The Gospels Manuscript of Tsar Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria
The Gospels Manuscript of Tsar Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria

By Lilyana Yordanova | École française d’Athènes


The Gospels of Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371) is a manuscript produced between 1355 and 1356 at the request of the ruler of the Second Bulgarian Tsardom. It contains 286 parchment leaves with the Four Gospels written in Cyrillic uncial, followed by a Menologion and Synaxaria, which were added in half-uncial between the second half of the 14th century and the initial decades of the 15th century. After the Ottoman conquest of the Bulgarian state in 1396, the Gospels manuscript found its way to Moldavia in the beginning of the 15th century.

Two hundred years later it came into the possession of St. Paul Monastery on Mount Athos, from where Robert Curzon, 14th Baron of Zouche (1810-1873), acquired it in 1837. Bequeathed by his family to the British Museum in 1917, the Gospels manuscript finally entered the collections of the British Library in 1973 with the shelf-mark Add. Ms. 39627.

A masterpiece of late medieval book production, the codex impresses with its lavish decoration of 367 miniatures, 6 of which depict the Bulgarian Tsar. Apart from the opening full-page portrait of Ivan Alexander’s family (ff. 2v-3r), the majority of images adopt a smaller, frieze format to accompany the evangelic texts. The latter are further enhanced by tables of contents with indications in gold and elaborated headpieces consisting of floral motives and depictions of Christ, the Evangelists and various prophets. The appropriation of Byzantine models can be clearly detected both in the miniatures and their layout. Another distinctive and rare feature of the manuscript is the ‘word maze’ on f. 273v which reads ιῶ алеξандра царѣ тетраваггел (‘Gospels of Ivan Alexander’). Only two other 14th-century Slavonic manuscripts include such a decorative element. According to the colophon, a now lost golden-plated book cover complemented the adornment of this exquisite object of piety and political affirmation (f. 274v).


From an art historical perspective, the study of the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander falls at the intersection of several seminal issues pertaining to the agency of objects, luxurious book production in the late Middle Ages and artistic exchanges across the Byzantine world.

The Gospels manuscript was copied at a key moment in the history of the Balkan Peninsula following the Byzantine civil war of 1341-47. What started as an internal conflict for the throne between the infant heir John V Palaiologos (r. 1341–91) and the megas domestikos (military commander-in-chief) John Kantakuzenos (r. 1347–54), had a lasting impact on the power balance between the neighboring Slavic countries in the following decade. Kantakuzenos’ success, achieved through an alliance with the Serbian ruler Stefan Dušan (r. 1331-55) and the Ottoman Bey Orhan (r. 1324-61?) undermined the position of John V and that of his ally Ivan Alexander. The Tsar proved unsuccessful in challenging the leading position of Dušan, who already in 1344 appropriated a part of the Bulgarian imperial title. He also missed out on settling matters with Kantakuzenos over a previous conflict. By the end of 1355, however, the course of events changed. Dušan suddenly died in December of that year, Kantakuzenos had already abdicated in 1354, while John V’s power was consolidated. According to a recent opinion, there is a correlation between Ivan Alexander’s renewed authority among Christian rulers in the Balkans and the commission of the Gospels manuscript that emphasizes visually his military, devotional, and intellectual qualities.

Previously considered as a work of the imperial scriptorium in the capital of Tarnovo, the codex rather displays similarities with the script and the ornamentation of contemporary Serbian manuscripts from Hilandar Monastery, including the Gospels Ms. 13, the Apostolos Ms. 46 and the Lectionary Ms. 17. At that time the Holy Mountain was a vibrant intellectual hub and an important center for book production. It could certainly have produced a manuscript of such ambition with the guidance of an experienced patron of the arts like Ivan Alexander to whom five more manuscripts can be attributed as well as the endowment of churches and monasteries in and outside the Tsardom.

As a part of the so-called “Paris Gr. 74 group”, the Gospels manuscript played a key role in the development of Byzantine imagery of power by adapting the latter to the needs of the Bulgarian political agenda and by disseminating successfully the enhanced iconographic formulae in the north-Danubian Romanian lands. Ivan Alexander’s commission could also be seen as the continuation of a more general interest that developed since the second half of the 13th century for archaizing manuscripts imitating the refined book production of the 10th and 11th century. As to Byzantium, this trend is exemplified by the miniatures of King David in Ms. Gr. 269 (St Petersburg, National Library, 13th century, second half) and in Palat. Ms. Gr. 381 [B] (Vatican Library, ca. 1300), as well as by the script and decoration of the manuscripts of the so-called ‘Palaiologina atelier’.

