Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


The Bible of the Poor - Laurel Gasque

The Bible of the Poor: An Example of Medieval Interpretation and Its Relevance Today[1]

by Laurel Gasque

“You have given the Bible back to me!” This comment came from a graduate student, who was nearing the completion of a degree in theology, at the end of a course I taught called “Biblical Themes in Art.” The course featured and, in fact, was anchored in a systematic study of the entire Biblia Pauperum (or The Bible of the Poor). I am reminded of my student’s remark every time I prepare to teach a course that covers a considerable amount of biblical content. It is perhaps the most significant comment I have received in 25 years of teaching in higher education. It thrills me that this student had literally fallen in love again with the biblical text; it distresses me that, after nearly three years of theological education, scripture had ceased to intrigue her.

My student’s situation is symptomatic of people who think they know the Bible and its cultural import, but, in fact, do not. When we are able to read and see it afresh, without imposing on it too many of our own preconceptions, the Bible is a strange and disconcerting book. Believers tend to domesticate its strangeness by staying with familiar texts or by neglecting to ask questions about what is not in a text. The Bible is compact and terse and, yet, complex. Secularist academics often seem to think they know its contents simply by being participants in Western culture and, thus, dismiss its content without reading it. The Bible is available everywhere in dozens of translations and hundreds of special editions, but biblical literacy is waning, even amongst the churched.

It is ironic that, in the face of a multiplicity of contemporary biblical translations and editions, there is a declining knowledge of the Bible. By investigating the medieval world of thought, an exegetical land foreign to most of us, we may break free of the chronological captivity of our own age and, thereby, come to a better understanding of our own times and dynamics in order to perceive meaning in both the biblical text and contemporary cultural life. Exploring the Middle Ages can enhance our appreciation and appetite for Scripture while giving us at least one hermeneutical key to understanding some of the greatest artistic achievements of Western culture. Also, it can allow us to experience an engagement of our imaginations with holy writ and present us with a non-simplistic application of biblical teaching to our understanding of life today.


The Bible of the Poor

Rather than discuss various examples from medieval texts, this study is anchored in one of the most popular printed books of the late Middle Ages—The Biblia Pauperum, or The Bible of the Poor. Still accessible by its pictorial structure, it was a descendant of manuscript ancestors created in monasteries in earlier centuries. The Biblia Pauperum (literally, “books of the poor” and frequently simply called “The Bible of the Poor”) refers to a type of book, rather than to one particular book. It is not a Bible as such, nor could it ever be substituted for one. Its popularity in the Middle Ages is evidenced by the 83 examples, with texts in either Latin or German, that exist today. It probably originated in Germany or the Netherlands[2] and, in fact, many of its earlier (mainly, fourteenth-century) manuscripts are still extant.[3]

The meaning of its title is ambiguous. Biblia Pauperum could refer to its extensive use by “poor” or “lesser” clergy. However, Avril Henry compellingly argues that the title refers to the book’s purpose—that it is to be meditated on by the “poor in spirit.”[4] Its format consists of 40 pages of typological triptychs composed of both images and words—a highly compressed and selective telling of salvation history. Most of the explanatory texts come from scripture. The events and persons depicted are biblical, except for the few derived from the Apocrypha and the Apocryphal New Testament. The first 34 pages focus on the life of Christ from the Annunciation to the Ascension. Pages 35 and 36 represent Pentecost and the coronation of the Virgin. Finally, pages 37-40 depict the soul’s relationship with God after death and consist of “Four Last Things”: the last judgment, hell, Christ’s gathering of the saved, and Christ giving the crown of eternal life.

The design of each page comprises three panels, four figures, and nine texts (including both biblical and interpretive comments). The central panel contains an antitype (usually a New-Testament subject) while the side panels contain types (usually Old-Testament subjects) which foreshadow or prefigure the antitype. The four figures represent the prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah. Thus, for example, on the first page the central focus is the Annunciation (antitype) from Luke 1. At the left and right of the middle panel are the types: Eve and the serpent (Gen 3:14—“She shall crush your head and you will lie in wait for her heel”) and Gideon with his fleece (Judg 6:36-40—where Gideon prays for a sign of victory in the fleece being filled with a fall of dew). The prophetic figures located above the panels are Isaiah (Isa 7:14—“A virgin shall conceive and bear a son”) and David (Ps 72:6 [71:6 Vulgate]—“[The Lord] shall descend like rain on a fleece”). The prophetic figures below the panels are Ezekiel (Ezek 44:2—“This gate shall be shut and not be opened”) and Jeremiah (Jer 31:22—“The Lord has created a new order of things on earth: woman is to be the protector of man”). The dynamic combination of all these persons and events, as well as portions of nine texts, immediately stimulates the mind to question: how are they all related to the Annunciation and to each other?


