On the Beach

Leafing through a digitized Byzantine manuscript, I chanced on a beach scene. Not what you expect in a fervently religious codex like Vat.gr. 1162 at the Vatican. The Homilies of Jacobus Kokkinobaphos is an extraordinary illuminated cycle, based around six sermons by a late Byzantine monk, dealing with the life of the Virgin Mary.

This oddly 20th-century scene shows people at leisure in the water: What on earth is it about? The author of this book at Digita Vaticana is James Kokkinobaphos, a 12th-century monk of a so-far unidentified monastery.

The unexpected answer, according to Cosimo Stornajolo, the cataloguer of many such Vatican manuscripts, is that the image depicts Jor and Dan, personifications of the river Jordan. According to Stornajolo, the strange scene on folio 11v depicts Jor and Dan changing out of their clothes to bathe in the river Jordan, and the four swimmers below are simply the two men at various stages of their swim.

The reason this scene is included is explained by the upper part of the same miniature, which depicts Joachim, father of the Virgin, going up a mountain to pray in loneliness and desperation at his inability to obtain a child. This comes from the first homily, based on the apocryphal Protevangelium of James, on which I have posted in the past. He is not a happy chappie:

The frolicking seems to be an artistic device to create a contrast with his profound grief.  As he descends the mountain, the story takes a decisive turn: an angel announces to him his wife is no longer infertile and he eagerly steps up the pace home to beget the Baby Mary.

There was an ancient tradition, endorsed by Jerome of Stridon, alleging that the river had been named as the union of two tributaries, the Dan and the Jor: "Dan is one of the sources of the Jordan. For the other source is indeed called the Jor, which means rheithron, that is 'a brook'." (Quaestiones, Genesis 14:14) and "from whence the Jordan arises [bursts forth and receives its name. Ior is Hebrew for reithron, i.e., stream. or river (De quo et Jordanis flumen erumpens a loco sortitus est nomen. Jor quippe ῥεῖθρον, id est, fluvium sive rivum Hebraei vocant.)" (Onomast.)

Here is Stornajolo's plate of the bathing miniature with the description, "Prayer of Joachim". Stornajolo describes the swimmers as follows: Alcuni si bagnano nel Giordano, personificato da due mezze figure, che, secondo un'antica opinione, accettata anche da S. Girolamo, rappresentavano le due sorgenti lor e Dan, donde poi, secondo tale falsa opinione, sarebbe stato formato il nome del fiume.

Another manuscript of the Homilies is Paris BNF gr. 1208 (Pinakes) which is only online in black and white.

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