Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Codex Rossanensis Restored

The following is a guest post from Elijah Hixson. Elijah is currently writing his doctoral thesis on Codex Rossanensis and two other purple codices at the University of Edinburgh under the supervision of Paul Foster. When I saw last week that Rossenansis had recently be restored I asked Elijah if he would give us a quick intro to the manuscript. Enjoy!

Great news! Codex Rossanensis has been restored! It should be back on display in the Diocesan Museum in Rossano, Calabria, Italy by now. Codex Rossanensis is a sixth-century Greek purple Gospels manuscript included in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. A recent article at The Realm of History by Dattatreya Mandal about Codex Rossanensis has been circulating online, and in light of the recent restoration of the manuscript, now seems to be a good opportunity to say a few words about this gorgeous treasure of Calabria.

Christ as the Good Samaritan, Codex Rossanensis, f. 7v

The Realm of History article includes some excellent photos of Codex Rossanensis. From the photos, one need not wonder why Codex Rossanensis is known as one of the “purple codices”. These manuscripts were written in silver and/or gold ink on parchment that has been dyed purple. Purple dye was expensive, and the rich purple is a striking background against which the silver and gold inks glisten in the light. Even as the silver begins to tarnish, the words of the Gospels still radiate from their pages.

Jerome famously condemned owners of purple codices for their superficiality around the year 384 CE: “Parchment is dyed purple, gold is melted for lettering, manuscripts are decked with jewels, and Christ lies at their door naked and dying” (Letter xxii, Ad Eustochium, 32).

Matthew 26:23–24 in Codex Rossanensis (p. 209[r]), cropped.

More About Rossanensis

It’s true that popular news stories can occasionally exaggerate a few details when it comes to early Christian and Jewish manuscripts. It could well be that the author of the Realm of History article has access to better sources than I do, but there were a couple pieces of information given in the article that didn’t quite jive with what I’ve read elsewhere. I’ll let others comment on the claim that Codex Rossanensis is “the world’s oldest illustrated book”, but allow me to offer two alternative positions as well as some further information:

1. Date. The Realm of History piece refers to Rossanensis as being dated to the 5th or 6th century CE. Unfortunately, the codex doesn’t have any securely datable features. In the 1987 commentary on Codex Rossanensis, Guglielmo Cavallo assigned the manuscript a 6th-century date on the basis of palaeography, and William Loerke suggested a date in the late 6th century or early 7th century on the basis of its art.

2. A yet-to-be-discovered second volume? The Realm of History article also refers to a yet-to-be-discovered second volume of Codex Rossanensis. Indeed, there probably was once a second volume containing Luke and John. The miniatures depict scenes from all four Gospels, including some scenes not found in Matthew or Mark. Specifically, it contains illustrations of the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) and the Raising of Lazarus (John 11). One of the sibling-manuscripts of Rossanensis, Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus (N 022), is extant for parts of Luke and John. It is possible that the second volume still exists and is yet to be discovered, but it is also possible that the second volume was destroyed in a fire at the Cathedral in Rossano in the seventeenth century.

3. This is not the first time Codex Rossanensis has been restored. From 1917–1919, Nestori Leoni attempted to restore Codex Rossanensis. Leoni had good intentions—his methods were thought at the time to be non-destructive. That being said, the manuscript today bears visible marks of the mix of chemicals to which Leoni subjected Codex Rossanensis a century ago. The pages restored by Leoni are almost transparent brown, not rich purple. Thankfully, his chemical restoration only affected the first 20 pages, and he used a less harmful method to restore the last 15 pages. It’s a difficult book to track down, but Antonio Muñoz provides some excellent, full-colour plates of the pre-restoration Rossanensis in Il codice purpureo di Rossano e il frammento sinopense (Rome: Danesi, 1907). For more information on Leoni’s restoration, see the article by Bicchieri, mentioned below.

