The Corpus Apocalypse

The Most Lavishly Illustrated Apocalypse of the Gothic Era

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 20

Sublime Wealth of Decoration

Since 1575 the Parker Library at the renowned Corpus Christi College in Cambridge has been home to the most lavishly ornamented English Apocalypse manuscript of the fourteenth century. Measuring 37 × 26 centimetres and containing 144 pages, the manuscript features a dense series of no less than 121 large miniatures in brilliant colours and sparkling gold and silver. Most of the glowing gold surfaces are decorated with delicate chasing. Fascinating images of dramatic events are depicted on imaginatively patterned backgrounds. 280 blue initials with red flourishing and 59 golden initials ornament the Anglo-Norman French and Latin texts.


»A total of 121 large framed miniatures are set on almost every page. The intensity of their vivid colours is enhanced by brilliant burnished silver and gold leaf tooled with intricate patterns of dots and incised lines. This facsimile faithfully reproduces the subtle hues of the strongly contrasting colours, and the very difficult task of reproducing the complex and delicate tooled patterns on the gold has been achieved with amazing success. This is an absolutely remarkable technical achievment, and the result is of the very highest standard of modern facsimile production, fully expressing the powerful visual effect of this very beautiful book.«

Nigel Morgan,
Emeritus Honorary Professor of History of Art, University of Cambridge

The Book with Seven Seals – Mysterious and Inspiring

“Apocalypse” commonly refers to the Book of Revelation of Saint John, the last book of the New Testament. St John, exiled by Emperor Domitian (51–96 AD) to the Greek island of Patmos, experienced his vision of the end of the world and the Day of Judgment, followed by the dawn of the Kingdom of God, and he wrote it all down in a strongly metaphorical language.

The powerful eloquence and symbolism of this text, composed toward the end of the first century, has always fascinated and inspired western civilization. During the Middle Ages the Apocalypse was one of the most frequently commented books, and its various interpretations exercised considerable influence over the entire concept of western history.


A Unique Combination: Apocalypse – Descent of St Paul into Hell and his Visions – English Coronation Order

In its wealth of miniatures, the Corpus Apocalypse surpasses all other Apocalypse manuscripts of its time. Its content, too, is unique: besides the Revelation of St John, it also contains a richly illustrated version of the Apostle Paul’s Visions of Hell, as well as a transcript of the English Coronation Order used at the coronation of Edward II.

The compilation of these three texts into one single codex is absolutely unique. Furthermore, a bookbinder did not simply bind together pre-existing texts, as was often the practice; rather, the manuscript was written down within a single campaign, by a single scribe, and illuminated by one master—perhaps two at the most. Taking this into consideration, it can be assumed that the unusual combination was explicitly requested from the start by the patron who commissioned the work.


For the first time: Visions of St Paul in Pictures of a Facsimile Edition

The majority of the book consists of 60 folios with 106 miniatures depicting the Revelation of St John. St Paul’s Apocalypse, with fourteen miniatures, takes up the next eight leaves. For the first time ever, the impressive cycle of pictures of the Visions of Hell ascribed to St Paul is available in this facsimile edition of the Corpus Apocalypse. Lastly, a full-page, ceremonial miniature begins the transcript of the Coronation Order.


Splendid Manuscript for a Dignitary at the English Court

This extravagant, splendid manuscript was created by one or two masters in a period of intensive work between 1335 and 1339 for Henry de Cobham, first Lord Cobham, a dignitary at the English court. In the late fourteenth century the Cobhams were one of the leading families, with large estates in south-eastern England. Henry was the First Baron of the Exchequer in Westminster. He had inherited the right to carry the canopy beneath which the monarch walked at his coronation. Lord Cobham took part in the coronation of Edward II in 1308.


The Revelation of St John in Anglo-Norman French Verses

The Corpus Apocalypse is a bilingual book, written in Latin and Anglo-Norman French. Anglo-Norman French is an Old French dialect that had been spoken at court and by the English upper classes ever since William the Conqueror arrived from Normandy in 1066. The use of the vernacular language throughout the book shows how important it was to the patron to be able to read and understand the texts in the language he knew.

Each miniature is followed first by a heavily abbreviated corresponding passage in Latin from the Bible. The Latin Apocalypse runs in parallel with an Anglo-Norman French metrical version. An exegetical prose commentary, also in Anglo-Norman French, refers to both versions. Today, this commentary allows us to understand the mediaeval view of the mysterious Revelation of St John.


Jewel of the World-Famous Parker Library

After the death of Henry de Cobham in 1339 the Corpus Apocalypse passed into the hands of Juliana de Leybourn, who made a bequest of the manuscript to the Benedictine abbey of St. Augustine in Canterbury in 1367. The abbey was dissolved in 1538, and during the unsettled period of the Reformation the passionate book and manuscript collector Matthew Parker (1504–1575) acquired and rescued hundreds of manuscripts.

Parker was Master of Corpus Christi College in Cambridge for nine years, and later the vice chancellor of Cambridge University. In 1559 Elizabeth I created him Archbishop of Canterbury, ecclesiastical head of the Church of England. In the year before his death he made a will leaving his collection of 480 manuscripts to his old college, forming the basis for what is now the famous Parker Library.


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The Corpus Apocalypse at a glance

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College,
MS 20

Made: 1340–1350
In: London
Format: ca. 37 × 26 cm
Extent: 144 pages (72 leaves)
Contents: Apocalypse + St Paul's Visions of Hell + Coronation Order
Language: Latin and Anglo-Norman French
Artists: One or two masters in London

Patron: Probably John de Cobham, second Lord Cobham (died 1355)

Provenance: After Cobham’s death the manuscript passed into the hands of Juliana de Leybourn, who left it in her will to St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury. After the dissolution of the abbey, Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, acquired the manuscript; in 1575 he made a bequest of it, as the crown jewel in his important collection, to Corpus Christi College in Cambridge.

The fine art facsimile edition of the Corpus Apocalypse (facsimile and commentary volume) has been published in autumn 2012 by Quaternio Verlag Luzern and is available.

Price on request.