Ezra the Bookbinder

At the time of the evening sacrifice, I, Ezra, rose in my wretchedness,
and with cloak and mantle torn I fell on my knees,
stretching out my hands to the LORD, my God.

I said: “My God, I am too ashamed and confounded to raise my face to you,
O my God, for our wicked deeds are heaped up above our heads
and our guilt reaches up to heaven.
From the time of our fathers even to this day
great has been our guilt,
and for our wicked deeds we have been delivered up,
we and our kings and our priests,
to the will of the kings of foreign lands,
to the sword, to captivity, to pillage, and to disgrace,
as is the case today.

“And now, but a short time ago, mercy came to us from the LORD, our God,
who left us a remnant and gave us a stake in his holy place;
thus our God has brightened our eyes
and given us relief in our servitude.
For slaves we are, but in our servitude our God has not abandoned us;
rather, he has turned the good will
of the kings of Persia toward us.
Thus he has given us new life
to raise again the house of our God and restore its ruins,
and has granted us a fence in Judah and Jerusalem.”
Ezra 9:5-9

Illustration from Codex Amiantinus showing bookbinding and bookcase

Illustration from Codex Amiatinus showing bookbinding and bookcase

The Codex Amiatinus is the earliest complete copy of the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible of St. Jerome. The frontispiece of the Codex Amiatinus illustrated here shows a saintly figure, presumably the Old Testament prophet Ezra, writing a manuscript on his lap and seated before an open book cupboard or armarium, which contains a Bible in nine volumes.  Clasps holding the covers of the bindings closed are clearly visible on the fore-edges of the bound manuscripts lying on the shelves—one of the earliest images of this binding feature.

The Codex Amiatinus was commissioned by Abbot Ceolfrid at the library of the monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria in England, in about 692. The image shown here is one of the earliest surviving images of bookbindings, and also one of the earliest surviving Medieval images of an early form of bookcase, although there is an armarium containing the gospels depicted in a mosaic from the fifth century Mausoleum of Galla Placidia at Ravenna.

Armarium (bookcase), mosaic, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, 5th century

Armarium (bookcase), mosaic, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, 5th century

 Why is Ezra shown as a bookbinder? In an article discussing the written codification of the Jewish books of the Torah, one scholar writes:

“This is the time of the model priest and scribe, Ezra, who realizes a new Israel needs to be consolidated around the Torah of Moses. In a highly symbolic public reading of “the book of the law of Moses” (Nehemiah 8), Ezra’s ritualized performance of “doing it right, doing things by the book”, not only legitimated and elevated the authority of specific ritual practices, but moreover, by cloaking the ritual with blessings and responses, obeisances, and a hierarchical display of community members, it further reinforced the validity of the spoken text…Ezra was more than just a priest and scribe, he and the Levites were scholars and teachers of the Torah….Ezra was indeed an innovator, and in a feat of scribal genius, fused various Pentateuchal traditions in one literary text, known as the Law of Moses. However, for Ezra’s book to reach canonization status, it needed the power of the Persian authorities to make the book binding to the people. Thus, Ezra, would be known as the father of Judaism and be forever linked with the restoration of Judean culture in the Persian period.” 

So Ezra is one of the priests responsible for assembling and codifying the early oral and written sources into a cohesive text, so it makes sense that the early traditions consider him as a bookbinder.

Back to our manuscript: To offer the Codex Amiatinus as a present to Pope Gregory II, Abbot Ceolfrid, began the long journey from England to Rome in old age, departing in 716. Unfortunately, Ceolfrid died on the journey,  but his associates brought the volume to the Pope. The book later appears in the 9th century in Abbey of the Saviour, Monte Amiata in Tuscany (hence the description “Amiatinus”). It was later used in the revision of the Vulgate by Pope Sixtus V in 1585-90.

One of the largest and heaviest of all medieval manuscripts, the single volume of the Codex Amiatinus weighs 75 pounds and is 1914 inches high, 1338 inches in breadth, and 7 inches thick with 1,040 folios or pages of vellum (calf skin). The monastery secured a grant of additional land to raise the 2000 head of cattle needed to produce the quantity of vellum required. The manuscript  is now preserved in the Laurentian Library (Bibliotheca Medicea Laurenziana) in Florence.

Codex Amiatinus

Codex Amiatinus



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s