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
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
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
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.