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The Nekcsei Lipócz Bible.
A Brief Introduction and Description

The Library of Congress possesses more than 1,500 editions of the Bible in more than 150 languages. The Gutenberg Bible, on display in the Library's Great Hall, is, of course, the most famous item in this collection. But other, although lesser-known, treasures, are to be found in the Library too. One is the beautifully illustrated, illuminated manuscript, the Nekcsei-Lipócz Bible, created in the Kingdom of Hungary in the 14th century. This Bible consists of two volumes of nearly 750 vellum leaves (close to 1,500 pages) and is believed to have been commissioned as a gift for a church by Demeter Nekcsei, Chief Lord Treasurer of Hungary, who died in 1338. These volumes are held in the Library's Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The selections below provide a brief descriptive and historical overview of the Bible and are taken from two publications either published or co-published by the Library of Congress. They are:

First page of Nekcsei  Bible
   Frontispiece, The Nekcsei-Lipócz Bible . . . (1949)
   [Click on image to enlarge]

Preface to the 1949 Study:

During a visit which I made to the Library of Congress in the spring of 1938, Miss Alice H. Lerch, of the Rare Books Division, very kindly showed me what she considered their finest illuminated manuscript, a Bible in two large volumes (MS. Pre-Accession No. 1).

The first glance satisfied me that here was the long-sought evidence needed to solve one of the most interesting problems of manuscript research in my experience. The numerous historiated initials of the Bible obviously were related closely to MS. 360 in The Pierpont Morgan Library, which consists of a series of eighty-five detached miniatures depicting scenes from the Life of Christ and the Saints.

While the beauty and distinction of the Morgan manuscript had frequently aroused the interest of connoisseurs, it had heretofore resisted all efforts at definite localization, because no forerunners or companion pieces had come to light. Nevertheless, it was clear that such a masterly achievement could not have resulted without them.

Dr. Herbert Putnam, at that time Librarian of Congress, with characteristic courtesy directed that the Bible be sent to the Morgan Library for study and comparison with Morgan MS. 360, thereby enabling me to confirm my first impression that the same artists had worked on both manuscripts, but that the Library of Congress Bible was the earlier product.

No attempt was made at that time to study the text of the Bible, which contained other features that were to play equally important parts in its localization. Two of these were particularly helpful: First, the shields decorating the Genesis page, bearing the arms of the original owner; and secondly, an imperfectly preserved sixteenth-century document in Latin, that is found on a preliminary leaf in the first volume. The contents of this document have been translated by Dr. Theodore C. Petersen, C.S.P., of the Catholic University of America, and will be found in the Appendix.

Not long after this auspicious beginning, when another Morgan manuscript was being recatalogued, a fortunate circumstance caused Prof. Bernard M. Peebles, of Fordham University, to send to the Morgan Library for textual comparison, a photograph of an illuminated leaf from Vatican Latin MS. 8541.

It was recognized at once that its style of illumination and format were the same as Morgan MS. 360. A description of the Vatican manuscript in an article by the Rev. Michael Huber1 of the Benedictine monastery of Metten, reached me shortly thereafter, revealing that the Vatican manuscript was an extensively illustrated Passional or Legenda Aurea. In his publication, Dr. Huber called attention to the numerous Hungarian saints whose sufferings were depicted, and also deplored the fact that the manuscript had thus far received no scholarly consideration. As a matter of fact, art historians2 of both nationalities have classified it as "Italo-Hungarian," although none has attempted the long, comprehensive analysis which would be required in order to substantiate this localization. For the purpose of studying it at first hand, and chiefly to determine the connection between Morgan MS. 360 and Vatican Lat. 8541 I went to Rome in July 1939, where in the Vatican Library, through the courtesy of the Prefect, Dom Anselmo Albareda, I was given every opportunity to work with the original manuscript. This confirmed my belief that the Morgan and Vatican manuscripts, and a third fragment that is in a private collection in Paris, had all originally been parts of one book, that, before it was mutilated and its contents dispersed, must have been one of the most sumptuous, truly regal volumes in existence.

Now, after centuries of separation, these manuscripts may at last be studied in relation to each other and to the cosmopolitan atelier where they were produced.

