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The Nekcsei-Lipócz Bible, a 14th-Century Illuminated Manuscript from Hungary

(The following is a post by Kenneth Nyirady, Reference Specialist for Hungary, in the Library’s European Division.)

The Library of Congress possesses more than 1,500 editions of the Bible in over 150 languages. The most famous item in this collection is the 15th-century Gutenberg Bible, on permanent display in the Library’s Great Hall. Also on display is the Giant Bible of Mainz, likewise dating to the 15th century, but one crafted completely by hand. Older, but lesser known, is the Nekcsei-Lipócz Bible, created in the Kingdom of Hungary in the 14th century. This beautifully illustrated, illuminated manuscript is believed to have been commissioned by Demeter Nekcsei (NACK-chay-ee), Chief Lord Treasurer of Hungary, who died in 1338.

Nekcsei wore many hats in the court of King Charles Robert (Károly Róbert), the first ruler of Hungary from the Angevin dynasty that originated in the French province of Anjou, who reigned from 1308 to 1342. Besides being Chief Lord Treasurer, Nekcsei also served as the chief comptroller and supervisor of royal domains and all gold, silver, and salt mines in the country, among other tasks. He reorganized the royal finances and was responsible for the production of the first Hungarian gold florin in 1325. He was also a major patron in the founding of churches and monasteries.

A word on the name of the Bible. Nekcsei derives from the place name Nekcse (now Našice, Croatia), where Charles Robert granted the family the right to build a castle in 1312. From that time onward, the family began using Nekcsei, “from Nekcse,” as a family name. Their previous family name was Lipóczi, “from Lipócz” (now Kecerovský Lipovec, Slovakia), the site of the first grant of land the family received from the court.

The Nekcsei-Lipócz Bible. Published/created ca. 1335-1340?.

This Bible consists of two volumes, of close to 1,500 pages (or 750 leaves of vellum, a parchment made from calfskin), and is missing only six leaves or 12 pages. It measures roughly 12½” x 17½” (32cm x 44.5cm). The rather unassuming dark binding gives no hint of the vivid artwork contained within.

On the cover one finds the coat of arms of Henry Perkins, an English bibliophile, who had the volumes rebound. Perkins purchased the Bible in 1825 for £74, and the Library of Congress purchased it at auction in 1873 from his estate. It is not known what the Library paid for the volumes, but one estimate is approximately £200, or about $22,000 in today’s dollars.

Frontispiece, The Nekcsei-Lipócz Bible. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Most scholars agree that the Bible is of Hungarian origin, most likely the product of a workshop in Esztergom, which in earlier years had served as the capital of Hungary, but was still a religious and cultural center in the 14th century. The artistry suggests craftsmen from, or trained in, Bologna and Paris, but this is not surprising as there was a lively cultural exchange between Hungary and these two cities at that time. Central European influence is also visible in the details of women’s clothing, and late-Byzantine influence in the style of certain crowns, as well as men’s armor and headgear. The text is not based, as one would expect, on the standard Latin Vulgate, but rather on a variation of it called the Paris Bible, dating to the 13th century. The clothing, border ornaments, styles of crowns, architecture, relation of architecture to people, and palaeography (the study of old handwriting) all suggest an origin in the first half of the 14th century, or more precisely, between 1330 and 1340.

Detail of the back of leaf 5 in volume one, The Nekcsei-Lipócz Bible.

The key to discovering who commissioned the Bible is found on the back of leaf 5 in volume one, the text of which is taken from the first chapter of Genesis. On the top left (and top right) of the page we find the coat of arms of Demeter Nekcsei.

Detail of the back of leaf 5 in volume one, The Nekcsei-Lipócz Bible.

On the bottom left of the same page we find an image of an elderly Nekcsei and his wife Katalin Garay, who, together with an angel, are holding a model of a church and offering it to Christ. (As mentioned above, Nekcsei was a great patron of churches and monasteries.) Nekcsei died in 1338, which further confirms the approximate date the Bible was produced.

Also of interest is a fragment of a 16th-century document, written into the Bible two centuries later and subsequently removed from the Bible’s original binding and inserted as a flyleaf in volume one. It is an account by a certain Zuleman (Suleiman), sent by Hungarian King Ferdinand (1526-64) to the Turkish sultan, whose forces were occupying most of Hungary. Instead of being treated with the courtesy due a diplomat, Zuleman was taken into captivity for several years; this document briefly describes the indignities he claimed to have suffered. Why this account was written into the Bible is not clear, but it suggests that the Bible was still in Hungary in the middle of the 16th century.

Flyleaf of Zuleman’s letter. The Nekcsei-Lipócz Bible.

To witness the beauty of the Bible, one does not need to visit the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room, where the volumes are housed. Two lavishly illustrated studies have been produced, most recently “A Nekcsei-Biblia legszebb lapjai” (“The most beautiful pages of the Nekcsei Bible”) (1988). This volume, in Hungarian, with accompanying booklets in English and Hungarian, contains 108 color reproductions from the Bible, as well as several scholarly studies concerning the work. The work was co-published by the Library of Congress and Helikon Publishers, in Budapest. An earlier study, with only one color illustration, but many in black-and-white, is “The Nekcsei-Lipócz Bible. A Fourteenth Century Manuscript from Hungary in the Library of Congress, Ms. Pre-Accession 1. A Study,” by Meta Harrsen. Issued by the Library of Congress in 1949, this volume is a study of the Bible and a collection of related manuscripts produced by the same artists. These two books can be found in academic libraries across the United States. A brief description of the Bible may be found on the Library’s website: “The Nekcsei Lipócz Bible. A Brief Introduction and Description.”

One Comment

  1. Patrick M Valentine
    May 23, 2016 at 10:17 am

    Many thanks for your good work not only in preservation but publicizing these treasures. The context of their production and subsequent use is as important, or more, as their beauty.

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