Gospels in Gothic, Icelandic, Swedish, and Latin, 1671

Stockholm: Nicolaus Wankif, 1671

Title page

Title page

Added Frontispiece

The Goths were the first Germanic tribes to embrace Christianity and the first to have a Bible translation in their own language. This translation, which predates by many centuries all literary texts in other Germanic languages, is ascribed to the missionary Bishop Ulfilas (311-382), who also created the Gothic alphabet by combining Greek, Latin, and runic characters. Only eight fragmentary manuscripts of the Gothic translation survive and they date from the fifth and sixth centuries. Between them, these manuscripts preserve a few fragments from the Old Testament, extensive portions of the Four Gospels, and fragments from the Pauline Epistles. By far the longest and most important among them is the Codex Argenteus, a sumptuous manuscript written on purple-colored parchment in silver ink with gold initials, probably for Theodoric the Great (454-526), the king of the Ostrogoths. In its original form the codex had 336 leaves and included the entire text of the Four Gospels. Only 188 leaves survive.

In its truncated form the Codex Argenteus was brought to Prague by Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) in the 1580s. In 1648, during the last months of the Thirty Years War, it was taken as booty to Sweden and became the property of Queen Christina. Upon her abdication in 1654, Christina gave the Codex to her former librarian and friend, Isaak Vossius (1618-89), who took it to Holland. There Franciscus Junius the Younger (François du Jon, 1589-1677), a relative of Vossius’, studied and transcribed the manuscript and published it at his own expense in 1665. By that time, the Codex was back in Sweden.  Count Magnus Gabriel de La Gardie (1622-85), Christina’s former Chancellor and a preeminent Swedish aristocrat, had purchased it in 1662. The wandering manuscript found a permanent home only in 1669, when de La Gardie had it sumptuously bound in silver and presented it to the University of Uppsala.

The book described here is the first Swedish edition of the Codex Argenteus and includes, in parallel columns, the Gospel texts in Gothic, Icelandic, Swedish, and Latin. Its editor, the Swedish scholar and poet Georg Stjernhjelm (1598-1672), prefaced the biblical text with a dissertation on the origin of languages and quoted the Lord’s Prayer in Latin and in seven Romance languages, starting with Italian and ending with Romanian. This was the first Romanian text available in Western Europe.

In the copy described here, the title page is preceded by an engraving that was probably added before the end of the seventeenth century. It is a copy of the scene depicted on the front cover of the Codex Argenteus. The image was designed by the Swedish artist David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl (1628-98) and was engraved by Dionysius Padtbrugge (or Padt-Brugge, 1628-83). In the upper register two cherubs support a Latin inscription proclaiming the role of Chancellor Magnus de La Gardie in reviving Ulfilas and restoring him to his own country, Sweden: Ulphila redivivus et patriae restitutus cura M(agni) Dela Gardie R(egni) S(ueciae) Cancellarii 1669. A banner to the right alludes to Isaiah 40, the chapter that begins with the words “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,” and then quotes the phrase Verbum Domini manet in aeternum (“the word of the Lord endures forever” 1 Peter 1:25), the battle cry of the Reformation. Below the banner two slightly smaller cherubs have already lifted a curtain to reveal Bishop Ulfilas in his study with an open book. In the lower register Father Time removes a gravestone and the literally naked Truth emerges holding open the Codex Argenteus.

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