My warm thanks are due Miss Alice H. Lerch of the Rare Books Division of the Library of Congress, for first bringing this splendid Bible manuscript to my attention and for many kindnesses since then. Dr. Dezső Dercsényi of Budapest supplied the evidence which identified the owner of the coat of arms in the Bible, as well as much other helpful information. My friend, Dr. T.C. Petersen, C.S.P., not only aided in the localization of the Bible by his painstaking work on the Zuleman document which it preserves, but answered many calls on his time in checking references. It gives me further pleasure to record the helpful cooperation of the Royal Hungarian Consulate of New York City in obtaining various kinds of information for me from Budapest. Miss Belle da Costa Greene, in her dual capacity as Director of the Morgan Library and Advisor to the Library of Congress, from first to last gave the publication her wholehearted support.

In its final stages, the material in this book had the benefit of careful revision by Miss Dorothy Miner, Librarian of the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, to whom I am particularly indebted for the thoroughness with which she performed so arduous a task.

Since the foregoing was written, the ending of the war has made it possible to resume publication and to include additional facts on the history of the Vatican manuscript, received through the good offices of His Eminence Eugčne, Cardinal Tisserant.

Dr. Lawrence C. Wroth, Director of the John Carter Brown Library and Prof. Millard Meiss of Columbia University obliged me greatly by giving the text in its final form the benefit of their critical reading with many constructive suggestions. The photography of the comparative illustrations is the work of Mark D. Brewer, U.S.N.R., Superintendent of Buildings, the Morgan Library.

If this book carried a dedication, it would be dedicated to the memory of my father.

Meta Harrsen
The Pierpont Morgan Library

1 M. Huber, O.S.B.: Die "Vita Illustrata Sancti Benedicti" in "Handschriften und Kupferstichen." In Studien und Mittheilungen des Benediktiner Ordens, N. F. 17, 48, Brünn, etc, 1930, p. 47-82.

2 C. Budinis: L'opera del genio italiano all'estero-gli artisti italiani in Ungheria, Rome, 1936, p. 27-28, pl. XIX; T. Gerevich: L'arte antica ungherese, Rome, n.d., p. 10, pl. XII; E. Hoffmann: Régi Magyar Bibliofilek, Budapest, 1929, p. 20.

Table of Contents for the 1949 Study:

  1.  King Charles Robert and the Stimulation of Culture During His Reign
  2.  Native Scriptoria and Some of Their Products, in Particular the Bible now in the Library of Congress and the Passional in the Vatican and Morgan Libraries
  3.  The Palaeography, Iconography, Heraldry, Style, Colors and Border Ornament of these Several Manuscripts
  4.  The Locale of the Atelier in which the Manuscripts Were Produced
  5.  Evidence for Dating
  6.  Destined Recipient of the Passional
  1.  The Library of Congress Latin Bible Ms. Pre-Accession I
  2.  The Pierpont Morgan Library MS. 360
  3.  The Vatican Library MS. Latin 8541
  4.  The Léonce Rosenberg Leaves
  •  The Zuleman Document
  •  References in the Text to the Illustrations
  •  Plates I-XX.

English-Language Preface to the 1988 Study:

The Nekcsei Bible was produced in Hungary in the 14th century. The "Zuleman Document" in the front of the first volume gives evidence that it was still in Hungary in the mid-16th century. After that there was no trace of its whereabouts until 1825, when a wealthy British bibliophile, Henry Perkins, bought it for £74. From whom he bought it is not recorded. The Bible remained in his collection, which was a large and distinguished one, until it was sold at auction in 1873 after his death. At that auction a dealer bought the Bible for the Library of Congress. The archives of the Library do not reveal the price the Library paid, but it was probably around £200. It has remained here ever since. It is one of our top treasures, and of course it is irreplaceable.

We are often asked how much the Nekcsei Bible is "worth," by which is meant: what price would it fetch if it were placed on sale. Because it will never again be sold, the question is moot, though no less fascinating for that. Whatever its monetary value may be, we treat this Bible as a unique work of great cultural and aesthetic importance that we are entrusted to guard and preserve as we have done for well over a hundred years.

The Bible is made up of two volumes. The first volume has 352 vellum leaves and the second has 394. Thus the two volumes together contain 1,492 pages, each of which measures about 32 by 44.5 cm. The two volumes are very large and very heavy. The Bible came to the Library intact except for six leaves and the original binding. The present binding was done for Mr. Perkins and bears his coat of arms. Each volume was bound extremely tight, which has helped to keep volumes in sound condition but has caused a side effect that needs to be described.