The 11th-century Gospels Paris Gr. 74 (Bibliothèque Nationale de France) offers the closest known parallel to the frieze images in the evangelic texts of the Bulgarian manuscript. Four miniatures placed at the end of each Gospel are specifically related to authority. They show the abbot of the Studios Monastery, for whom the Paris Gr. 74 was intended, in interaction with an evangelist. In the Bulgarian manuscript, the abbot’s figure is replaced by that of Ivan Alexander, transforming thus the Byzantine paradigm of religious authority into a display of political power and divine validation (ff. 86v, 134v, 212v, and 272v). The figure of the abbot was also supplanted by that of the Tsar in the Last Judgment scene on f. 124r. In so doing, the Bulgarian manuscript offered the sole depiction of a living ruler in Paradise as far as Byzantine art is concerned. In general, emperors form a distinctive group of praying figures at the foot of Christ’s throne or on the side of the sinners within the image of the Last Judgment.

The opening bi-folio family portrait featuring Ivan Alexander’s second wife, offspring and son-in-law, adheres to another tradition of Byzantine imagery related to dynastic portraiture as exemplified by the miniature of the Empress Eudocia and her two sons on f. Br in the Paris Gregory (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, gr. 510, 879-883) and that on f. 5r in the Barberini Psalter (Vatican, Barb. gr. 372, 11th century). The most noticeable difference is the inclusion of Ivan Alexander’s daughters. Usually, only male heirs accompany the image of the ruler.

The legacy of the Bulgarian Gospels manuscript north of the Danube River has been associated with three Wallachian and Moldavian codices so far: the Gospels Canonici Gr. 122 (Oxford, Bodleian Library, 1429), M 694 (New York, Morgan Library, 1492), and Suçeviţa 23 (Suçeviţa Monastery, 1568-1577). All three were produced for members of the ruling family in local workshops and contributed in enriching further the visual legacy of the wider Byzantine world.

Digitized Manuscripts

Add. MS 39627

Barberini Psalter, 

Bodleian Library MS. Canon. Gr. 122

M 694, Morgan Library

Paris Gospels Gr. 74 

Paris Gregory Gr. 

Palat. Ms. Gr. 381 

Further Reading

Fine, John V. A. The Late Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Late Twelfth Century to the Ottoman Conquest. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1987.

This publication provides a general overview of the history of the Balkan Peninsula between the late 12th and the late 15th centuries. Several sections deal with the Byzantine civil wars and the power struggles that ensued in Slavic countries in the mid-14th century.

Maxwell, Kathleen. “Illustrated Byzantine Gospel Books”. In A Companion to Byzantine Illustrated Manuscripts, edited by Vassiliki Tsamakda, 270–283. Leiden: Brill, 2017.

This chapter explores the important developments in the decoration of Byzantine Gospel Books that occurred between the 6th and the 15th centuries. It provides further bibliography on the above-mentioned “Palaiologina atelier.”

Popova, Tanja, and Heinz Miklas. Tetraevangelium des Zaren Ivan Aleksandar: Edition und Untersuchung. Vienna: Verlag Holzhausen, 2017.

This monograph includes an edition and a thorough paleographical, codicological, lexical, and art historiographical analysis of the Gospels manuscript of Ivan Alexander.

Spatharakis, Ioannis. The Portrait in Byzantine Illuminated Manuscripts. Leiden: Brill, 1976.

This is the most complete inventory to date of illuminated portraits classified by types of manuscript.

Yordanova, Lilyana. “The Story Behind the Image: The literary patronage of Tsar Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria between ostentation and decline.” In Late Byzantium Reconsidered: The Arts of the Palaiologan Era in the Mediterranean, edited by Andrea Mattiello and Maria Alessia Rossi, 193–206. New York: Routledge, 2019.

This article offers a comparative analysis of the visual and written strategies of two illuminated manuscripts commissioned by Tsar Ivan Alexander in respect to the political context of their creation: the illustrated Bulgarian copy of the Chronicle of Constantine Manasses (Vatican Library, cod. Slavo 2) and the Gospels.


Lilyana Yordanova, "The Gospels Manuscript of Tsar Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,