4. It’s not just a New Testament manuscript. Codex Rossanensis contains 40 excerpts from the Greek Old Testament. These excerpts are written beneath some of the illustrations, providing biblical commentary for the Gospel texts. Each of the excerpts is written below an illustration of the Old Testament “author” who is “speaking” the words excerpted (e.g. quotations from the Pentateuch are below little portraits of Moses), and over half of them are quotations of the Psalms. [Editor’s note: stay tuned for more on this from Elijah.]

A portrait of David in Codex Rossanensis
5. Codex Rossanensis is almost perfectly preserved in Matthew and Mark. The manuscript’s state of preservation is remarkable. It is probably missing a few miniatures, it is missing half of Eusebius’ letter to Carpianus, and only the title page of the canon tables has survived. That being said, only a single page of Gospel text—the very last page—is missing of Matthew and Mark. It is clear that Rossanensis contains the Longer Ending of Mark. The text breaks off in the middle of Mark 16:14, but the Eusebian Apparatus stops at 16:8. The state of Rossanensis is especially remarkable in contrast with Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus (N 022)—bits of it are spread out to at least nine locations.

Title page to the Eusebian Canon Tables

6. Codex Rossanensis has been subjected to non-invasive scientific analysis. Marina Bicchieri published a fascinating article on her analysis of Codex Rossanensis: “The purple Codex Rossanensis: spectroscopic characterisation and first evidence of the use of the elderberry lake in a sixth century manuscript” (Environmental Science and Pollution Research 21 [2014]: 14146–14157). Bicchieri was able to identify the chemicals Leoni used to restore Rossanensis as well as shed some light on the inks, dyes and pigments used in the manuscript’s production.

7. For the price of several thousand pounds/euros/dollars, you, too, can own your own copy of Codex Rossanensis! In 1985, Salerno Editrice and Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt published a facsimile of the manuscript with a commentary volume appearing two years later. At any given time, there is usually at least one for sale online in the £5,000–£8,000 range. It is an excellent reproduction of a breathtaking manuscript.

8. “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.” I just love this little detail in the miniature of the raising of Lazarus. It’s a creative way to depict the text visually.

Scene from the Raising of Lazarus, f. 1r

A Purple-Codex Family

There are older purple New Testament manuscripts in Latin, but the earliest purple Greek New Testament manuscripts come from the sixth century. Codex Rossanensis is one, along with Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus (N 022), Codex Sinopensis (O 023), Codex Beratinus 1 (Φ 043) and 080, which consisted of two fragmentary leaves, the last time anyone saw it.

What is remarkable about the purple codices is that three of them form an early textual family. Codex Rossanensis, along with N and O, were all copied from the same exemplar. Where they overlap, the three manuscripts provide an unusually large window on scribal activity—three copies of the same (now-lost) manuscript. I won’t give up too many of my secrets, but I will say that of the three manuscripts in the 022-023-042 family, Rossanensis has the most interesting text.


Codex Rossanensis is truly a magnificent treasure. We should be grateful to the Cathedral in Rossano for keeping it in such excellent condition all these years. I am glad to hear that its restoration is complete, and I hope that more people can come to know about such a beautiful copy of the Gospels.

Some great images of the restoration process are available here, and images of the pages with miniatures are available here.


  1. Thanks for this article. I wonder whether you could elaborate on what 'restoration' entails?

  2. It's a little unclear what exactly was done. In general, restoration could involve rebinding a manuscript or repairing the existing binding. From the images of the recent restoration, it does not look like Rossanensis was rebound. At some point in the past, the margins of Rossanensis were trimmed, but I don't think that was done this time. It does look like a big part of the restoration was the scientific analysis to identify what was used to restore it in the past. I imagine the recent restoration could have involved patching or mending holes or tears that had the potential to get worse, but I doubt there was much—if any—invasive work done. I'm not a conservationist, but unless I'm mistaken, it seems that the goal these days is to preserve an artefact exactly as it is while doing only what is absolutely necessary to keep it from further damage.

    1. Elijah, thanks for the reply. I look forward to reading your future work.