The Cotton Genesis

I was reminded this week about one of the wonderful early Christian manuscripts that really didn’t get the treatment it deserved in my book God’s Library–the so-called Cotton Genesis. This small parchment codex was part of a collection amassed by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571-1631) and his descendants. Cotton’s library, organized on a series of shelves each with a bust of a different Roman emperor, was moved to the Ashburnham House in London in 1730. In a sad twist of fate, a fire destroyed or badly damaged much of the collection just a year later in 1731:

“Among the manuscripts that fared less well in the fire were those shelved under the bust of the emperor Otho. These included the so-called Cotton Genesis (LDAB 3242), a richly illustrated parchment codex containing the book of Genesis in Greek usually thought to have been copied in the late fifth century. It was badly burned and reduced to ‘a charred ruin.'” (God’s Library, 83)

Here is a sample of the “charred ruin”:

“The Cotton Genesis” (British Library, Cotton MS Otho B VI, f. 026v, with illustration depicting Abraham, right, meeting two angels); image source: British Library

The fire seems not only to have burned away large portions of many leaves and discolored the remains, but also caused them to shrink significantly. David Casley, who was deputy librarian at the Ashburnham House at the time of the fire (and who saved the Codex Alexandrinus from the flames) discussed the damage to the Cotton Genesis in a report written in 1734. He noted that it was mostly destroyed and that “the Leaves of what remains, and consequently the Writing in a just proportion, are contracted into less Compass, so that they are now small Capitals.” More on the shrinkage below.

What drew my attention back to this codex this week was stumbling upon a very nice scan of a portrait of Robert Cotton with his hand on the open Genesis codex. The engraving was produced for the Vetusta Monumenta by the Society of Antiquaries of London. It was published in 1747, but the engraving itself is dated (1744). It is based on an oil painting that appears to have been produced in 1626, well before the codex was burned.

Engraving of Robert Cotton with the Cotton Genesis (1744); image source: Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments: A Digital Edition

I knew of the existence of the oil painting and the engraving, which have been reproduced in connection with studies of the Cotton Genesis, but I had never seen a really good high resolution scan of either image before. I didn’t appreciate how detailed the engraving is. You can actually see the codex and its script quite clearly in the image:

Detail of Engraving of Robert Cotton with the Cotton Genesis (1744); image source: Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments: A Digital Edition

But is the picture accurate? The Genesis codex had been collated and its variant readings recorded by John Ernest Grabe (1666-1711) in 1703 before the fire. At that time, the codex consisted of 166 parchment folia and a flyleaf bound (during Cotton’s lifetime) in a red leather cover with Cotton’s coat of arms. The text contained 250 illustrations. Already at that time several pages of the original codex were missing. There are no recorded measurements of the codex from that period of which I am aware, but in 1784 Thomas Astle printed a pseudo-facsimile of the text that gives a sense of the typical line length.

Pseudo-facsimile of the writing of the Cotton Genesis; image source: Thomas Astle, The Origin and Progress of Writing 1784, plate III, following p. 70

According to Astle, “the specimen here given, was made while the writing was in its original state, and before the parchment was contracted by the fire” (p. 70). But, as far as I can tell, no one seems to know how Astle got hold of this “specimen” fifty years after the fire.

Nevertheless, using this and other surviving data, Weitzmann and Kessler calculated that the original page size was about 33 cm high by 25 cm wide, a fairly large codex that was quite a bit taller than it was wide. Thus it seems that (unless Cotton had exceptionally large hands) the codex in the engraving is not depicted to scale (and the proportions also seem off). Strangely, the reconstructed pages drawn for Weitzmann and Kessler’s edition do not reflect the proportions that they themselves calculated. Rather, they seem to be scaled down to the current (shrunken) size of the fragments. Their drawings thus leave the impression of a more square-ish appearance than the codex seems to have actually had before it was burned.

How exactly the codex came to England is also something of a mystery. The manuscript is generally believed to have been in Venice from the first half of the thirteenth century through the end of the fourteenth century. It is argued that the illustrations in the codex served as models for the mosaics in the atrium of the Basilica di San Marco and for the illustrations in the Histoire Universelle (Vienna Nationalbibliothek, cod. 2576). Its arrival in England can be located at some point before 1575, the date of the death of Thomas Wakefeld [Wakefield], the first Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge, whose signature was on the last leaf of the codex. How Wakefeld came into possession of the codex is not known, but a 2002 article by James Carley makes a good case that he probably received it from his brother, Robert Wakefeld, a fellow orientalist and also a known collector of ancient manuscripts. If that is true, it would push the date of the manuscript’s arrival in England back to 1537, the date of Robert’s death. Carley also offers plausible suggestions of how the codex might have come from Venice to Robert Wakefeld (either through the agency of either Richard Pace (c.1482-1536) or Reginald Pole, both associates of Robert Wakefeld known to have visited Venice and been in positions to acquire a book of the quality of the Cotton Genesis. But how the codex came to Venice in the first place is not known. Definitely still some mysteries here.

[[Update 18 August 2020: The catalogs of the Cotton Collection at the British Library have been digitized and put online.]]

Further reading:

Carley, James. “Thomas Wakefield, Robert Wakefield, and the Cotton Genesis.” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 12 (2002), pp. 246-265.

van der Meer, Gay. “Sir Robert Bruce Cotton and his Illuminated Genesis Manuscript.” Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (NKJ) / Netherlands Yearbook for History of
16 (1965), pp. 3-15.

Weitzmann, Kurt and Herbert L. Kessler. The Cotton Genesis: British Library Codex Cotton Otho B. VI. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

This entry was posted in Codices, Codicology, Cotton Genesis. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Cotton Genesis

  1. Hugh Houghton says:

    The opening words of the recto look to me like Genesis 44:1 (καὶ ἐνετείλατο Ιωσηφ τῷ ὄντι), which have been fitted neatly around the fingers …
    It’s more difficult to place the verso: I can find no instance of πρωτος in Genesis; the only instance of εκλεισεν is Genesis 7:16 (cf. 16:2 and 20:18, neither of which is is followed by δε ο πρωτος κατα του…).

    • Thanks for the observation. van der Meer gives the following text (based on the painting). It seems like the painter was skipping letters as needed and not really trying to keep to an actual sensible text:
      Verso (Gen. 43:33):
      ⲕⲉⲫ. ⲙⲅ.

      ἐκάθισαν δὲ (ἐναντίον αὐτοῦ) ὁ π-
      ρωτό(τοκο)ς κατὰ τὰ π(ρ)-
      ρεσ(β)εῖα αὐτοῦ (καὶ ὁ νεώτερος κατὰ τὴν νεότητα αὐτοῦ·) ἐ-
      (ξίσταντο δὲ οἱ ἄνθρωποι ἕκαστος πρὸς τὸν ἀδελφὸν) αὐτοῦ

      Recto (Gen.44:1)
      ⲕⲉⲫ. ⲙⲇ.

      Καὶ ἐνετείλατο
      Ιωσηφ τῷ
      ὄντι ἐπὶ τ-
      ῆς οἰκίας
      αὐτοῦ λέγων
      These lines are of course impossibly short for a codex like this. It all seems to be artistic license.

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