St. Mary's church bible

A remarkable bible returns to Utrecht

The acquisition of a medieval manuscript is always an exciting event, even more so if you have never done it before. And if it has finally arrived by air from the United States and you unwrap the package with trembling fingers, you know it is a special moment: an almost unknown bible returns ‘home’ after an age-long absence. The colophon and decoration leave no doubt: this is a real Utrecht manuscript. At the same time it is different from other Utrecht manuscripts, and the more you leaf through it, the more questions pop up in your head. It is the beginning of an interesting journey of discovery that has not ended yet.

Utrecht medieval manuscripts

It hardly ever occurs that a medieval manuscript from one of the Utrecht cloisters and chapters is offered for sale, but it did happen in 2019. We are familiar with almost all of these manuscripts because they are housed in the depositories of the University Library. This is how this happened: in 1584, shortly after a protestant city council was installed in Utrecht, the new city library was founded. The libraries of the Utrecht (Catholic) cloisters and chapters were confiscated and brought to St. John’s Church so Utrecht citizens could read them there. In 1636 the city library became the University Library as well, and that is why the medieval manuscripts and printed books are still part of its collection.

However, that is not the whole story. The confiscation had not run that smoothly, and many items had already been sold or got lost. The libraries of the once so powerful cloisters and chapters, now considerably thinned out, were not transferred until 1844. In the end, all medieval manuscripts of the Utrecht cloisters and chapters could be traced back, wherever they might be in the world. The only and last time that a complete manuscript was bought by Utrecht University Library was in 1912. It concerned a copy of the Vanden leven der Vaderen (Ms. 7 N 25), written in the Utrecht cloister Vredendael in 1417. When in 2019 an almost unknown manuscript from St. Mary’s Church was offered for sale, it was an event that had not occurred in over a century. Such an opportunity cannot be missed.

Photo © Christie's Images/Bridgeman Images

A rare buy

Usually Utrecht University Library does not buy early documents, let alone a valuable medieval manuscript – unless it is very special and can be immediately used in academic research. The manuscript certainly meets these criteria. Even though it does not look all that exciting at first sight – written quickly, no beautiful miniatures, a well-known text (the Bible) – nonetheless this manuscript has a number of intriguing aspects.

The manuscript was bought in March 2020, just before the corona measures in the Netherlands became effective. Conducting research right away was no longer possible. The manuscript was catalogued and received call number Ms. 35 A 3. It was also digitised, just as all other manuscripts in the collection. And of course a thing or two was known about the manuscript, because the seller, auction house Les Enluminures, had already made a fairly extensive description. But this did not mean that all questions were answered.

Let’s have a look what questions come to mind when we open the manuscript, turn the pages and have a closer look at elements, such as the colophon, the text, the decorations, the physical book and indications about its adventures during the last few centuries. Each aspect results in new points of view and clues for closer research. After all, you want to find out as much as possible to put the new purchase in perspective and to see what new insights it can give us.

The colophon

Researchers want to know of each manuscript who wrote it, and where and when. Further analysis is built on these facts. In the Middle Ages this kind of information was seldom given, even the most famous illuminators remained anonymous. However, in our bible there is a colophon, written in red letters on fol. 221v (the end of the Old Testament), in which the required information is neatly listed:

Ffinitus et completus est liber iste per manus Johannis de Tremonia scholarium rectoris Ecclesie beate marie traiectensis sub anno domini 1463 Sabbato ante dominicam letare

This book has been finished and completed by the hand of Johannes van Dortmund, rector of the school of the church of St. Mary of Utrecht, A.D. 1463 on the Saturday before the Sunday of Laetare.

Colofon op fol 221v. van de Mariakerkbijbel uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht

The Saturday before Laetare Sunday (midway through Lent) was on 26 March in 1463. So on that day Johannes van Dortmund (John of Dortmund) had finished copying the Old Testament. After that the New Testament was to follow. Of course the question comes to mind who Johannes van Dortmund was, except that he appears to have come from Germany. A quick internet search shows that several persons with that name lived in the 15th century, and who were active in the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. If our writer is one of them is yet to be established, and this means we have to look closer into all kinds of sources. How the colophon is formulated could also contain a clue: are there other manuscripts with the same or similar formulation (Finitus et completus est liber iste per manus …) in or around the 1460s?

