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The Codex Purpureus: Calabria’s Unique Treasure

Also known as the Rossano Gospels, it's a 6th-century illuminated manuscript Gospel Book, one of the oldest surviving manuscripts of the New Testament.

Anello degli Apostoli.

The Codex is famous for the reddish-purple (purpureus in Latin) color of its high-quality parchment pages and for its prefatory cycle of miniatures of subjects from the Life of Christ.  The miniatures are arranged in two tiers on the page, sometimes with small Old Testament prophet portraits below holding scrolls of texts from the Psalms.

The Chamber of Commerce in Cosenza organized a weekend trip from June 21-23 for members of the Foreign Press Association to promote the province’s top cultural sights.  Our first stop, a five-hour bus drive south from Rome and close to the quaint hill town of Morano Calabro, was for a lunch of homemade local specialties at Adriana Tamburi’s “La Locanda del Parco”, an agriturismo on the edge of the Pollino, the largest (nearly 750 square miles) National Park in Italy, located in both Calabria and Basilicata. Besides cooking for her guests, Adriana and her family provide Pope Francis with olive oil and honey.

Well-fed, we traveled on to nearby Civita, one of some 30 small towns in Calabria founded by Christian Albanian refugees fleeing the Ottomans in the 15th century. The inhabitants still speak the Albanian, known as Arbëreshë, of those times as do the inhabitants of Piana degli Albanesi outside of Palermo where I went on another press tour last fall (“Piana degli Albanesi: For its Albanian Culture and the World’s Best Cannoli”, October 2018). From Civita it was a longish drive (some 40 miles) to Rossano, the home of licorice and the Codex Purpureus Rossanensis, the main attraction of the trip for me.

Codex is the term usually applied to a hand-written medieval manuscript.  Its book shape, page by page on parchment, paper, or papyrus and then bound, had by the 6th century, replaced the ancient world’s scroll.  This book-form, considered the most important advance in book-making before the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press, spread with the rise of Christianity.

The Codex Purpureus Rossanensis, also known as the Rossano Gospels, is a 6th-century illuminated manuscript Gospel Book, one of the oldest surviving manuscripts of the New Testament.  It’s famous for the reddish-purple (purpureus in Latin) color of its high-quality parchment pages and for its prefatory cycle of miniatures of subjects from the Life of Christ.  The miniatures are arranged in two tiers on the page, sometimes with small Old Testament prophet portraits below holding scrolls of texts from the Psalms.

The 188-folios (376 pages, all some 12 x 10 inches) of this now incomplete Codex with 15 illuminations, contain the text of the Gospel of Matthew and the majority of the Gospel of Mark, each preceded by an index of its chapters.  Its only lacuna is Mark 16: 14-20.  It almost certainly had a companion second volume, which is lost.  Wikipedia tells us that, “Like the Vienna Genesis [in the Austrian National Library] and the Sinope Gospels [all but one folio in the Bibliothèque Nationale] in Paris, the Rossano Gospels are written in Greek, two columns to a page, predominantly with silver ink, though the first three lines of each Gospel are written in gold ink, on purple dyed parchment.”  It also contains part of a letter from Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339 CE), a historian of Christianity, exegete and Christian polemicist, to his fellow-Christian Carpianus about the concordance of the Gospels.

The guide to Rossano’s Diocesan Museum (closed Mondays, full entrance fee 5 euros), where the Codex has been on display in state-of-the-art multi-media conditions since July 3, 2016 when the new Diocesan Museum opened to celebrate the Codex’s return from Rome, tells us: “The Codex was created in a Byzantine scriptorium, almost certainly in Syria [most likely in Antioch] as claimed by the majority of scholars, though some say in Constantinople or Egypt. It’s dated to between the 5th and 6th century by historians of Byzantine art and paleographers.  How it arrived in Rossano is still uncertain, but probably with the diffusion of Byzantinism in Calabria and in the south of Italy, connected to the spread of monachism.  Thus, the manuscript probably arrived in the 7th century, along with the iconodule [or venerating icons] monks from Constantinople or Egypt or from Islamic northern Africa.” Rossano was a very important cultural center in those times culminating in the 10th century when it became a diocese.

The presence of the Codex in Rossano is documented with certainty from 1831, the year that the cathedral’s canon Scipione Camporata reordered the illustrations and numbered them in ink.  The Neapolitan journalist/lawyer Cesare Malpica (1804-48), a devoted supporter of Pope Pius IX, mentioned the Codex in 1845. A generation later in 1879 two Baltic German Lutheran scholars, Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) and Oscar von Gebhardt (1844-1906), discovered it more or less where it is today and published their discovery in 1883 for a worldwide scholarly audience. With the opening of the first Diocesan Museum here in 1952, the first museum of religious artifacts in Calabria, scholars started to come here to study.

Ancient Greek Mirror. Ufficio Beni Culturali

Cecilia Perri, the vice-director of the Diocesan Museum, was our gracious hostess and erudite guide. Also the founder and President of the cultural association “Insieme per Camminare,” which runs the Museum and offers cultural tours of Calabria, she first explained the layout of the twofold state-of-the art museum: three rooms for the Codex and six filled with treasures displayed in chronological order, thereby recreating the history of the Diocese from antiquity through the 19th century.  Both sections have documentary videos and didactic panels in Italian and English about their contents.  The Museum also offers a free brochure in Italian, English, German, French and Russian.

