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The Maccabees of St. Gall

By Theodore K. Rabb
11/16/2017 • MHQ Magazine

Ninth-century Benedictine monks created a beautifully illustrated account of the Jewish revolt of 174 BC.

In the modern imagination, the medieval knight is a glamorous figure. No other warrior in Western history seems so admirable, so devoted to causes beyond the nasty realities of the battlefield. Dressed in shining armor, astride a magnificent horse, he carries his lady’s favor and embodies a chivalric ideal that to this day suggests courtesy and high-mindedness. His life, it seems, was surrounded by ritual: colorful tournaments at which he honed his skills, religious ceremonies that endowed his mundane pursuits with an aura of divine justification.

The reality was far less alluring. The discomforts and ordeals of medieval warfare are well documented, and the knight himself, almost always illiterate, has been exposed as rarely chivalrous. Thus the sparing of a fellow knight’s life was less an act of gallantry than a means of exacting a hefty ransom. It may be, however, that the view of this mounted warrior as the epitome of valor owes more than a little to the image he enjoyed among the artists of his day. For those artists, notably in the Bayeux Tapestry [see “The War-Torn History of the Bayeux Tapestry,” MHQ, Winter 2010], the knight was a splendid and colorful figure, a vivid instrument for portraying great events. And this was even the case, as we shall see, within the sheltered confines of a monastery’s walls.

There are plenty of battle scenes in the manuscripts monks produced, and even some in church stained-glass windows. They reflect the practices of the armies of the day—knights on horseback, foot soldiers, archers, and sieges— and on occasion they purport to show contemporary conflicts, such as crusaders besieging Jerusalem. In these instances, however, and in the majority of the images, it is the religious rather than military purpose that holds sway. Indeed, in many examples, the illustrated scene is taken from a story in the Bible. Thus the remarkable Maciejowski Bible, produced in Paris in the mid-13th century, is filled with extraordinarily detailed paintings of military events in the Old Testament. The miniatures show the Israelite army as a medieval force whose knights slice enemies in two, whose foot soldiers besiege walled towns with catapults and ladders, and whose archers rain arrows down on defenders. Since this is a holy book, the artist can idealize warfare as fought in a sacred cause.

Of the many manuscripts that address the topic of war, however, perhaps the most unexpected is one produced 350 years before the Maciejowski Bible: a copy of the First Book of Maccabees illustrated in the great Benedictine Abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland sometime in the 9th and early 10th centuries. Unlike the Maciejowski Bible, which covers many subjects, this manuscript focuses almost exclusively on warfare, and—at least in the West—seems to have been the first extended visual treatment of this theme since antiquity.

The first book of the Maccabees, a Hebrew text usually regarded as an Apocryphal book (that is, not part of the official canon) of the Old Testament, was written at the beginning of the first century BC. It tells the story of Judea, home of the Israelites, following the death of Alexander the Great. The Seleucid Empire, centered in Babylonia, was one of the successor states that arose after Alexander died, and it controlled Judea from the late fourth century BC well into the first.

But in the second century its ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, sought to forbid Jewish religious practices. The result was a 40-year revolt, beginning in 174 BC, during which an Israelite state was established in Judea that lasted until the Roman conquest in the next century. Naturally, this came to be seen as a heroic time, and the family that led the revolt, the Maccabees, was celebrated in several accounts, including the First Book of the Maccabees written in Hebrew and others written in Greek, Arabic, and Syriac, a form of Aramaic. To this day, the festival of Hanukkah commemorates these victories.

A monk working in the scriptorium of St. Gall who wanted to depict soldiers in action would have found the Maccabees an ideal subject. Virtually every chapter recounts the events of a drawn-out war, offering far more military scenes to illustrate than another famous manuscript produced in these years at St. Gall, the so-called Golden Psalter, which includes some details of King David’s wars.

That the subject of warfare may have been on the minds of the monks at this time is not surprising. The monastery was a rich and powerful fortress that dominated the surrounding area, and it was a favorite target of the Magyars, a Central Asiatic tribe rampaging through Europe in the 10th century. Ancestors of the modern Hungarians and distant relatives of the Finns, the Magyars operated mainly in central Europe but ranged as far as France in the west and Italy in the south. Between 924 and 933, they repeatedly threatened St. Gall, though they never captured the abbey, whose territory went on to become an independent polity and eventually one of the cantons in the Swiss Confederation.

