought to Rome as part of Heidelberg’s Bibliotheca Palatina. For its digitization project “Bibliotheca Laureshamensis – digital” Heidelberg University Library was permitted to digitize the Lorsch manuscripts on the premises of the Vatican Library in Rome. Thus, in November 2010 a digitization centre was set up in Rome in cooperation with the Vatican Library for the digitization of the manuscripts. The digitization of the entire Lorsch manuscripts in Rome was completed within eight months by a team of six.

The list of all the manuscripts once part of Lorsch is here

The Vatican library manuscripts online are listed here.  Many are biblical manuscripts, most are 9th century.  There are gems for us, tho: Arnobius the Younger, Hilary of Poitiers, Ps.Hegesippus, Ambrosiaster, Jerome, Augustine, Marius Mercator, Paulinus of Nola, Orosius, Cassiodorus, Bede, Isidore, Jordanes … the list goes on.  Just look for yourself at the list!

I can’t resist noting Pal. lat. 822, a copy of Rufinus’ translation of Eusebius’ Church History.  Or the presence of Macrobius and the Historia Augusta in Pal. lat. 886, foll. 125-189.  Or two works by Sallust, the conspiracy of Cataline, and the Jugurthine War, in Pal. lat. 887 and Pal. lat. 889.  Cicero, Seneca, Fulgentius Mythographicus, Vergil … yes, and a Servius’ Commentary on Vergil… And whoa!  There’s a 10th century manuscript of Juvenal, Pal. lat. 1701!

Then there are three medieval catalogues of the library at Lorsch, as it was, in Pal. lat. 1877.  These have been published, and are found in G. Becker’s Catalogi Bibliothecarum Antiqui, in doubtless not very reliable form.  But here are the originals!

Finally, fancy a look at Cyprian?  Try Reg. lat. 118.

OK, there’s not a lot there that causes me, this instant, to click on it.  But then only a manuscript of Pliny the Elder would do that, just at the moment!

Why have I never heard of this?

UPDATE: But … oh good grief, what is this??!?!  I tried clicking on one of the mss, and got the following: 

No wonder I have never heard of all this.  Who, one wonders, was so STUPID as to do this?  To do all that work, and then, greedily, HIDE the images!!!

Sometimes I despair, I really do.


Vatican (and Bodleian?) Greek manuscripts to go online?

Mike Aquilina writes to tell me about a new manuscript digitisation initiative.  The BBC has an article on the story:

Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries and the Vatican’s Biblioteca Apostolica plan to digitise 1.5 million ancient texts to make them available online.

The two libraries announced the four-year project after receiving a £2m award from the Polonsky Foundation.

Dr Leonard Polonsky said his aim was to ensure researchers and the public have free access to historic and rare texts.

Greek manuscripts, 15th Century printed books and Hebrew early printed books and manuscripts will be digitised.  …

Two thirds of the material will come from the Vatican Library and the rest from the Bodleian.

Well done, Dr Polonsky!!

The Catholic News Service adds:

The Bodleian-Vatican Library digitized collections will be in three subject areas: Greek manuscripts, incunabula and Hebrew manuscripts.

According to the Bodleian, the subject areas were chosen because both libraries have strong collections in those areas and because of the collections’ importance to scholars. The project will bring together online “materials that have been dispersed between the two collections over the centuries,” the Bodleian press release said.

Some 800 Vatican incunabula will be digitised, they say.

The Vatican Radio site indicates (in French only!) that 1.5 million pages from manuscripts and incunables will be digitised.  Scanning of manuscripts is already underway.  The Vatican has 80,000 manuscripts and 8,900 incunables, and has been experimenting with digitisation since 2010.  And the Prefect of the Vatican Library, Mgr Pasini, adds:

«La quantité des manuscrits numérisés grandit grâce aussi au travail du Laboratoire de reproduction et aussi aux projets visés, en collaboration avec les institutions culturelles : ainsi est en cours de réalisation la numérisation des manuscrits Palatins latins, en collaboration avec l’Université de Heidelbert. »

“The quantity of digitised manuscripts is increasing thanks also to the work of the Laboratory of reproduction, and also to existing projects, in collaboration with cultural institutions: in this way the digitisation of the ‘Palatine’ Latin manuscripts is in progress, in collaboration with the University of Heidelbert.

