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Introduction and Key


What time Ierusalem that Cittie faire, Was sieg'd and sackt by great Vespasians heire   Canaan's Calamitie, Jerusalem's Misery ; The dolefull destruction of faire Ierusalem by Tytus, the Sonne of Vaspasian Emperour of Rome, in the yeare of Christ's Incarnation 74  (1598) Wherein is shewed the woonderfull miseries which God brought upon that Citty for sinne, being utterly over-throwne and destroyed, by Sword, pestilence and famine. 




The Destruction of Jerusalem
Luke 21

(Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander)

British Library Add. MS 39627, f.3



Image Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander The Royal Family Turnovo

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander

This triumph of late medieval manuscript art was commissioned in 1355 by Tsar Ivan Alexander, the ruler of Bulgaria who presided over a period of a spiritual and artistic revival. Probably reserved for use in the Tsar’s church on high feast days, the Gospels’ pages are lavishly illustrated with 367 fine illuminated miniatures, executed in colours and gold. The manuscript, which is preserved in near perfect condition, is a remarkable survival and the most celebrated work of art produced in Bulgaria before it fell to the Turks.

What is a Gospel?

A gospel recounts the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew who preached during the Roman occupation of his country. After his crucifixion around AD 32 and subsequent reports of his rising from the dead, followers of Christ - meaning ‘the anointed one’ - developed his teachings into the Christian faith. While this new religion retained many of the scriptures of Judaism, it also produced its own holy texts. Among these the gospels sought to communicate the saving message of Jesus.

Of the several gospels that were written by Christ’s early followers, four were recognised from an early date as forming together the authoritative gospels. These gospels, attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, formed the core around which the canon, or collection of formally accepted texts, of the Christian Bible took shape.

Before printed Bibles were produced the most common Christian book of scripture was a hand-written copy of the four gospels.

Who was Tsar Ivan Alexander?

‘Tsar’ was the title given to the rulers of Bulgaria during the Middle Ages. Ivan Alexander came to the throne in 1331 by deposing his predecessor. During his reign he ordered the building of many monasteries and churches and under his patronage the Bulgarian city of Turnovo became an important centre for art and literature.

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander is considered Turnovo’s crowning achievement. The opening pages of the volume include magnificent portraits of the Tsar, his wife Theodora, two sons, three daughters and son-in-law. Though represented in formal poses the Tsar and his family display a striking individuality, particularly in their faces, which may reflect something their actual appearance.

Tsar Ivan Alexander may have led a golden age in the arts, but his governing of the world of politics was far less sure. For decades the security of Bulgaria and the other Balkan states was threatened by the territorial ambitions of the Ottoman Turks. The political marriages the Tsar made for himself and his children failed to deliver the unity with neighbouring countries needed to mount any effective military resistance. The tsar’s second marriage to Theodora succeeded only in making matters worse: the legacy of his death on 17 February 1371 was a disputed succession that weakened the country still further. The Turkish advance was relentless and, in 1396, Bulgaria became part of the Ottoman Empire.

Do we know who made this manuscript?

Yes – and no. The text of the Gospels was copied down by a monk named Simeon. In a long note on the commissioning and making of the manuscript – scholars call this a colophon – Simeon states that the volume was begun in 1355 and completed in one year. He also says that it was created ‘not simply for the outward beauty of its decoration … [but] primarily to express the inner Divine Word, the revelation and the sacred vision’.

Close examination of the 367 illustrations suggests that they are the work of a team of artists, probably at least three in number. Although their nationality is uncertain, it is likely that these artists produced their work in the city of Turnovo. Their style of painting, pictorial models and adherence to complete anonymity place them firmly within the wider tradition of Byzantine book illumination.

The Slavonic text of the Gospels is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. The letter forms are a refined form of the script first developed in the middle of the ninth century by St Constantine-Cyril. Cyril worked with his brother, St Methodius, translating the Christian scriptures by modifying the letters of the Greek alphabet to suit the phonetic needs of the local language. The Cyrillic alphabet is much revered in the Orthodox Church, having its own Feast Day of Letters on 24 May.

How did this manuscript come to the British Library?

Luck – or arguably divine providence – played a large part in this story. Shortly after the Ottoman Turks had captured the city of Turnovo in 1393, the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander was recorded in the relative safety of Christian-held territory north of the River Danube. Here it came into the possession of another Ivan Alexander, who was then ruler of Moldavia. Nothing further is known of its whereabouts until the early 17th century, when the manuscript was recorded in the library of the Monastery of St Paul on Mount Athos in Greece.

In 1837, an Englishman arrived at the monastery carrying a letter of introduction from the Patriarch of Constantinople. Robert Curzon was just 27 years old and already a discerning collector of antiquities. The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander took his breath away: ‘I almost tumbled off the steps on which I was perched on the discovery of so extraordinary a volume’, he recalled.

As Curzon was about to leave the monastery, he was surprised to be asked to choose a book as a souvenir of his visit. Surprise turned to astonishment when the abbot of the monastery agreed to give him the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander.

The precious manuscript remained the property of Curzon’s family until 1917, when his daughter, Darea, Baroness Zouche, bequeathed it to the British Museum together with the rest of his manuscripts and early printed books. It later transferred to the British Library on its creation in 1973.


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