Still, the Magyar threat was direct, and just before a determined assault in 926, all the manuscripts in the monastery, including the Book of Maccabees, were moved for safekeeping to a Benedictine house on an island in Lake Constance in southern Germany, out of reach of the land-based Magyars. Scholars have suggested that some of the illustrations were not completed until after the transfer, but the consensus seems to be that the work was far advanced by 926. We can never know which monks produced it, but their interpretation of the battle from the shelter of the monastery makes theirs a unique contribution to the many-sided story of artists’ reactions to war.

Though not long—just more than 900 verses—the book features 30 full-page illustrations. Given its tangential importance to any Christian spiritual mission, one almost has to conclude that it provided an excuse for the depiction of warfare. And in using familiar elements of their environment to portray unknown costumes, weaponry, and architecture in a faraway time and place, the illustrators tell us as much about 10th-century European warfare as they do about the story of the Maccabees: Ten of the miniatures, in particular, offer vivid and dramatic evocations of the combat that swirled around the Abbey of St. Gall.

The first miniature shows two scenes. At the bottom of the page, Antiochus gives the order to march forth, and above him we see the first onslaught of the siege: Archers shoot their elegant arrows, knights with raised shields charge, soldiers with shields man the defenses (probably of Jerusalem), and at the foot of the redoubtable walls lies the first Seleucid casualty—who may be represented as a Magyar. The decorations on the shields, especially the brilliant colors, are a trademark of the artist or artists. On the overleaf, large contingents of the Israelite army, with the decorated domes of Jerusalem—probably modeled on St. Gall—behind them, watch Mattathias, the patriarch of the Maccabee clan, perform two executions: He beheads a captured enemy commander, and he kills one of the Jews who has accepted the Seleucid decree to abandon Jewish practices and holds the unclean epitome of such faithlessness—a strikingly lively pig.

A few folios later, we come to the first open-field battle. We have reached the fourth chapter, and Judah Maccabee, son of Mattathias (who has now died), sets out at the head of an army. As the text notes: “So they joined battle, and the heathen being discomfited fled into the plain. Howbeit all the hindmost of them were slain with the sword: for they pursued them.” And that is what we see on a verso (left-hand page). As the soldiers on the right begin to flee, looking behind them, the knights on the left advance. Casualties, some upside down, fall off horses; other horses rear back, and some collapse. An abandoned shield lies on the ground. A central figure, perhaps Judah himself, accounts for more than one victim.

The scene conveys, in a few strokes, both calamity and victory. Moreover, the story continues on the recto (right-hand page) opposite. On the upper half, the charge and the rout continue; the casualties cascade down the page. And in the lower half, the triumphant Israelites celebrate. It was said that “they sang a song of thanksgiving,” but in the drawing they also wave long, thin fronds in a kind of victory dance.

Following his victory, Judah re- captured Jerusalem. The Book of Maccabees says merely that the Temple had been defiled and that Judah cleansed it. But the artist clearly knew his Old Testament, and although he himself must have been surrounded by holy statuary, he has Judah perform this task by tearing down small sculptures obviously intended to represent idols. But even this scene occupies only half a page; above it, we are treated once again to knights charging at defended walls—presumably Jerusalem just before it fell.

Several pages later, to change gear, the miniature shows the scene, described in Maccabees chapter 5, when Judah relieved an Israelite city and a siege failed. Now the troops are fleeing the walls and succumbing as knights charge out of the city’s gate. And on the facing page we have the scene described a few verses later. Once again we see the advancing and retreating knights, and the casualties among the defeated, but this time a body of water bisects the battlefield. The text has given the artist the chance to show his versatility by incorporating the terrain that is described in the passage.

As he moves into chapter 6, the painter shows another failed siege, this time by Antiochus himself, and again an evocation of city walls and knights charging and retreating. But a few folios later he has the opportunity to try something new, for the book describes the appearance of elephants on the battlefield. Though he can never have seen the animal, the artist rises to the occasion, and in particular depicts the heroism of a soldier named Eleazar, who crept under an elephant and killed it with his spear. The animal’s collapse, which crushed Eleazar to death, is left to the imagination, but the artist’s close hewing to the text—despite the exotic intrusion that took him far from 10th-century Switzerland—remains consistent.

And there is a final masterpiece to come. In the only two-page spread meant to be seen as a single illustration, we have another battle. This time the Israelite knights on the left charge with lances at the ready. Below them, casualties already lie on the ground. And on the facing page, above further casualties, is a body of knights in full retreat. Some look backward, and one even holds his lance to the rear. But there can be no doubt that these are two halves of the same picture. The artist has transcended his usual one-page illumination to create a scene of violent action, triumph, and fear. That he should have created such an image of battle from the secluded vantage point of a remote monastery makes his manuscript a unique contribution, not just to the history of warfare but also to the cultivation of the image of the knight.


Originally published in the Fall 2011 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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