You will notice that in the inner margins of certain pages there is a slight foreshortening of the image. That distortion is a consequence of the tight binding. The master photographer at the Library of Congress produced the color transparencies from which the facsimile was prepared. In doing so he made every effort to avoid this occasional distortion, but in certain places an image on the inner margin goes so far into the "gutter" that the foreshortening caused by the curvature of the page could not be overcome. Rather than eliminate those pages from the facsimile because they fell short of perfection in that form, Helikon Kiadó and the Library of Congress decided that it would be better to retain them and to provide this note of explanation.

Both volumes are in extremely good condition. The first two or three pages in the first volume show some signs of wear, but that is about all. Because the Bible is kept out of the light in a stable environment with controlled temperature and humidity, the colors of the illuminations remain as intense and vivid as they were when they were first applied more than six hundred years ago.

For a number of years it was the hope of Helikon Kiadó External link [Helikon Publishers] to publish a facsimile edition of the Nekcsei Bible, but the size of the original was daunting. Then in June 1986 the director of Helikon, Mrs. Magda Molnár, visited the Library of Congress and was therefore able to study the original at first hand. She quickly realized that a facsimile of the entire Bible--all 1,492 pages--would be an impossible publishing venture. Instead she came up with the idea of reproducing just those pages with major illuminations, and discussed the idea with us. We shared her enthusiasm for the new plan and agreed to cooperate in the enterprise.

It has been the aim of Helikon Kiadó to reproduce the colors and the details of the original with the greatest possible fidelity. That they have accomplished this aim so well is owed to their joining of thorough craftsmanship with the most modern technology, such as a computerized laser scanner for making the color separations. In the process, the designer of the facsimile, Mr. Tibor Szántó, made a special visit to Washington to compare the first proofs to the original. Such care was taken at every step and it shows in the result.

As custodian of the original, the Library of Congress has been pleased to join with Helikon Kiadó in bringing out this facsimile edition. We rejoice that its publication greatly widens the availability of the artistic essence of the Nekcsei Bible, most particularly in Hungary, its country of origin.

Dana J. Pratt
Director of Publishing
Library of Congress
Washington, D.C.

Publisher's English-Language Foreword to the 1988 Study:

The Hungarians, led by Prince Árpád, settled in the Carpathian Basin around A.D. 896. Árpád's descendant was Stephen I, the founder of the Hungarian state, who received his royal crown from Pope Sylvester II and introduced the country to Christianity. His successors, the kings of the House of Árpád, ruled from 1000 to 1301, a period which, despite occasional struggles for the throne and attacks from abroad, brought political, economic, and social progress and prosperity to the Hungarian nation.

When the last male descendant of the Árpád Dynasty died in 1301, heirs on the distaff side of the family tried to gain the Hungarian crown. In the eight years of strife among the Bohemian king, Wenceslaus II, Prince Otto of Bavaria, and Charles Robert of Naples, the country sank into anarchy, ruin, and poverty.

In the 13th century, one branch of the Angevins, a House of French origin, acquired the "two Sicilies," i.e., the thrones of Naples and Sicily. A member of this family, Charles II (Charles the Lame) married a royal princess of the House of Árpád, Mary, granddaughter of Béla IV, the famous Hungarian king who rebuilt his country from its ruins following the Mongol invasion. Charles Robert, the grandson of Charles II of the House of Angevin and Mary of the Árpád Dynasty, was first crowned the king of Hungary in 1301, but not even after being crowned for the third time in 1310 was he able to gain a firm hold on the country, where real power was in the hands of the feudal oligarchs. Charles Robert regarded the breaking of the landlords as his number one task. He succeeded by winning first the first battle of Rozgony in 1312, and then various other smaller battles and skirmishes. The struggle was concluded with the reoccupation of Transylvania and Slavonia.

Regained inner stability made it possible for Charles Robert to develop the country's economy and culture. As pointed out by Dezső Dercsényi, a noted Hungarian scholar on the period, "a monetary reform was one of the cornerstones of the new economic policy." In 1325, the king introduced the gold florin, patterned after Florentine currency, as well as silver groats of stable value. He acquired the gold and silver he needed for minting by making landowners interested in the exploitation of mines. Thanks to this reform, Hungary became one of the most important gold mining countries in Europe at the time. Through the grant of various privileges, Charles Robert helped promote the rapid development of towns and an upswing in trade. At the same time, his tax and customs policy brought about an enormous increase in treasury revenues. The man who deserves the most credit for successfully carrying through the king's plans was his Chief Lord Treasurer, Demeter Nekcsei.