Interpreting The Bible of the Poor

Clearly, The Bible of the Poor is not a simple picture book designed to instruct the illiterate or the young; rather, it is a highly complex document that requires sophisticated analytic and literary skills and sustained concentration in order to be comprehended. This fact helps to put to rest the remarkably tenacious misconception that in the Middle Ages the visual arts were meant to instruct the illiterate, who supposedly were able to “read” the facades of cathedrals. Avril Henry points out, “Little medieval art is merely instructive [and] pictures in this mode only ‘instruct’ if you already know what they mean.” Henry goes on to point out that illiteracy and ignorance need not be synonymous.  We fail to recognize how common it once was to learn aurally through storytelling and sermons.[5]

It is impossible to determine the original purpose of The Bible of the Poor. Regardless, it exhibits a remarkable tension between familiar and unfamiliar texts and images that intrigue and invite the viewer to explore the text from within (rather than simply observe it externally). The book is an amazing structure for allowing “the word of Christ to dwell in [one] richly” (Col 3:16). Every page has twelve components to watch by the hours of the day, and its forty pages make it conducive to conscientious Lenten meditation.  Whatever the initial intent, it serves to structure thinking in a way that leads to illumination by both intellectual discovery and practical piety.    

Of course, the patterns and tradition of fulfillment exegesis long preceded the creation of the Biblia Pauperum. Typology as distinguished from allegory (where parallels between subjects and events are strict and without extraneous elements) is deeply embedded in the biblical text itself. At the core of the New Testament is the theme of fulfillment, abounding with references and parallels to the Hebrew Bible. Early Christians loved to read Genesis in light of the coming of Christ. “Just as sin came into the world through one man [Adam] … the free gift in the grace of one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many” (Rom 5:12, 15). Paul calls Adam “a type of the one who was to come” (Rom 5:14) and points out that “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor 15:22). The first Adam “became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor 15:45). Regarding Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness, Paul is quick to point out that the rock they drank from was Christ (1 Cor 10:4), and he goes on to say that “these things occurred as types for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor 10:6).

Modern readers tend to overlook how frequently fulfillment exegesis informs the writers of the New Testament. The early Christians inherited the Hebrew Bible (God’s promises) from Israel, but the apostles’ teachings (as recorded in the traditions concerning Jesus that were eventually recorded in the fourfold gospel and the letters of instruction by Paul, Peter, and other early leaders) gave them the hermeneutical key to understanding the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Jesus himself had given them this interpretive key when, “beginning with Moses [the Pentateuch] and all the prophets [the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures], he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27).

In the midst of the diversity of writers and documents, the New-Testament emphasis is on the unity of Scripture and history. There is only one God, as there is only one Saviour, Jesus Christ. There is only one way of salvation. What God has done in the past (the Old-Testament story and experience), he continues to do in the present (beginning with the advent, life, teaching, and passion of Christ and continuing through the preaching and experience of the Church). Key Old-Testament persons and events (types) find their counterparts in the New Testament (antitypes). Thus, images, individuals, and events from Jewish history (Adam, Moses, the events of the exodus, David, Son of Man (Dan 7), servant (Isa 53), righteous sufferer, the Levitical ritual with its priesthood and sacrificial system, rejected stone, Melchizedek, and a host of lesser known images) are types that find their fulfillment in Jesus.[6]

Furthermore, typological interpretation, from the early Fathers (such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen) to the doctors of the Church (Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory) to the schoolmen to the Reformation, defined exegesis until relatively modern times. Augustine, loved by the Reformers, adhered to an understanding that “the New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old is fulfilled in the New.”[7]     

From the beginning of its development, Christian art has also been typological. Striking examples, derived principally from the Hebrew Bible, include the numerous images of the Good Shepherd and of Jonah in early catacomb frescoes (some of which pre-date the closure of the canon of the New Testament). The Good Shepherd images correspond beautifully with Jesus’ discourse on the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:7-8) and with the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7). Jesus himself compared the three days that Jonah spent in the belly of the great fish with the three days and three nights that the Son of Man would be in the heart of the earth (Matt 12:40). As the most frequently represented story in early Christian funerary art, the Jonah story seamlessly suggests not only Jesus’ victory over death, but also the hope of the resurrection for all who believe in him.

Works such as the Biblia Pauperum did not invent a method of interpretation, but served to disseminate, systematize, and deepen the prevailing method of engaging the Scriptures as well as biblically oriented works of art during the Middle Ages. The Altar of Nicholas of Verdun, made in 1181, is one of the greatest medieval works of art. The upper register of the altar clearly consists of Old-Testament subjects/types from the time prior to the giving of the Law (ante-legem). The lower register depicts Old-Testament subjects/types that came after the Law (sub-lege). The middle register delineates New-Testament subjects/antitypes (sub-gratia) that follow the life of Jesus Christ from his birth, to the Ascension, and then through to Pentecost, the Resurrection, and the Last Judgment. At the exact middle of the altar is the crucifixion, which fulfills the plan of salvation history. It is not by accident that this great work stands in the midst of an Augustinian monastery in Klosterneuberg, Austria.