I presume that should read “Heidelberg”, capital of the Rheinland Palatinate. The “Palatine” collection came from there to the Vatican, as part of the settlement of the Thirty Years War.  Now that by itself is quite exciting news, for the Codici Latini Palatini are some of the most important Vatican Latin manuscripts. 

There are some Hebrew texts of no special interest here.  But there is more:

En ce qui concerne les manuscrits grecs, seront enfin numérisés d’importants témoins des œuvres d’Homère, de Sophocle, de Platon, d’Hippocrate, ainsi que des codex du Nouveau Testament et des Pères de l’Eglise, dont un grand nombre sont richement décorés de miniatures byzantines.

As for the Greek manuscripts, finally some important witnesses will be digitised of the works of Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Hippocrates, as well as some codices of the New Testament and the Fathers of the Church, of which a great number are richly decorated with Byzantine miniatures.

Hum.  Well, “pretty-pretty” books are of no real interest other than to a tiny number of art historians, but at least we see recognition of “important witnesses” to the text of various authors.  And it will include patristic authors.

The story appears elsewhere, but there seem to be no additional details.

It’s very good news!  And all thanks to Dr Leonard Polonsky, and his Polonsky Foundation.  Apparently the man has form, working with the Bodleian to digitise material and paying for the work.  A man after my own heart, this.

It is good to see that Dr. Polonsky makes clear his motivation: to make stuff accessible to us all.  If I might suggest something, Dr. P?  Make sure the libraries make the books downloadable as PDF’s, whatever other way they make the stuff accessible.  Given half a chance they will lock the images away.


The image of Christ-Helios in the mosaics of Vatican tomb M

Quite by accident I came across the daunting opus by Steven Hijmans, Sol: the sun in the art and religions of Rome, 2009, in which he attempts to classify all the material about “Sol” in the historical record.  I must say at once that the book is partially impenetrable to those not deeply involved in iconography.

But it seems that Dr Hijmans’ interest originally was sparked by the controversial 2nd century mosaic[1], which is often supposed to show Christ as Helios.  I found an image online, which I include below on a useful site about St. Peters.

Christ as Helios? The mosaic from Vatican tomb M

When the basilica of St. Peter in Rome, built in the 4th century by Constantine, was demolished in the 16th century prior to building the current church, the workmen discovered that a pagan cemetery lay under part of the site.  This included a street of tombs, as Roman tombs were often built outside the city beside roads, which must have been inaccessible after the basilica was built.  Construction for St Peters began around 320 AD. 

The mausolea were largely forgotten until the 1940’s when new excavations under St. Peters rediscovered them.  It is possible, in fact, to visit the tombs, although only by pre-arrangement.

One of the tombs, the smallest, given the letter ‘M’ contains an interesting mosaic.  The tomb was first entered in 1574, through a hole in the ceiling.  An inscription over the doorway — and overtly pagan –, which has since been lost[2], recorded that the tomb was that of Julius Tarpeianus and his family.  But it became famous from the 1940’s because of the mosaics, and in particular because of the charioteer.  The mausoleum itself was built in the 2nd century, in the space left between tombs L and N, and so is only 1.98 x 1.63m in size, and 2m high.  But the ceiling is covered with the mosaic, which also covers the upper parts of the walls, and there is fresco below.  The mosaic and the fresco seems to be later than two cremation burials, but before four inhumation burials, and all of this must be before ca. 320 AD when the tomb became buried under the basilica.  Likewise in some of the other tombs there is overtly pagan imagery, but also the burials of Christians.[3]

The images of the walls of M are as follows: on the west wall, a man carrying a sheep on his shoulders; on the north wall, facing the entrance, an angler is catching a fish, while another fish swims away; on the east wall is a ship with two men on board, each with upraised right arm, but outside the ship another man is being swallowed head first by a sea monster.  On the ceiling is a man on a chariot, drawn by what were once four horses, but only two remain.  The hole in the ceiling, made in 1574 as a way in, obliterated the other two.  The charioteer is dressed in a long chiton and chlamys, has raised his right hand, and is holding a blue globe in his left.  His head has a crown of rays.