We do not know the exact date of Nekcsei's birth, although he is known to have come from the Aba Dynasty, which was related to Stephen I, and to have died in 1338. Historical documents first mention his family in the 13th century, from which time onwards its members belonged to the royal court. The first tenure they acquired was that of Lipóc (North-East of Košice, in Czechoslovakia) [Kecerovský Lipovec, in Slovakia], which gave the family its name. They were then granted Nekcse (Našice, in Yugoslavia) [Našice, in Croatia], and then Csatár (in Zala County) in 1246. In 1312, Charles Robert granted permission for the construction of a castle in Nekcse. From then on, Sándor, one of the commanders in the battle of Rozgony, and his brother, Demeter, the Chief Lord Treasurer, adopted a new name, calling themselves the Nekcseis in place of the old family name of Lipóci.

Demeter Nekcsei's early years are a blank. According to Dezső Dercsényi, "It is quite possible that he attended one of the Italian universities." Later on, he became bailiff of several counties, and then, as Lord Chief Treasurer, became one of the highest dignitaries in Hungary.

He commissioned a Bible as Lord Chief Treasurer, which seems to have been meant for some kind of "church" (a church being a building where religious services take place as well as the congregation that gathers in the building.) Thus was born the book known today as the Nekcsei Bible, a codex containing the text of the Old and New Testaments in Latin, and differing from the Vulgate (the version canonized by the Catholic Church) in that each biblical book is preceded by prologues. Consequently, the text of the Nekcsei Bible can be classed among the so-called 13th-century Paris manuscripts. The fact that the commissioner must have been Demeter Nekcsei himself was established by Dezső Dercsényi on an initiative by Meta Harrsen, a scholar of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. The coat of arms in the margin above the opening lines of the Book of Genesis on folio 5v of the Bible, he established, had been used by Demeter Nekcsei alone. However, scientific researchers have remained in disagreement up to this day over who could have produced the Bible and for whom; in other words, who the illuminators were and which church was to be beneficiary of the gift. The disagreement most certainly results in part from the fact that most scholars have so far been unable to lay hands on the Bible and study it first-hand.

The publishers of the present edition, naturally, do not wish to take sides in this controversy. That is why it has been decided that the introduction should contain only a brief outline of some of the more important ideas, all the more so since Dezső Dercsényi, the greatest authority on the subject in Hungary, who had been asked to write the accompanying study, died before he was able to fully expound his position.

These positions can be summed up as follows: Meta Harrsen held that Demeter Nekcsei had bestowed the Bible on the St. Peter and Paul Provostship of Óbuda (a town which today is part of modern Budapest). According to Ferenc Levárdy, the Bible was commissioned for the Birth of Mary Parish Church in Gyöngyöspata, in the north of the country. Dezső Dercsényi and Tünde Wehli claimed that the Bible was to be a gift from the Lord Chief Treasurer to the Paulite Monastery he had founded in Csatár presumably as a burial site for himself.

The question of the identity of the illuminators is even more complex.

According to the studies done by Dezső Dercsényi in 1942, the codex follows the oldest style of the Bologna group of painters who incorporated French elements and reflected a Byzantine influence in their work.

Meta Harrsen has recognized the work of several different hands among the illuminators of the Nekcsei Bible. She has attributed the two richly ornamented incipit pages to a Bologna artist. She has regarded the two figures with dark faces to be the work of the same hand that painted the Passion of Christ and the Legend of St. Alex in the Hungarian Angevin Legendary, noting an influence of the Italian style and the traditions of Italian iconography on the work of this master. Finally, she has attributed the portrayal of the apostles of St. James and St. Paul in the Nekcsei Bible to the same artist who painted the pictures of St. James and St. Ladislas in the Legendary, while also making use of Czech and Balkan-Byzantine painting.

