One of the rarest of medieval manuscripts, a Bible storybook that begins with illustrations but no text, is on display at the Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore.
Equally unusual are the narrative lines added later by Christian, Muslim and Jewish scribes, said Will Noel, co-curator of "The Book of Kings: Art, War and the Morgan Library's Medieval Picture Bible."
Making notes in book margins was common in the Middle Ages, but providing commentaries for illustrations was not, Noel said. And that's what the scribes were doing: giving meaning to 13th-century French illustrations depicting dramatic, often sordid, Old Testament stories from Genesis through II Kings.
Louis IX, the French king who commissioned the storybook and fancied himself a divinely appointed leader in the tradition of King David, needed no narrative, Noel said. He would have selected or approved all 340 storybook illustrations and their presentation of characters in 13th-century dress and armor -- and King David on the French throne.
Louis ordered the storybook for his personal entertainment. But he probably shared the Bible with his courtiers and his military officers, who followed him on two of the nine Christian Crusades intended to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims.
"It was political propaganda," Noel said.
The Bible made its way to Italy, then to the cardinal of Krakow, Poland, who presented it as a diplomatic gift to Shah Abbas of Persia (what is now Iran) in the 17th century. By then, the Muslim and Christian worlds had entered a period of cultural dialogue, Noel said.
"Without Christians, Jews and Muslims from Paris to Persia showing interest [in this Bible], it would have gone the way of 99 percent of all illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages and been destroyed," he said. "Although produced in a culture of the Crusades, it is a consummate work of art that appealed to members of all three faiths."
The Christian scribe interpreting the pictures, who wrote in Latin, apparently lived in 14th-century Italy, Noel said. The Muslim writer provided the Persian narrative 300 years later. And the Hebrew scribe, also living in Persia and writing Persian vernacular with Hebrew letters, worked for an unknown Jewish owner who probably acquired the Bible in the late 1700s.
The inscriptions appear on every page, the Latin penned in illuminated manuscript style with colorful capital letters beginning each section, the Persian and Hebrew lettering neat but often skewed.
In most cases, the two- or three-sentence captions agreed on details, such as the tale of David killing Goliath and returning victorious to a fawning crowd. David's patron, King Saul, became jealous and gave David a military assignment he thought would result in his young rival's death.
"It was such a famous story, all three got it right," Noel said.
Some lesser-known tales created problems. One was a three-panel story about the Israelite leader Jephthah, who won a great military victory but -- to fulfill a vow to God -- had to behead his only daughter.
The Latin scribe wrongly described a sequence featuring Gideon, another military leader, and the Muslim scribe told a different story about Gideon. It took the Jewish scribe to straighten out the facts.
"It's a lovely interplay that shows how meanings of an image can change," Noel said.
"The Book of Kings: Art, War, and the Morgan Library's Medieval Picture Bible" continues through Dec. 29 at the Walters Museum of Art. Call 410-547-9000 or go to www.thewalters.org.