Rabbula Gospels

Syriac ms. (now Florence, Bibl. Mediceo-Laurenziana, Pluteus I,56) containing the four Gospels, preceded by an important set of illuminations (f. 1r–14v). A colophon (f. 292r–v) provides the name of the scribe, Rabbula (who is otherwise unknown), and of those who contributed to the production of the ms. (the miniaturists are not named), as well as the date (Febr. 586) and the place of origin: the Monastery of Beth Mar Yuḥanon of Beth Zagba. This monastery, no longer in existence, was probably situated in the Djebel Riḥa, some 50 km. north of Apamea, in Syria (see Mundell Mango 1983).

While this ms. ranks among the earliest dated mss. of the Four Gospels (see Bible, NT manuscripts, under  3), it is even more famous for its illuminations. It opens with three full-page illuminations (f. 1r–2r): the selection of Matthias, the Virgin and Child (of the Hodegetria type), and standing figures of Ammonius of Alexandria and Eusebius of Ceasarea. F. 2v–3r show the text, written inside two nicely decorated frames, of Eusebius’s ‘Letter to Carpianus’ concerning the use of the Eusebian ‘canons’, i.e., synoptic tables listing the parallel passages in the four Gospels. The canons themselves follow on f. 3v–12v. They are integrated in architectural structures, in which the lists of text references are separated by pillars. These are roofed with arches, on top of which a variety of birds and plants are depicted. The canons are followed by four more full-page illuminations (f. 13r–14v): the Crucifixion with Resurrection, the Ascension, Christ enthroned and approached by four men (two of them holding each a book and two others following behind their brothers and supporting them), and Pentecost. The text of the Gospels itself (f. 20–291) does not contain any further illuminations.

The disposition and decoration of the Eusebian canons are of a common type, found in both the East and West. Their further elaboration, however, with additional themes and motifs, reveals the specific Syriac context of this ms. Folios 3v–9r have in the upper register (to the right and left of the arches) OT figures, accompanied by their names in Esṭrangela script: Aaron, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Solomon, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Job, Isaiah, Habakkuk, Haggai, Zechariah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Malachi, and Elisha. In the middle register (to the right and left halfway of the outer pillars) NT scenes are depicted, while the right and left corners at the bottom are mostly filled with animals and plants. Some of the representations, such as the scenes of Christ’s Nativity and Baptism (with fire coming out of the water) and the impressive compositions of the Crucifixion (with Christ wearing the purple kolobion) and the Resurrection (with Christ appearing to the two Maries) reflect their Syriac context and are reminiscent of Ephrem’s hymns and other Syriac writings.

The ms. in all likelihood originated in a Syr. Orth. environment and subsequently came into the possession of the Maronites. For at least two centuries it was housed in the Maronite Monastery of Qannubin, in Lebanon, before it was transferred to the Florentine library in the 16th cent.

There has been much discussion among scholars about the question of whether the quire with the illuminations (f. 1–14) and the main part containing the Gospel texts originally belonged together. While D. H. Wright in 1973, after personal inspection of the ms., reached the conclusion that the illuminations were indeed part of the codex that was created in 586, the recent study by P. G. Borbone and A. Mengozzi (in Bernabò, 2008) has challenged this widely held view. They point to a Garshuni note on f. 11v (written between the pillars of the canons) which records a significant (judging from the size and formal character of the note) donation by two priests to the Monastery of Qannubin in 1460/61. The object of the donation is described in the note as al-dast al-kabīr ‘the great dast’. S. E. Assemani, in his first description of the ms. (1742) understood the term dast to mean ‘copper vessel’, while Borbone and Mengozzi argue that it means ‘fascicle, quire’, and see in it a reference to the impressive gathering of illuminations which, according to their view, would have been joined to the Gospel text only in the 15th cent. This interpretation, which has not yet encountered general support (see Mundell Mango, in Bernabò 2008, 113–14), does not imply that the illuminations are of a very late date. On the contrary, the early date of most of the illuminations (probably 6th cent.) should not be questioned and is supported by the Syriac script found on these folios. We would be dealing then with the re-use of an early quire of illuminations that had become disconnected from its original manuscript.

Even while this and other questions continue to exist, the codex is one of the most precious illuminated mss. of the ancient world. Sharing so many characteristics with late-ancient and early Byzantine art, it also reflects the very refined local culture that existed in the leading Syriac monasteries. In recent years the illuminations have not only been studied intensively, they also have served as a source of inspiration for modern sacred art, especially in contemporary wall paintings in Maron., Syr. Orth., and Syr. Catholic churches.

See Fig. 50, 54, 71c, and 91.


  • A.  Badwi, The liturgical year iconography of the Syro-Maronite Church (2006). (many examples of the Rabbula illuminations as a source of inspiration in modern art)
  • M.  Bernabò (ed.), Il Tetravangelo di Rabbula. Firenze, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 1.56. L’illustrazione del Nuovo Testamento nella Siria del VI secolo (2008). (with important contributions by M.  Bernabò, P. G.  Borbone, A.  Mengozzi, M. Mundell Mango, among others)
  • B.  Botte, ‘Notes sur l’évangéliaire de Rabbula’, Revue de sciences religieuses 36 (1962), 13–26.
  • C.  Ceccheli, G.  Furlani, M.  Salmi, The Rabbula Gospels. Facsimile edition of the miniatures of the Syriac manuscript Plut. I,56 in the Medicaean-Laurentian Library (1959).
  • J.  Leroy, Les manuscrits syriaques à peintures (Institut français d’archéologie de Beyrouth, Bibliothèque archéologique et historique 77; 1964), 139–97.
  • M.  Mundell Mango, ‘Where was Beth Zagba?’, Harvard Ukrainian Studies 7 (1983), 405–30.
  • R. Murray, Symbols of church and kingdom. A study in early Syriac tradition (1975), 37 and 331.
  • D. H. Wright, ‘The date and arrangement of the illustrations in the Rabbula Gospels’, DOP 27 (1973), 197–208.

How to Cite This Entry

Lucas Van Rompay, “Rabbula Gospels,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay, https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Rabbula-Gospels.

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

Lucas Van Rompay, “Rabbula Gospels,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018), https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Rabbula-Gospels.

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Van Rompay, Lucas. “Rabbula Gospels.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018. https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Rabbula-Gospels.

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