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Art and Text in the Vienna Genesis

Maureen Anne O’Brien, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Junior Fellow 2005–2006

I spent the 2005–2006 academic year researching and writing my dissertation on the Vienna Genesis. One of the world’s most famous codices, the Vienna Genesis comprises the Greek text of the Book of Genesis on the upper part of each page accompanied without exception by painted miniatures to the text on the lower half. Although a large volume of scholarship exists on the manuscript, research over the past sixty years has focused almost exclusively on finding evidence within the Vienna Genesis for lost models of illustrated manuscripts that might prove theories about the origins of Jewish and early Christian book illustration.

My dissertation takes a different approach and investigates the afterlife of the object rather than its origins. It returns to fundamental questions about the codicology and paleography of this purple-dyed manuscript and presents evidence that the Vienna Genesis is most likely a composite codex made up of a sixth-century manuscript and a fourth-century manuscript. I furthermore argue that this composite codex was extensively repainted in Renaissance Italy before it entered the Austrian imperial library in Vienna in the seventeenth century. The dissertation also examines the interesting relationship between the Vienna Genesis’ Greek text and its repainted images as well as considering its original function and possible place of production versus its possible use during the Renaissance. A final chapter discusses the contributions of Franz Wickhoff, who wrote the original facsimile commentary of the Vienna Genesis in 1895, to art historiography and to the field of narratology and considers how narratological analysis can be applied to the codex today. In the end, I am arguing that the Vienna Genesis is a miscellany, a composite group of fragments, a repainted pastiche, and a testament to the complex afterlife and reception history of early Christian codices rather than a means to understand the origins of manuscript illustration.