Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander

Date: 1355/6
Location or Findspot (Modern-Day Country): Bulgaria
Medium: Parchment
Dimensions: 33 × 24 cm
Description: This Gospel book was copied in 1355/6 by a monk named Simeon for the Bulgarian tsar (emperor) Ivan Alexander (r. 1331–71) in Tarnovo, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Ivan Alexander presided over a revival of Bulgarian culture on the eve of its conquest in 1396 by the Ottoman Turks. After the conquest, the manuscript was taken to Moldavia, where it became the model for other Gospel books. Later it was brought to the monastery of St. Paul on Mount Athos (and copied again), then given to the collector who bequeathed it to the British Library (London, BL Add. MS 39627). The book contains inscriptions that trace all these steps in its history.

At the beginning of the book are family portraits that express Bulgarian political ideology. On fol. 2v, Ivan Alexander's son-in-law Constantine is accompanied by his wife, Kerathamar, and two other daughters of the tsar and his first wife. Facing this, on fol. 3r, Ivan Alexander is accompanied by his second wife, the tsaritsa (empress) Theodora II—originally Sarah, a Jewish convert to Orthodox Christianity—and two sons. Hands of God bless the rulers, who are haloed and wear Byzantine-looking garments. The tsar and his future successor, Ivan Shishman (r. 1371–95), wear the imperial loros, implicitly challenging the authority of contemporary Byzantine and Serbian rulers who wore the same ceremonial attire. Ivan Alexander is identified in red as "emperor and autocrat of all the Bulgarians and the Greeks."

The Gospel texts are translated into Slavonic and lavishly illustrated. Each one opens with a headpiece that depicts its author in a circle that gives the impression of a cutout in the patterned background. On fol. 87r, the beginning of Mark's Gospel, the evangelist is accompanied by John the Baptist, Christ, and Isaiah. At the end of each Gospel, the evangelist is shown in conversation with Tsar Ivan Alexander. In the Last Judgment scene on fol. 124r, the tsar is seen conversing with Mary while the Last Judgment unfurls above. Ivan Alexander appears six times in the book.

Simeon's colophon on fols. 274v–275r praises the tsar, who holds "the scepter of the Bulgarian and Byzantine tsardom" together with "his pious, crowned by God, newly enlightened tsaritsa"; furthermore, "Just as the great-in-holiness Tsar Constantine and his mother Helena unearthed the life-giving cross of our Lord, so [significant] is the creation of this manuscript of the four Gospels." Just before the colophon, a palindromic diagram centered on the abbreviation for "Ivan" repeats the letters in "Tsar Ivan Alexander's Four Gospels" (Io. Alexander Tsarya Tetravaggel). This four-ness, which signifies perfection, is underscored by the family portraits in groups of four at the beginning of the book.
Relevant Textbook Chapter(s): 10
Image Credits: British Library

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Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander, imperial family portrait (BL Add. MS 39627), fol. 2v Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander, imperial family portrait (BL Add. MS 39627), fol. 3r Gospels of Tsar Alexander, beginning of Mark's Gospel (BL Add. MS 39627), fol. 87r Gospels of Tsar Alexander, end of Mark's Gospel (BL, Add. MS 39627), fol. 134v Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander, Last Judgment with Tsar Ivan Alexander (BL Add. MS 39627), fol. 124r Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander, palindromic diagram of