What we do know is that Johannes was rector or principal of the school at St. Mary’s Church, and we could search the archives of St. Mary’s Chapter in the Utrecht Archives for more information about the school and its so-called affiliated ‘scholasters’. It is a rare phenomenon to have a manuscript of a rector by name, because in this period most books were written by clergymen or in scriptoria.

The text

Uitsnede uit fol. 1 r. van de Mariakerkbijbel uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht
The lombard initials in blue are missing (fol 1r.)

The manuscript is the last part of a two-volume Latin bible: the first part has probably been lost. The second part starts with the Psalms, halfway through the Old Testament, and here it is striking that only the red capitals (lombard initials) are painted, the ones in blue are missing (fol. 1r-3v). The manuscript ends with the Book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament. As we have seen, Johannes van Dortmund wrote his colophon at the end of the Old Testament, which is written in a Gothic hybrida in two columns of normally 39 or 40 lines. In the New Testament the hand is smaller, and we move to 42 to 45 lines. Headings and chapter numbers, however, are in the same hand, and it looks like Johannes simply used smaller letters for the New Testament – why, and if this occurs elsewhere, is not yet clear. This raises the question for whom or what the bible was intended: to be owned by a private person, for use in the school or for the chapter.

Undoubtedly, Johannes copied the bible from an older handwritten bible (or maybe bibles) and that is why it is interesting to find out which (kind of) bible he used. In the text we find some mistakes and additions. Especially the liturgical hymns such as Te Deum and Magnificat at the end of the Psalms deserve our attention. No earlier bible of St. Mary’s Church is known (the monumental Zwolle Bible was written from 1462 to 1476) and we know for sure that is not the Windesheim version to which that bible belongs. So which bibles written and used in Utrecht or in the Netherlands are we going to compare our bible to? Or could there be a German connection?

The decorations

Gedecoreerde initiaal op fol. 293r. uit de Mariakerkbijbel uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht
Decorated initial on fol. 293r.

Anyone who is familiar with Utrecht manuscripts from the 15th century will recognize many things from the penwork that adorns over 50 initials. It is made in the so-called ‘style with the sheep’ (cf. Gerritsen-Geywitz 2017, p. 40-44). We find these decorated initials at the start of the prologue and the text of a number of books from the Old Testament, and over 30 initials contain leaf or flower patterns drawn in red on a green field, with exuberant pen strokes running over into the margins. In most cases the initial is a littera duplex (jigsaw initial), in which pieces in red and blue fit into each other. As for decorations, the New Testament is much plainer: the letters are usually smaller, the pen strokes more modest, the colours more plain. There is only one initial with an illustration on a green background in the New Testament, but it is a remarkable one: the profile of a bearded man at the beginning of the letter from Paul to Titus (fol. 293r).

Gedecoreerde initiaal op fol. 189v. van de Mariakerkbijbel uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht
Decorated initial on fol. 189v.

In the Old Testament we see a picture of a man with a cap at the beginning of the prologue of Maleachi (fol. 189v). It is the question if Paul and Maleachi are depicted in these initials. Human faces are seldom depicted in Utrecht penwork, so to find two of them in a single manuscript is at least remarkable.

Moreover, there is a small animal which is drawn in four initials and which looks like a sheep or a fat dog (fol. 3v, 151v, 184v; New Testament: 305r). This motive shows a striking parallel with a similar picture, in the ‘style with the sheep’, in Ms. 359, fol. 2r, made by the Utrecht Augustinian Regulars. Even though we appear to be looking at some kind of sheep, with reference to similar animals we call it the Utrecht dragon, the ‘logo’ par excellence in the Utrecht late medieval manuscripts (Gerritsen-Geywitz 2017). Also the leaf and flower patterns and the small faces may be compared to instances in other Utrecht manuscripts to see if the same imagery was used.

Text block and binding

The original text block of the bible now consists of 326 folios (652 pages) measuring ca 21 x 15.5 cm. By mistake, the modern foliation runs from 1-287 and 289-327. The beginning of Psalms 1-147 is lost (probably an entire quire of twelve leaves), and also after fol. 19v, 29v, 52v and 209v a leaf is missing each time. In all cases this occurs at the transition from one book of the Old Testament to the next. Undoubtedly these leaves were decorated with penwork, and possibly their attractiveness was the reason for their removal.