The Bible of the Poor as a Means of Authentic Exegesis

Since the eighteenth century and the rise of grammatical-historical criticism, there has been a high degree of suspicion regarding the figural reading of Scripture. The conflict between Johann August Ernesti and J.S. Bach is an illuminating example. Ernesti is a noted classicist who published the Institutio interpretis Novi Testamenti in 1761 and served on the faculty of St. Thomas School in Leipzig with J. S. Bach. Ernesti represented the new approach that, in due course, came to dominate later Protestant and even Catholic exegesis. Bach took strong exception to this reductive hermeneutic.  Today, a few historians of theology may occasionally refer to the work of Ernesti, while millions of Christians and others thrill to the celebration of God’s promises and fulfillments in the musical work of Bach.[8]

The most serious charge is that this kind of interpretation is supersessionist. In other words, in this way of reading the Scriptures the Church completely supersedes and displaces Israel in the biblical story, resulting in discrimination and crime against Judaism and Jews. This criticism must be addressed. Can Christians interpret the Hebrew Bible in a way that respects the religious identity and historical reality of Jews and, by extension, all human beings? How do we as Christians fashion our identity authentically without diminishing the identity of others, especially Jews? On the surface, the typological reading of The Bible of the Poor effaces the significance of a historical people (Luke 24; the apostle Paul in many places), suppressing Israel’s significance and saying that its history was only important and valuable for its Christian fulfillment. This important and involved discussion should not be minimized or swept away.

A great deal of confusion exists in distinguishing allegorical reading from typological reading. The two types of readings are regularly confounded and can be addressed at length. What is pertinent to this discussion, however, is that words can change meaning and thereby nullify their former meaning (which happens in allegory). Words can also expand meaning while retaining their literal meaning (as happens in typological or figural interpretation). This is the distinction that Quintilian, the Roman rhetorician, made between tropes and figures. The former altered meaning while the later augmented meaning. Tropes replaced literal meaning with non-literal meaning while figures preserved literal meaning as they generated new meaning.[9] Dawson’s exposition of the exegesis of Origen and the reading of this great theologian’s works is important for an understanding of these matters. Dawson brings forth Origen’s thoughts as exquisitely subtle and relevant. Origen understood the Scriptures in a way that avoided effacing the literal meaning of the Hebrew Bible and extended its meaning to our personal transformation as we participate in the unfolding of salvation history. Putting ourselves under the tutelage of the figural reading of The Bible of the Poor is one of the best ways to acquire a participative, yet literal and historical way of reading the biblical text.

Above, I have cited the Verdun Altar, one of the greatest artistic works of the high Middle Ages. We should also consider the Sistine Chapel, one of the most renowned works of the Renaissance. From the Neoplatonic to the psychoanalytic, theories of interpretation of the Sistine Chapel abound. At a basic level, the whole interior can be read as a grand, visual example of fulfillment and figural exegesis. For all his reluctance to tackle the job of painting the vault of the Sistine Chapel at Pope Julius II’s insistence, Michelangelo did not eschew the work of his fifteenth-century predecessors (such as Botticelli, Rosselli, Signorelli, and others) who had painted the lower walls of the chapel.  It was probably a combination of theological direction and typological thinking that inspired Michelangelo to paint the “prequel” to the contrasting sets of paintings of the life of Moses and the life of Christ on the lower walls. Powerfully, Michelangelo took the story of redemption back and back (even painting it in reverse order) to the beginning of creation, so that the story could be unfolded forward again through the Noahic, Abrahamic, and Davidic covenants and, thereby, linked with the already depicted Mosaic and New Covenants painted on the lower levels of the chapel walls. In order to make it absolutely clear that this was a narrative of fulfillment, the roof is ringed by the powerful figures of the prophets and sibyls (the latter representing the prophetic utterances of pagan aspirations for fulfillment).

The Biblia Pauperum makes accessible medieval exegetical understanding more readily than abstract discourse on the subject. Far more than merely giving helpful tools to investigate the iconographical programs of great literature and works of art of the past, a study of the Biblia Pauperum offers a pleasurable process of learning and experiencing how earlier Christians understood Scripture. Such study addresses issues of the present and the future—how we know and learn and how we transmit what we know and have learned to future generations. As well, it raises questions about how we realize our own Christian identity in the here and now.


