Manuel Moleiro has dedicated over 30 years of his working life to reproducing important codices.
Clones of illuminated manuscripts: from the Catholic Queen's prayer book to Alfonso X's favourite bible

Clones of illuminated manuscripts: from the Catholic Queen's prayer book to Alfonso X's favourite bible

Exclusive replicas of works locked away in the world's greatest libraries, including even the print of whoever thumbed through them hundreds of years ago, are on exhibition in Malaga

Regina Sotorrío

Friday, 3 May 2024, 14:55


They are exact replicas: on parchment of the same thickness, with the animal skin covers treated with the same techniques of old, even down to the holes left by a hungry moth a hundred years ago or the fingerprint mark left by some sultan as he leafed through its pages. It is said that they even smell like the originals. In Malaga they are on exhibition, kept safely behind glass in their display cases, so it is impossible to appreciate that odour.

Nevertheless, you can make out the delicate and lavish details that made these codices authentic treasures of knowledge and culture, these bound sets of manuscripts, the precursors to books that once occupied the libraries of kings and emperors and that now have been carefully cloned by M. Moleiro Editor, the specialist publishing house for facsimile books and codices. The Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País is exhibiting until 18 May at its headquarters in Malaga’s Plaza de la Constitución a selection of these exclusive and “invisible” replicas of the originals that so few get to see. The exhibition is entitled The Cabinet of Wonders. Illustrious codices (8th-16th centuries).

The Bible of Saint Louis.
The Bible of Saint Louis. S. Salas

The originals are now kept under lock and key in the Morgan Library in New York, the British Library in London, the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris, the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, the Russian library in St Petersburg and Toledo Cathedral. Manuel Moleiro’s team has travelled to all these places, and so many more, to replicate the likes of: the prayer book of Isabella the Catholic; the bible that Alfonso X the Wise treasured like a precious jewel; the treatise on happiness that Murad III had commissioned for the second-born of his 110 children; and the complete medieval treatise on the stars by the Arab astrologer Albumasar.

Such originals are priceless, both in monetary and cultural value, which makes them “excessively protected, so much so that they are inaccessible” to the general public. “If they were paintings they would be hung up on display. You would go to a museum, pay the entrance fee and view them. But this is different.” Some of these manuscripts “have never before been studied and their images have never been seen.”

In these papers and parchments is hidden the wisdom of centuries of history, knowledge accompanied by very precise and brilliant drawings, luxuriously illuminated with gold leaf. There are works dedicated to the perception of time, because people needed to know the cycles of life and to deal with the climate. There are reproductions of the codex known as the Hours of Henry IV (1510), with a golden background on all pages with text, and that of Charles of Angoulême (1485), illustrated by the French painter Robinet Testard. There are treatises on art and well-being, like The Pleasure of Women, from the late 18th century, a book from an area of modern-day Pakistan where the different types of women and the most favourable moments for love are described in Persian. Or The Book of Felicity, “the most illustrated in the Muslim world”, a meticulous work commissioned by Murad III to ensure his second daughter did not miss out on the very best advice available when choosing the best life partner.

Book of Felicity.
Book of Felicity. S. Salas

The exploring spirit of man is reflected in richly illustrated atlases, such as that of Vallard (1547) with 15 nautical charts, or Miller’s (1519), “one of the most famous examples of cartography in history”. The strong presence of faith and devotion in many medieval societies is evident in the wealth of religious manuscripts. There is the breviary (an abridged order of daily prayers) or simply known as the prayer book of Isabella the Catholic, the original of which ended up in the British Library in London after the assault on the Escorial by Napoleonic troops. They say that the queen was presented with the manuscript to commemorate the double marriage of her children to those of Emperor Maximilian of Austria. It is full of political details, with messages to her descendants and references to the conquest of Granada and the discovery of the Americas.

The treasure of the collection

Perhaps the greatest treasure among the collection is the Bible of St Louis (1226-1234), “the most lavish book ever created by human ingenuity”. It contains 4,887 different paintings that illustrate each passage of the biblical story. It was commissioned by Blanche of Castile, Queen of France and widow of Louis VIII, as a gift to her son Louis IX of France (eventually becoming Saint Louis). Some time later it would turn up in the library of Alfonso X The Wise (or Learned - nicknamed as such for being a very scholarly monarch). In his will, he wrote that it was a gift from his relative, the king of France, and he stipulated that it should only be given to whomever held power in Castile as it was a work made solely for kings.

Imagen principal - Clones of illuminated manuscripts: from the Catholic Queen's prayer book to Alfonso X's favourite bible
Imagen secundaria 1 - Clones of illuminated manuscripts: from the Catholic Queen's prayer book to Alfonso X's favourite bible
Imagen secundaria 2 - Clones of illuminated manuscripts: from the Catholic Queen's prayer book to Alfonso X's favourite bible

It took twelve years for that bible to be completed, and it took Manuel Moleiro six to create his copy. That is why it is known to be the most expensive piece in the collection on exhibition in Malaga with a market value of 22,000 euros. Other reproductions, such as The Genealogy of Christ, cost around 800 euros.

The first edition of the clones is on show here, but the publisher releases 987 or 777 copies of each replica. Everything has a reason: “Seven is perfection,” explains the editor. Perfection is his motto. A multidisciplinary team from the publishing house, with the agreement and permission from the institutions, copies and studies each codex, reproducing the content from high-quality photographs and procuring the right materials. Parchment and paper for the pages, velvet or leather for the covers.

“But they are made of skins not found in Europe, because here they are always tanned on an industrial level, with rapid production in which chemicals, chlorine and chromium are used... and that closes up the pores.” In their case, they obtain skins from countries where they are still worked in the old school ways of the artisan, involving long and time-consuming processes.

Moleiro emphasises the “contribution to culture” that his publishing house makes, cloning manuscripts so they can be studied in depth and originals replaced “where necessary”. In fact, his replica of the Bible of St Louis was the only non-original piece that was exhibited in the large exhibition that France dedicated to the saint for the 800th anniversary of his birth. The replicas of that bible are in Girona cathedral and in the Metropolitan in New York. And now, for a few days, also in the centre of Malaga (Monday to Friday, from 11am to 2pm and then from 6 to 9pm; Saturday from 11am to 2pm and from 5 to 9pm). English speakers might be pleased to know that there is an audio guide available in English.

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