Although we know the exact date of the manuscript, the watermarks of the paper on which the text is written can tell us more about the context of its production. Do we also find the various watermarks, such as a unicorn and the pope, in other paper documents of St. Mary’s Church or elsewhere in Utrecht?

The original binding of the bible has been replaced by a binding of carton boards with leather strips on the outside. The new leather binding with five raised bands has gold print and the title Biblia Vulgate Mss. At first sight this looks like a binding from the 18th or 19th century. There are no direct clues that the manuscript once belonged to the collection of St. Mary’s Church. After the closing of the chapters, this collection was transferred in 1811 (Napoleonic period) to the Domeinarchief (Domain Archives), together with the book collections and archives from other Utrecht collegiate churches. In 1844 the book collections were transferred to Utrecht University Library. If the present binding originates from a date previous to this move, it was then probably no longer part of the collection of St. Mary’s Church. Possibly the scribe remained the owner and the book was never part of the collection. So it is important to find out more about where and when the binding was made.

Boekband van de Mariakerkbijbel uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht

The binding has been restored at least twice, the last time two yellow-coloured pages were added to the beginning and one at the end. This was probably done in England (see below), and the watermark may give some decisive answers. During the earlier restoration 22 grey-coloured blank endpapers were already put in, and on the first one (now fol. iii) notes were made about the manuscript and its provenance (see below). These endpapers were used to strengthen the binding and the text block, because the leaves with the Psalms 1-147 are missing at the beginning. The paper used for this purpose has two watermarks: a heraldic coat of arms and D & C Blau. The latter comes from (the heirs of) papermakers Dirk and Cornelis Blauw, who started their company in the Dutch region the Zaanstreek in 1621. This watermark is a better indication than the binding to establish the time in which the manuscript was rebound. In any case, it looks like this was done in the Netherlands.


What exactly happened with the bible after it was written, remains unclear. Only in the 19th century do we pick up the thread again, when it was in the possession of the reverend John Cohen Jackson (c. 1827-1895) headmaster of the Hackney Church School (London) and book collector. We know this because of the note “Sum Liber Iohan. C. Iackson” (I am the book of…) on fol. iii. More manuscripts from his collection are known, and they may possibly put us on the track to establish when and where he acquired our bible.
It is remarkable that a few other manuscripts from St. Mary’s Church have afterwards turned up in England (Jaski 2020, p. 6).

Jackson’s collection was put up for auction on 13 December 1895, but he had already sold our bible in 1857 to Matthew Holbeche Bloxam (1805-1888), an amateur historian from Rugby (southeast of Birmingham). His name and the date are also on fol. iii. It still needs to be investigated if there is a connection between Jackson and Bloxam.

On fol. xxiv we find the note “Manuscript Copy of the Vulgate …, Rugby School Library, The Gift of Matthew Holbeche Bloxam on this 78th Birthday, 12th May 1883”. And this is how the Utrecht bible ended up as a birthday present in the Arnold Library of the Rugby School. A property mark was glued to the inside of the upper cover, with the call number Bloxam 1007, and there is a stamp from the library on fol. iii with a glued-in sheet of paper with a typed description of the manuscript. A probably older handwritten description is in the middle: ‘Biblia Vulgata written A.D. 1463. See colophon at the end of Old Test.’

Afterwards the bible remained hidden for researchers for a long time, but a short description was made in the database Bibliotheca Neerlandica Manuscripta & Impressa (BNM-I), based on the description of Neil Ker and Alan Piper (1992, p. 221-222). However, this did not result in the manuscript being available for Dutch researchers, and up till now no single study has been published on the bible.

On 4 December 2018 a part of the art collection of the Rugby School was put up for auction by Christie’s. Our bible was ‘Lot 147’. It was bought by Les Enluminures, and next found its way back to Utrecht. On the one hand it is a manuscript which clearly fits in the context of Utrecht and St. Mary’s Church, but on the other hand it is very different from most manuscripts of the Utrecht cloisters and chapters, and this makes it so intriguing. It will take researchers quite a while before they are able to uncover its secrets.