Knowing that Ignites and Satisfies

If Scripture relates only what happened in the past and simply states a memory of the past, why should it be of compelling importance presently? These are questions that we do not often ask. There is conflict within society about what it means to know. Post-modernity and related discussion continues to proliferate, along with intellectual insolence and presumptuousness, dogmatism, and ideology. Some of us may indeed be called professionally to enter the formal forum of these matters. None of us can stand completely aloof from them. We all stand between the Scylla of modernity and the Charybdis of postmodernity. At the brink of being overrun by a gargantuan wave of monolithic reductionism, we are coming close to being swept into a whirlpool of fragmented multiplicity. On one hand, modernity gives us the illusion that we can know truth objectively. On the other hand, postmodernity fosters the arrogance that we create our own truth and knowledge. Depending on the generation, people either join one team or the other in this epistemological tug-of-war.

I mention this epistemological imbroglio only to argue that these are not our only options.  Works such as The Bible of the Poor disciple our thinking beyond the categories of objectivism or subjectivism to a participative way of knowing. This leads to a type of knowing that is personal and corrigible, humble and confident—a knowing that is founded on wisdom rather than cleverness. It quickens a deep longing that develops an awareness of the profundity of the Bible.      

The constraints of the historical-critical method of biblical criticism and its collusion with modernity inhibit a participative reading of Scripture and a wider, fertile way of knowing.  While this methodology has enormous value in considering the historical situation of the text, it violates the nature of the text it is interpreting.[10] On the other hand, making the text say whatever we want it to say is not acceptable, either. David L. Jeffrey helps us see the subtleties of experiencing scriptural disclosure:           

Scripture contains, then, besides its evident vocabulary, two syntaxes of disclosure. One is historical, tempus, by which we understand the sequence of statement and event. The other is in the imagination (ymagionem) creating or perceiving spiritual duratio by which we gather in the reflections of memory on the one hand and the projections of intention and dream on the other, turning them together toward interpretation and meaning. It is in the realm of this second “syntax” that we apprehend the form of Scripture, which also becomes the form of its present conversation in our experience in the here and now.[11]

A great spiritual hunger is upon us. We need real, organically grown, wholesome food from the bumper crop of Scripture that can make us strong and healthy intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. We need to come to the rich banquet of Christian tradition for an expansive meal instead of force-feeding ourselves on fast food diets of the latest theological, academic, and critical trends. We need to take responsibility, personally and publicly, in society and culture to become educated, humane, and cultivated in all that we do, feeding the future with goodness and renewal.

The Bible of the Poor is an example of exegesis congruent with Scripture that can coach and teach us about reading the biblical text while including us in the salvation story.  Through the Holy Spirit, who affirms the unique identity of Jesus and his identification with God the Father without compromising the historical and abiding spiritual significance of Israel, The Bible of the Poor can help us stabilize our Christian identity.  This medieval treasure allows us to explore the Bible and works of arts in a way that can ignite our intellects and imaginations even as it satisfies our souls.


[1] This lecture was originally presented as a fully illustrated PowerPoint presentation.   A “” search of images will produce a multitude of individual images from a variety of manuscripts.  Avril Henry, Biblia Pauperum: A Facsimile and Edition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987) is the best hard copy source and contains full annotations.  More readily available is The Bible of the Poor [Biblia Pauperum]: A Facsimile and Edition of the British Library Blockbook C.9.D.2, with translation and commentary by Albert C. Labriola and John W. Smelts (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1990).

[2]See Peter and Linda Murray, The Oxford Companion to Christian Art and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 57-58.

[3]See Avril Henry, Biblia Pauperum: A Facsimile and Edition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), pp. 4-8.

[4]Ibid., p. 18.

[5]Henry, Biblia Pauperum, pp. 17-18.

[6] See “Typology,” by Craig A. Evans in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (InterVarsity Press, 1992), 862-868; “Old Testament in Paul,” by Moises Silva, in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. by Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin (InterVarsity Press, 1993), 630-642; “Old Testament in Hebrews,” by G. H. Guthrie, in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, ed. by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (InterVarsity Press, 1997), 841-850.  A classic study of the subject is Typos: The Typology and Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New, by L. Goppelt (Eerdmans, 1982).

[7] “In Vetere Novum lateat, et in Novo Vetus pateat.”  Patrologia Latina, ed. J.P. Migne (XXXIV 625, 1844-64).  Quoted in Henry, Biblia Pauperum, pp. 10, 40.

[8]See Paul S. Minear, “J.S. Bach and J.A. Ernesti: A Case Study in Exegetical and Theological Conflict,” in Our Common History as Christians, ed. John Deschner, et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 131-155.

[9]See John David Dawson, Christian Figural Reading and the Fashioning of Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), p. 14.

[10]See David C. Steinmetz, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” Theology Today 37 (1980): 38.  

[11]David L. Jeffrey, People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p.191.