Early Portrayal of Plants

by Jutta Buck

with Cynthia Rice

The oldest surviving illustrated manuscript, the Codex Vindebonensis, dates from 512, and is now in the National Library at Vienna. This magnificent example of botanical art exhibits a standard in plant drawing unsurpassed for nearly a thousand years. The Codex was made in Constantinople in 472 for Juliana Anica, the daughter of Flavius Anicus Olybrius, Emperor of Byzantium. The work is mainly a copy of De Materia Medica compiled in Rome about 60 AD by the Greek physician Dioscorides. The illustrations in this Codex are considered exceptional for their naturalism.  Excerpts from other important herbals written between 100 and 500 AD were included in the Codex.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                     Portrait of Dioscorides

Another early and influential work was the Latin herbal of Apuleius Platonicus, which contained medical formulas assembled from Greek sources around 400. The original is lost but the earliest known copy, at Leiden, dates from the seventh century. The Codex Vindebonensis and De Materia Medica,, translated from Greek into Latin in the sixth century, were the main works of botanical knowledge for centuries to come. They were copied and recopied throughout the Middle Ages with a persistent decline in quality, which continued almost until the end of the fourteenth century.

The herbal of Apuleius was probably translated into Anglo-Saxon around the year one thousand. The British Museum owns a manuscript entitled Cotton Vitellius, which dates from the middle of the eleventh century. Another manuscript, written and illustrated at the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds (c.1120) survives at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Although many of the drawings are primitive, a few are pleasingly naturalistic. The reason for this curious divergence in style may be that the Apuleian manuscript illustrated Mediterranean herbs and plants, not then known in Northern Europe, whereas the monk who illustrated the Bury St. Edmunds Manuscript accurately drew some of the plants he knew from the Abbey’s garden.

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  • Arum maculatum from the Codex Vindobonensis, Constantinople, ca 512. Watercolor and bodycolor on vellum. National Library, Vienna
  • Daucus carota (carrot) from the Codex Vindobonensis, Constantinople, ca 512. Watercolor and bodycolor on vellum. National Library, Vienna