Although not as special as the Codex, the highlights of the Diocesan Museum include an ancient Greek bronze mirror dating from the 5th century BCE, found in 1906 in a tomb of a noble woman from nearby Sibari; an icon of a Pietà painted in 1499 by the Cretan artist Andreas Pavias (1440-c. 1504); a 16th-century monstrance, donated by Cardinal Bernardino Lopez de Carvajal, Archbishop of Rossano from 1508-11, which was used in the Corpus Domini procession until the 1990s; the Central-Northern Italian Icon of Peace or precious early 17th-century miniature on parchment of the mystical wedding of St. Catherine, probably commissioned for private devotion; a silver bust of the Achiropita, modeled in 1768 by the Neapolitan silversmith Costanzo Mellino, with the city of Rossano depicted on its base. A thank-you from the local population for the divine intervention to end the drought and famine in 1764, still today it’s carried in procession on August 14th and 15th as well as musical manuscripts, magnificently-embroidered vestments and splendid silver liturgical accessories. 

“Painted Parchment of the Mystical Wedding of St. Catherine of Alexandria”. Ufficio Beni Culturali

Close up of the silver bust of the Achiropita. Ufficio Beni Culturali.

Instead, the Codex is on display in solitary splendor in a special microclimate showcase called a “climabox” for constant monitoring. The page on display is changed every four months or so. On the wall is a touchscreen (available in Italian, English, French and German) so each visitor and scholar can scroll the entire manuscript.

Before doing so for us, Dottoressa Perri said that in 2012 the Codex had been sent to Rome to ICRCPAL (Central Institute for Restoration and Conservation of Archival and Book Heritage) for restoration.  There it was discovered that the purple dye of its parchment pages was not obtained from shells (murex), commonly used by the Phoenicians to produce “regal red” and, until this discovery, also believed by scholars to be the color source.  Instead, it comes from orchil lichens.  “However, no matter its color source,” explained Perri, “the pages’ purple color is an indication that the Codex first belonged to an emperor or high-ranking churchman.” 

Then during the next half hour she went on to unveil information not found in the guide or videos.  She said “very few manuscripts like the Codex Purpureus have survived.  They are maybe eight: five in Greek and three in Syriac. The five in Greek are the Codex Purpureus, the Sinope Gospels and the Vienna Genesis, both already mentioned, the Codex Beratinus Purpureus, found in Berat and now in Tirana, and the Cotton Genesis (Ms. 5111) in the British Library, which was almost entirely destroyed by fire in the 17th century, so its dark page color is probably due to the fire and not purple dye. There is a possible sixth one, the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, but it has no illuminations. Dismembered in the 17th century, most of its pages are in the National Library in Saint Petersburg; with some in London, Patmos in Greece, and elsewhere.  Those in Syriac are the Rabula Gospels in the Laurentian Library in Florence and manuscripts Syr 33 and 341 in the French National Library in Paris.

“All the illuminations of Rossano’s Codex, continued Perri, “are connected to Greek liturgy during Holy Week.  Many scholars believe that the manuscript originated in Syria thanks to the liveliness of the illuminations and the flora and fauna they depict. Twelve of the miniatures are of episodes from the life of Christ; another, the title page, shows all four evangelists, proof that the Codex probably once contained the missing two gospels; the letter of Eusebius in a gold frame, and a portrait of St. Mark writing at his desk.

Portrait of Mark

The resurrection of Lazarus

The twelve episodes in the order in which they are bound depict:  the resurrection of Lazurus complete with a companion standing next to him with his face covered because of the stench emanating from Lazarus; Christ joyously entering Jerusalem; the expulsion of the money-changers which includes oxen with a hump and inward-facing horns typical of a race in Syria which implies that the manuscript may have originated in Syria; the parable of the ten virgins; Christ washing his disciples’ feet, and the Last Supper on the same page with Judas  as the central figure instead of Christ; the communion of the bread and wine with six apostles each (the oldest images of the Eucharist in Calabria); Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (supposedly the oldest depiction of a nighttime scene in Christian art); the title page with its vividly-colored wheel of the four Evangelists which again is probably proof that the Codex once contained all four Gospels; Eusebius’s letter with its gold frame; the miracle of healing the man who was born blind; the parable of the good Samaritan, which was recounted by Luke so is another proof that the Codex included all four Gospels; Christ’s trial and the repentance of Judas; the choosing between Christ and Barabbas; and a full-page portrait of the evangelist Mark writing at his desk with Sophia (Divine Wisdom) overseeing.”

Christ in the Gethsamene Garden

Parable of the Good Samaritan

The Choice between Christ and Barabbas

“It seems that the title page,” continued Perri, “and then all the illuminations came first, followed by the Gospel of St. Matthew (now missing the illumination of him writing before his text), then the illumination of St. Mark followed by his text and then…”

On October 9, 2015, UNESCO recognized the Codex as World Heritage and inscribed it in the “Memory of the World” register.  No wonder then that just two weeks before our visit Alberto Bonisoli, Italy’s Minister of Culture, and Monsignor Giuseppe Satriano, Archbishop of Rossano-Cariati, during a ceremony at the Quirinal Palace in Rome, (first the papal summer palace, then the residence of Italy’s kings, and now of its President) presented President Sergio Mattarella with one of five facsimili of the Codex it took the publisher Franco Cosimo Panini two years (2017-2019) to produce.  “Another will shortly be donated to Pope Francis,” Dottoressa Perri told us, “and the remaining three belong to the Diocese.  At least one will travel to promote Rossano and Calabria in Italy and around the world.  We have taken one already to Pisa, Modena, and Treviso. Visits to Matera and Grosseto are also planned.”


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