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A gallery of birds from folio 483v of the Vienna Dioscorides

The Vienna Dioscurides or Vienna Dioscorides is an early 6th-century illuminated manuscript of De Materia Medica by Dioscorides in Greek. It is an important and rare example of a late antique scientific text. The 491 vellum folios measure 37 by 30 cm and contain more than 400 pictures of animals and plants, most done in a naturalistic style.

In addition to the text by Dioscorides, the manuscript has appended to it the Carmen de herbis attributed to Rufus, a paraphrase of an ornithological treatise by a certain Dionysius, usually identified with Dionysius of Philadelphia, and a paraphrase of Nicander's treatise on the treatment of snake bites.

The manuscript was created in about 515 and was made for the Byzantine princess Juliana Anicia, the daughter of Emperor Anicius Olybrius. Although it was originally created as a luxury copy, there is some indication that in later centuries it was used daily as a hospital textbook. It includes some annotations in Arabic.

The manuscript was discovered in Instanbulmarker in the 1560s by the Flemish diplomat Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq who was in the employ of Emperor Ferdinand I. The Emperor bought the manuscript and it is now held in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothekmarker in Viennamarker.


The manuscript has 383 extant full-page illustrations of plants out of the original 435 illustrations. The illustrations fall into two groups. There are those that faithfully follow earlier classical models and present a quite naturalistic illustration of each plant. There are also other illustrations that are more abstract. The majority of the illustrations were painted in a naturalistic style so as to aid a pharmacologist in the recognition of each plant. However, it is believed that these illustrations were made as copies of an earlier herbal and were not drawn from nature.
Rose-hips (?)
In addition to the illustrations of the text, the manuscript contains several frontispieces in the form of a series of full-page miniatures. Of special note is the dedication miniature portrait of Anicia Julia on folio 6 verso. (See here.) The manuscript was presented to Anicia out of gratitude for her funding the construction of a church in the suburbs of Constantinoplemarker. This portrait is the oldest extant dedication portrait. The portrait has Anicia seated in a ceremonial pose distributing alms. She is flanked by personifications of Magnanimity and Prudence. At her feet, another personification, labeled "Gratitude of the Arts", kneels. A putto holds a dedication copy up to Anicia. Anicia and her attendants are enclosed within an eight-point star within a circle all formed of intertwined rope. Within the outer spandrels of the star are putti, done in grisaille, working as masons and carpenters. This miniature is an altogether original creation and, with the inclusion of the personifications and the putti, shows the endurance of the classical tradition in Constantinople, despite the fact that Anicia herself was a pious Christian.

The series of frontispieces in the manuscript begins with two full-page miniatures, each having a group of seven noted pharmacologists. In the second picture (folio 3 verso, see here), the most prominent and only one sitting on a chair is Galen. He is flanked by three pairs of other physicians, seated on stones or the ground. Closest to Galen are Crateuas and Dioscurides. The second pair are Apollonius Mys and Nicander. Farthest from Galen are Andreas and Rufus. Each of the figures is a self-contained portrait and was probably modeled on authors' portraits from the various authors' treatises. The seven figures are contained within an elaborate decorated frame. The background is solid gold, which places the figures in an abstract space. This is the earliest known manuscript to use a solid gold background.
Folio 3v, seven physicians
Following the two miniatures of seven pharmacologists, there are two author portraits. In the second portrait (see here), Dioscurides sits writing in a codex on his lap. He is shown in profile, which corresponds to the portrait in the previous miniature. It is possible that there was a tradition based on Dioscurides' life portrait that the images are based on. In front of Dioscurides is an artist, seated at a lower level, painting an illustration of the mandrake root. He is painting from nature. The mandrake root he is looking at is held by the personification of Epinoia (the power of thought). There is architectural background consisting of a colonnade with a central niche.

The paraphrase of the treatise on birds by Dionysius is in three books. The first two books have illustrations of the birds inserted into the text columns without frame or background (for example, see here). The third book has 24 birds arranged in a grid on a full-page miniature (see illustration above). The birds portrayed throughout the treatise are of high artistic merit and are faithful to nature in form and color. Most of the birds are easily identifiable. Interestingly, some of the birds contained in the full-page miniature in the third book are not described in the text of the paraphrase. It is probable that these illustrations are based on the illustrations from an older, different treatise, possibly that of Alexander of Myndus. This manuscript, however, is the oldest surviving illustrated treatise on birds.


Image:ViennaDioscoridesEndpaperPeacock.jpg|Peacock endpapersImage:ViennaDioscoridesFolio6vDonorPortrait.jpg|Folio 6v, donor portraitImage:ViennaDioscoridesAuthorPortrait.jpg|Author portraitImage:ViennaDioscoridesFolio5vAuthorPortrait.jpg|Folio 5v, author portraitImage:ViennaDioscoridesCoral.jpg|CoralImage:ViennaDioscoridesFolio148vViolet.jpg|Folio 148v, violetImage:ViennaDioscoridesPimpernel.gif|PimpernelImage:ViennaDioscoridesBirds.jpg|BirdsFile:Cannabissativadior.jpg|Cannabis sativa


  • Walther, Ingo F. and Norbert Wolf. Codices Illustres: The world's most famous illuminated manuscripts, 400 to 1600. Köln, TASCHEN, 2005.
  • Weitzmann, Kurt. Late Antique and Early Christian Book Illumination. New York: George Braziller, 1977.

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