In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Illustrated Beatus Manuscripts

  • Introduction
  • General Studies and Introductions
  • Facsimile Editions and Their Commentaries
  • Text Editions of the Beatus Commentary
  • Textual and Pictorial Tradition of the Beatus Manuscripts
  • Function and Uses of the Beatus Commentary
  • The Beatus Commentary and Eschatological Expectations
  • Visionary Experience in the Beatus Commentary and the Beatus Illustration
  • Color in the Beatus Illustration
  • Beatus Illustration and Islamic Art
  • The World Map in the Beatus Illustration
  • Influence of the Beatus Illustration

Medieval Studies Illustrated Beatus Manuscripts
Peter K. Klein
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0241


The Apocalypse commentary of the Spanish monk Beatus of Liébana was written and illustrated in Asturias (northern Spain) in two editions, one in 776 and one in 784. While the text is a compilation of older patristic commentaries, in particular of Tyconius, Victorinus, and Apringius, the question of the model for the illustrations remains open. The preserved copies, dating from the late 9th to the first half of the 13th century, are almost exclusively limited to Spain and mostly illustrated. These illustrations, inserted between sixty-eight sections of the Apocalypse text and the corresponding commentaries, were originally simple, schematic images summarizing the essential elements of the biblical text. They may perhaps have been intended as a visual help to memorize the text, forming part of the private spiritual reading of the monks. From this original 8th-century version derive the manuscripts of the first and second editions (Branch I). In the context of an economic and cultural rise, as well as increased European contacts of the kingdom of Asturias-León, the original Beatus version, toward the middle of the 10th century, underwent a profound transformation and expansion (Branch II), especially in regard to the style, size, and iconography of the illustrations. The traditional imagery was enlarged and pictorially enriched, and a large number of new illustrations were added, including double-page spreads of the evangelists and their symbols, genealogical tables of the ancestors of Christ, and the illustrations of the Daniel commentary by Jerome; even the size of the manuscripts was enlarged, from quarto to folio. It has been suggested that this new posthumous edition was motivated and determined by three different factors: a new liturgical function of the commentary, being now primarily used for the readings of the Divine Office, in particular at matins; the continued military and ideological conflict with the Muslim Caliphate of Córdoba, apparently leading to the insertion of anti-Islamic motifs, still lacking in the original editions; and, as a presumable orthodox reaction to sporadic eschatological expectations toward the end of the first millennium according to Spanish chronology (962), the commentary and its illustration were modified through a stronger emphasis on eschatological perspectives, without, however, exposing millennial views. This posthumous edition (Branch II) dominated the following Beatus tradition, especially during the 12th and 13th centuries, and it is this expanded version that dominates our image of the Beatus illustrations, since the most important and best-known Beatus manuscripts belong to this recension. It was also this version that had some influence on other monuments, mostly in Spain, but also in France, Italy, and England.

General Studies and Introductions

There are different kinds of general studies—either in the form of a survey and study of the preserved manuscripts, as discussed in Neuss 1931, Williams 1994–2003, and Yarza Luaces 1998; or as a discussion of major aspects, as seen in Neuss 1931, Williams 1992, and Volume 1 of Williams 1994–2003. Surprisingly rare are comparative studies of all Beatus illustrations in the different branches, such as can be seen in Neuss 1931 and Klein 2002. The best short introductions are Williams 1992 and Silva y Verástegui 1993.

  • King, Georgiana Goddard. “Divagations on the Beatus.” Art Studies 8.1 (1930): 3–58.

    First general study of the Beatus manuscripts and their illustration in English, now dated in many regards. However, it provides interesting observations on the artistic sources of the illustrations, whose main groups were already recognized.

  • Klein, Peter K. Beatus de Liébana Codex Urgellensis: Comentario a la edición facsímil. Madrid: Testimonio Compañia Editorial, 2002.

    Facsimile commentary with a comparative analysis of the Beatus illustrations in all branches, especially of the 10th-century posthumous edition and its two sub-branches (IIa and IIb). Their genesis and filiations are reconstructed, and a modified “stemma” is proposed.

  • Neuss, Wilhelm. Die Apokalypse des hl. Johannes in der altspanischen und altchristlichen Bibel-Illustration: Das Problem der Beatus-Handschriften. Spanische Forschungen der Görresgesellschaft 2, Reihe 2, 3. 2 vols. Münster, Germany: Aschendorffsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1931.

    Fundamental and pioneering. Based on comparative textual and iconographical analyses, it establishes the standard classification of the Beatus manuscripts by different groups (Branches I, IIa, IIb) and gives a stylistic explanation for their different traditions. However, it is dated in its assumption of only one archetype, and especially in considering the Romanesque Saint-Sever Beatus (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Ms. lat. 8878) as the best witness of the pictorial archetype.

  • Silva y Verástegui, Soledad de. Los Beatos. Cuadernos del Arte Español (Historia 16) 100. Madrid: Grupo 16, 1993.

    Best short introduction in Spanish. Combines a discussion of general aspects with a survey of the illustrated manuscripts.

  • Williams, John. “Purpose and Imagery in the Apocalypse Commentary of Beatus of Liébana.” In The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages. Edited by Richard K. Emmerson and Bernard McGinn, 217–233. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.

    Summarizes the major aspects of the Beatus illustration. Best short introduction in English.

  • Williams, John. The Illustrated Beatus: A Corpus of the Illustrations of the Commentary on the Apocalypse. 5 vols. London: Harvey Miller, 1994–2003.

    Presents the most detailed general study so far, with a thorough discussion of the major aspects (Vol. I) and a complete catalogue and corpus of all illustrated manuscripts (Vols. II–V). Fundamental and indispensable, though without any comparative analysis of the illustrations.

  • Yarza Luaces, Joaquín. Beato de Liébana: Manuscritos iluminados. Barcelona: Moleiro, 1998.

    Lavishly illustrated survey of the preserved manuscripts for a general audience.

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