World’s oldest illustrated book fully restored and put up for display in Calabria, Italy


The Codex Purpureus Rossanensis or the Rossano Gospels pertain to the illuminated manuscript Gospel Book dating from 5th (or 6th) century AD, and they were possibly written during the period when Eastern Roman Empire triumphantly reconquered the Italian peninsula under the generalship of the great Belisarius. Now from the historical perspective, many scholars consider the Codex Rossanensis as the world’s oldest illustrated book, with its age almost corresponding to 1,600 years. And now, after an extensive period of three years of restoration, the fascinating manuscript is all set to be displayed at the place it was originally discovered by chance (in 1876) – the sacristy of Rossano Cathedral in Calabria, Italy.

The codex measuring 300 mm by 250 mm, mostly contains the text of the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark, entirely written in Greek with gold and silver ink. The textual scope is depicted on a purple dyed parchment (hence belonging to the category of the Purple Uncials), and it is accompanied by an illustrated series of Biblical episodes – all presented with the typically stylized Byzantine flair. Interestingly enough, in spite of the book’s copious credentials of 188 restored pages, it is generally conjectured that the Codex Purpureus Rossanensis possibly had a companion second volume that is still undiscovered.


Now as for the actual origin of the codex, while it corresponds to a period of Eastern Roman revival in Europe, the book itself was possibly written (by unknown authors) in Syria (maybe in Antioch). But this angle brings up the question – how did the illuminated manuscript end up in southern Italy? Well the answer lies in the realm of hypothesis – with the first one relating to how it was brought over by migratory wave of Eastern Greek monks. The second hypothesis pertains to a scenario where the codex was brought over by a noble aristocrat from the Eastern Roman Empire court.

Finally, coming to the scope of modern restoration, the book’s display room will comprise various hi-tech features, including temperature control and humidity regulation for mitigating external effects on the fragile pages. The exhibition is expected to commence from July 2. This is what Anna Russo, a spokesperson for the diocese of Rossano, had to say about the display project –

The book is the only one of its kind in the world and is of extraordinary historical, artistic and religious significance. We are expecting many national and international visitors, making the book’s exhibition important not just for our town but for the whole of Calabria.

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Via: The Local / EPA / Images Credit: ANSA

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