When the tomb was rediscovered in the 40’s, the images were immediately identified as Christian; the good shepherd (W), the angler (N), and Jonah (E).  All these are well-known in early Christian art.  Scholars therefore identified the tomb as Christian, rather than pagan; making it the only Christian tomb in the vicinity.

But the charioteer is Sol.  The iconography is definitely that of the Roman sun god.[4]  So what is it doing in a Christian mausoleum?

Some scholars, including Martin Wallraff[5], have supposed that Christ is here depicted using the imagery for the sun, as the “Sun of Justice”, so named in Augustine and other writers.  But Hijmans points out that nothing in the image suggests that this is Christ; and, since the image is clearly that of Sol, we should question instead our identification of the other characters, and look for pagan versions of the sheep-bearer, angler, and man being swallowed by a fish.  The first two, apparently, would be quite at home in a pagan context.[6]

If the two images belong to the same context, then there is a problem.  Hijmans states bluntly that there are no known images where Jonah is not Christian, or where Sol is.[7]  Instead he prefers to see the whole mausoleum as pagan, arguing as follows:

It is time reenter the mausoleum with Roman eyes, if possible, avoiding premature and possibly anachronistic assumptions about the nature and identity of the figures in the mosaic. If we look again at the mausoleum as a whole, without labeling the figures, a different, quite obvious, and very Roman pattern reveals itself. To begin with, the vine and the lack of borders emphasize the interconnectedness of the scenes. Clearly the images combine to form a single theme, and it is quickly apparent which. On the East wall, with its ship and the sea-monster, we have the ocean. On the West wall, opposite the sea, we have the sheep-bearer signifying land. On the North wall the angler occupies the area of transition from sea to land. The vault, with Sol, represents the sky and light, while darkness and the underworld are below, represented by the lower parts of the mausoleum and the tombs therein. In short, the imagery defines mausoleum M as a “cosmos”, or at least as a “world”, and endows it with a basic visual rhythm for which there are many parallels in Roman art.

That rhythm is one of land, sea, and sky articulating the image, and we find it both in Roman art in general and, more specifically, in Roman funerary art. In the third century AD the sheep-bearer and the angler were particularly common as antithetical figures denoting land and sea reaspectively.28 Sometimes Oceanus replaces the angler and the basic pattern may be expanded to include other figures.29 Such scenes do not provide parallels in a strict sense for mausoleum M, but show that the basic pattern we have identified in the mosaic is one which would not take a Roman viewer by surprise.

With this basic pattern we sidestep the question whether the mausoleum is pagan or Christian. Sol is the sun and represents the heavens, and the man-devouring ketos represents the sea.[8]

Do we agree?  I suspect that we must decline to decide.  It seems clear that the religious context of the tomb is uncertain.  The meaning of all the figures is less than certain, and to some degree contradictory.  It would seem safest, where scholars disagree, to refrain from confident assertions of either kind.