Ferenc Levárdy: "I associate the work of the illuminators of the Nekcsei Bible and the Angevin Legendary with Bologna, more precisely, with Pseudo-Niccolò, a master who had worked in the Bologna University area. I believe that the two codices were produced in Hungary, a view shared by Cesare Gnudi of Bologna. While looking for the artistic roots of the Legendary, I had to take note of the fact that our Illuminated Chronicle could not just rise as a single bright star in the sky of Hungarian miniature painting. Following in the footsteps of Emil Jakubovich, Edit Hoffmann, and Ilona Berkovits, I had to study the valuable material, scattered in several European libraries, of the rich miniature painting associated with Bologna University, and the large group of Hungarian scholars who may have had some kind of relationship with Bologna.

"I believe I have found a clue that leads to the royal Hungarian workshop of codex illuminators in the royal land-grant of 'Magister Hertul' of 1328 and in its confirmation in 1331. I found support to back my line of thinking while conducting art historical research at Gyöngyöspata. There I found murals painted when the church was owned by Nekcsei. I could not ignore these suggestive impressions while engaged in an analytical research of the Nekcsei Bible."

Tünde Wehli: "The place of origin and the question of the relationship among the illuminators of the Nekcsei Bible and the relics associated with the Hungarian Angevin court--such as the Hungarian Angevin Legendary, the Illuminated Chronicle, etc.--are open to argument. I belong to the group of researchers who regard both the Nekcsei Bible and the Hungarian Angevin Legendary to be the work of a Bologna workshop and who consider the Illuminated Chronicle, produced in the second half of the 14th century, the Oxford Codex, and the Istanbul Antiphonary, which are similar in style, to be of Hungarian origin. These works represent the culture of the Hungarian Angevin court.

"Unfortunately, I have not seen the Nekcsei Bible itself. Therefore, in order to identify the hands that had painted the various pictures and initials I had to rely on photographs. I have distinguished between three hands in this Bible. The first--and most talented--is responsible for the opening pictures. The second hand painted most of the initials. The third, towards the end of the Bible, primarily used rustic forms and darker tones of color. No identity of masters, only perhaps an identity of the workshop can be posited between the Nekcsei Bible and the Hungarian Angevin Legendary."

According to Cesare Gnudi, the Italian features of the Bible reflect the short stay in Esztergom of a Bologna master, who combined Italian features with local characteristics as well as with traditions from Prague and other places in Central Europe. Gnudi identified this particular illuminator of the Nekcsei Bible with a painter of the Justinianus Institutiones in Cesena.

Alesandro Conti regards the Nekcsei Bible as the work of the group of illuminators called, for lack of a better name, the "Maestro del 1328," while also adopting Gnudi's conclusions concerning the different masters associated with the illuminiations.

Scholars also disagree as to the whereabouts of the workshop in which the Nekcsei Bible was produced. Ilona Berkovits was the first to claim that the workshop had been in Hungary. According to Meta Harrsen, the illuminators were probably members of one of the church institutions in Esztergom. Ferenc Levárdy, like Berkovits and Harrsen, believes the Bible to be of Hungarian origin. Tünde Wehli is of the opinion that it was produced in Bologna.

What we know of the history of the Bible is as follows:

It was produced for a church in the early 14th century. From the following two centuries, not a single fact concerning the ownership or the location of the Bible has come down to us. The next piece of information is a handwritten entry on folio Iv in Volume I. According to the researchers, Zuleman (Suleiman) was probably one of the "men" of Hieronymo Adorno (an Austrian ambassador to the Porte) who was neither prominent nor insignificant. Professor Dercsényi assumed that he may have received the Bible from King Ferdinand as a kind of severance pay. That only makes it likely, but does not prove, that the codex was still in Hungary in the mid-16th century. We have no idea of when and how it left the country or what the stages of its itinerary were. The only thing that is certain, based on Meta Harrsen's publication,* is that it was sold at an auction of the library of Henry Perkins in Hanworth Park (near Feltham, in England) in 1873. It was bought by the Library of Congress, which has owned it ever since.

The Nekcsei Bible is one of the most valuable relics of the Angevin period, a work of outstanding significance in Hungarian cultural history. We are confident that by publishing an edition featuring 108 of its most beautiful pages we will do more than satisfy interest in a so far inaccessible Hungarian art treasure and offer a genuine artistic experience to book lovers who appreciate rarities. By means of this publication, we also hope to give fresh impetus to scientific research in Hungary and throughout the world.

* Meta Harrsen: The Nekcsei-Lipócz Bible, The Library of Congress, Washington D. C., 1949.

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