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Jacob wrestling the angel, Vienna Genesis

The Story of Jacob, Vienna Genesis,  folio 12v, early 6th century,  tempera, gold and silver on purple vellum,  cod. theol. gr. 31 (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna). Speakers: Dr. Nancy Ross and Dr. Steven Zucker

Created by Nancy Ross, Steven Zucker, and Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

- [Steven] We're looking at one of the most important early manuscripts that has survived from the early Christian or Byzantine era. This is from the early 6th century and it's called the Vienna Genesis. It's a manuscript of the first book of the Bible. - [Nancy] And what we see are illustrations at the bottom of each page. So the text is always on top and these illustrations are at the bottom. - [Steven] This is really rare. Books that are 1500 years old, don't often survive. - [Nancy] Books are often susceptible to fires and floods. And so, this is a really unique object. And it preserves some of the earliest narrative illustrations of Bible stories. That's really important for Christian iconography. - [Steven] But this book is even more rare, then we might think. Not only has it survived, but if you go back to the 6th century, there probably weren't that many books. To produce a book was a major undertaking. - [Nancy] All of the pages, which are made from animal skin, were made in a process that's similar to making leather but not tanned. And then all the pages were cut and ruled, and all of the text was written by hand and not in any way printed, using a press. And so, that was a very time consuming process. - [Steven] And in this particular case, the text is written in silver, which has now tarnished, so it's black. But originally, it must have been a gleaming surface and really sumptuous. - [Nancy] And it's been dyed purple, which perhaps suggests a royal commission. Writing in silver and gold and dying parchment purple was seen as a very ostentatious thing. And it's something that Saint Jerome, an early doctor of the church who translated the Bible into Latin, it's something he preached against as being very un-Christian and lacking humility. - [Steven] Now we're not sure who made this or where it was made. Some scholars have suggested Constantinople, others have suggested Syria. - [Nancy] So this is kind of a strange story. What we see is that Jacob wakes up and he leads his family across the river. We see Jacob in brown with a red tunic. And he's leading servants and his wives, his wives are on donkeys. And then his sons are behind and they are crossing a river. And we see a bridge. After they cross the river, Jacob becomes separated from his family and he meets a man. And he wrestles with the man and he wants the man, or is often interpreted to be an angel, to bless him. And the angel blesses him and then the family goes on their way. One thing that happened as a result of this story, is that the Old Testament patriarch Jacob, is no longer called Jacob but he's called Israel. And that's seen as being an important transformation in Jacob's life. - [Steven] It's a pretty simple story to convey in terms of the basic narrative. But it's a more complex story, if one thinks about trying to convey the transformative aspect. We see a kind of classical relief that has been bent in the middle. I can almost imagine if that bridge was straightened out and this whole thing was unfurled, that this would make a perfect frieze, that could have been carved in stone. And so, that classical tradition calls itself out to me. - [Nancy] I see the artist trying to find a way to stretch this very linear narrative and make it fit the space of the book. Even though there is a sense that the figures on top are further away and the figures in the bottom are closer to us, but there is no differentiation in terms of size. We have some interesting anecdotal details. We see one servant or a son looking off the bridge and looking at the water running down below. As you can imagine people doing when crossing a bridge. And we see one of the wives turned around. We see the form of her body underneath her drapery, which recalls more classical forms then the early Byzantine scene that we're looking at. - [Steven] And we see clear references to the classical, even in the architecture of the bridge. Notice that the bridge includes a colonnade and we can imagine classical columns. There are Roman arches that the water courses through underneath. But I love the playfulness and the malleability of the bridge, the way in which the artist has been able to warp it around, so that we're seeing both its front side and on the opposite side on the lower right. - [Nancy] In a way it's very typical of early Christian or early Byzantine or late antique art, we can see that the sense of perspective is quite skewed. If we look at the columns on the farther end of the bridge, they're taller and bigger then the columns that are nearer to us, which is the opposite of linear perspective or rational perspective. And that mixing up of space, in a very intentional way, is typical of this time. And so we have these classical elements and these more realistic elements, and they are at odds or there's a tension with the more Byzantine elements or medieval elements. - [Steven] Here's a moment where the physiciality of the figures, the sense that we really can understand their bodies below the cloth comes into play. These are two bodies that are going at each other and although it may have a spiritual aspect to it. Their physicality really comes into play. - [Nancy] And one of the details of the story, is that the angel touches Jacob's hip joint and we see that happening. And it puts Jacob's hip out of joint and he hobbles away. And that's a part of the story, and so we can see that pinnacle moment happening. Although it's unclear exactly who was reading this book. What I can imagine is an individual from a royal household sitting down to read, perhaps in the evening and the silver letters would be reflecting and shimmery, almost mystical candlelight. And as they're reading, they're using the illustrations to contemplate and to bring this particular story to life.