  1. [1]p.v: “I first became interested in Sol over twenty years ago, when I planned to study the iconography of Sol in the transition from Roman to Christian art in late antiquity for my doctoral thesis. My aim was to study the broader context of the famous image Christ-Helios in mausoleum M in the Vatican Necropolis, but I soon realized that there was no parallel for this image of a solar Christ, or at least not one that was recognizably Christian. I decided to focus instead on the Roman iconography of Sol …”
  2. [2]CIL. VI, 20293
  3. [3]John Evangelist Walsh, The Bones of St. Peter, 1982, p.11-12.
  4. [4]Hijmans, p.570: “Iconographically this is Sol, the Roman sun, in every respect. To explain the presence of Sol in a Christian mausoleum, scholars suggested that in this case he was not Sol, but Christ depicted in the guise of Sol as the New Light and the Sun of Justice.”
  5. [5]Unfortunately Hijmans only references “Wallraff, 2001” — the copy I have does not contain a bibliography.
  6. [6]Hijmans, p.571: “It is beyond dispute that the sheepbearer and angler would be perfectly at home in a pagan environment.[12] Whether that was also the case with Jonah is less certain. Most scholars consider the Jonah scene to be invariably Christian, but we should bear two things in mind. The first is that at the time of the decoration of the mausoleum the depiction of Jonah was still relatively new in Rome. The second is that there are indications of pagan interaction with, or perhaps even pagan precursors for the Jonah story. … There are parallels for the Jonah story in Greek myths of the ketos, the maiden-devouring sea monster, because in certain versions either Perseus (rescuing Andromeda) or Hercules (rescuing Hesione) is swallowed by the monster before killing it from inside.[13]” referencing “12 Cf. Engemann 1983, 257.”, and “13 Perseus: Lycoph. Alex. 834-840; Plin. NH 5, 128. Hercules: Hellan. frgmt. 136-137; Lyc. Alex. 33-37 (cf. 476-478). Weicker (RE VIII, 1241 s.v. Hesione 5) believes this to be the oldest surviving version of the myth.”
  7. [7]Hijmans, p.572: “Are there other more or less contemporary instances in which Sol is Christ or Jonah is not Christian? Is “Christ” one of the standard meanings the image type [sol] could acquire in the third century AD under specific circumstances? In both cases the answer appears to be no. As far as Jonah is concerned I am not aware of any clear “pagan” parallels. As for Sol, we can state with a significant degree of certainty that there are no instances in which the image type [sol] is used to depict Christ. Nonetheless, proponents of the notion that this is how we should identify Sol in mausoleum M cite a number of images that they believe are parallels….”
  8. [8]p.575-6.

Vatican ms orders received

On May 19th I ordered reproductions of two manuscripts of the unpublished Arabic Christian historian al-Makin from the Vatican.  I didn’t receive any acknowledgement, so wasn’t expecting much.  Anyhow a UPS man arrived a few minutes ago, bearing a parcel.  So it took just under 7 weeks to get, from posting the order to now.  That’s really not too bad.

Less good is the payment arrangements.  They’ve sent me an invoice, which has an international bank account number (IBAN) and a SWIFT number on it, so I can do a bank-to-bank transfer.  These are marvellously expensive things to do from the UK (because the banks rip you off).  There seems no facility to do a credit card payment.

The images arrived as two PDF’s  — which is good.  The images are scanned from black-and-white (not even monochrome) microfilm — which is terrible.   The consumer really should be protected from this rip-off racket of selling substandard images at very premium prices.  The price for the two mss. was 215 euros; the charge for postage and packing was 15 euros; quite a bit for 43Mb of data, which could perfectly well have been made available for download. 

Of course the library is profiteering pretty heavily here.  The microfilms already existed, so to produce these PDF’s required them to load them in a microfilm scanner, hit “scan”, and go and have a coffee.  200 euros for a trivial bit of work; nice if you can get it, eh?

I was amused to find a “copyright” notice included.  This is almost certainly fraudulent, as ever; these images cannot be considered creative works of art!  Only in the UK could this even possibly be in copyright, because of the foolish wording of the law in this country.

Still, the failings of this service are historic and traditional; the advantages of it are all new, and I think we may expect radical improvements in service.  Everyone will expect better quality, and we may hope to get it.

UPDATE: I discovered by chance that HSBC customers can do their own international transfers from their online system, at a price of 9 GBP; far cheaper than Lloyds TSB at 15 GBP, etc.  So that’s the way to do it, if you have such an account.