Many Christians think of the Middle Ages as the “dark ages,” when learning came to a halt and the truths of Scripture were largely lost to the common man and woman. This picture, however, doesn’t take in the medieval church’s great intellectual activity and artistic creativity.

And despite widespread illiteracy, the Bible played an important role in the faith of the ordinary believer. It wasn’t the printed word that imparted the key events and teachings of Scripture, but the visual word: mosaics, paintings, book illuminations, dramas, stained glass, and sculptures.

Illuminated Manuscripts

For those who could read, Bible manuscripts were available in Latin, some containing beautiful “illuminations” or illustrations of Bible stories and characters. Earlier manuscripts were the work of monks, but urban workshops of illustrators developed later when wealthier individuals began to demand their own copies of Bibles and other religious works.

Some of the most well-known examples come from the eighth-century Book of Kells (probably from the island of Iona), which has illustrations of biblical stories as well as portraits of the four evangelists. The Paris Psalter (Psalm book) of the tenth century includes an illustration of David’s repentance.

In the English Winchester Bible (1150–80), Saul’s death in battle is illustrated inside the large capital F, which begins the book of 2 Samuel. In the late Middle Ages, large Bibles and psalters were produced, filled with illustrations of characters and events.

Drama

One popular means of showing Bible stories was through drama. Three types were performed.

Mystery plays began as mini-plays that presented biblical topics during Easter. The Creed play, for instance, was divided into twelve pageants, ...

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