The beati manuscripts
The Beati of Liébana, or simply the Beati, occupy an place of honour in book illumination throughout the Spanish and European Middle Ages. Most of these volumes are richly illustrated manuscripts with commentaries on the Apocalypse of Saint John written in the 8th century by the monk known as the Beatus of Liébana. Their impact and dissemination made these works basic books in the spirituality of the 10th and 11th centuries, although copies would proliferate for over 500 years.
From the perspective of the 21st century, the text of those commentaries is a mere pretext for portentous images that have constituted one of the most brilliant chapters in the history of universal art. With very vivid, sometimes even violent colouring, which, despite the period, could almost be described as Fauvist, they are one of the best expressions of the heart-rending experience of the Hispanic soul in its lengthy struggle against Islam.
In the 1970s, the great author José Camón Aznar, commenting on the miniatures of one of the copies of these Beati, said: “Before I begin, I must express my emotion at being confronted with the most mysterious and terrible book of all those that have been written”. A little later, he declared that from that expressive and grandiose period of the art of the Beati, one would have to jump to Goya, and then from Goya to Picasso, to find another moment of such expressive force, of such originality and as sublime as that represented by these codices.
Of those medieval centuries, only 22 complete or almost-complete illuminated codices survive today, together with a small number of fragments and a very small number of unilluminated copies.