The morality of Job

The text of the Moralia in Job by church father Gregory the Great has served as a theological treatise on Christian ethics. The Moralia was particularly meant for the clergy, and this is also true for Ms. 87 (3 A 3) which belonged to the Utrecht Augustinian Canon Regulars of the Regulierenklooster. It is a luxurious manuscript, with beautiful historiated initials which to a large extent follow the already existing traditional imagery of the Moralia. Rather striking, however, is the occurence of a number of strange and fanciful creatures: what relation do they have with Gregory’s Moralia text?


In his comment on the Book of Job, the Moralia in Job, Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) explains its religious meaning, with a view to describe the Christian morals of his time. Gregory was one of the four great Latin Fathers (the other three were Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine). In the Middle Ages the Moralia developed into a kind of manual for the clergy, describing the whole road a believer had to travel until he truly believed in God. The title Morialia in Job points to the explanation by Job in the Bible in which he gives form to the human side of the suffering and guilt of a believer. Job shows us how patience and passion are combined in faith in God (Terrien 1996, 271-3).

The Moralia

Each of the 35 Books of the Moralia consists of a short Bible passage from the Book of Job, initially explained in the literal (historical) sense, next examined in its allegorical or spiritual (metaphorical) sense and then receiving a real (moral or mystical) meaning with respect to the consequences of the acts of all men. This tripartite method of explaining defined exegesis throughout the Middle Ages. Based on Gregory’s explanation and reasoning, the image of the rebellious Job (Job 12:1-6) is changed into the image of a stoically patient Job (Moralia, Book 32; Job 40:3-5). With the help of Ecclesiastes 7:23 Gregory explains the insight gained by Job on how to search for the road God and how to keep faith.

The traditition of Gregory’s text

The popularity of Gregory’s work in the Middle Ages is shown from the many hundreds of manuscripts passed down from monastic libraries (Adriaen 1979, xiv-xxix). Their production mainly took place between 1100 and 1400. The Moralia manuscripts were commissioned by wealthy private persons and on behalf of cloister and church libraries (Ker 1972, 77; Gerritsen-Geywitz 1984, 50-52).

The Book of Job as well as the Moralia have been an inspiration for artists and sculptors. This is shown from the many preserved illuminations, frescos and sculptures having Job as their subject. The popularity of the Moralia could spring from the legend that the texts by Gregory were divinely inspired. The Holy Spirit appeared in the shape of a dove to Gregory and whispered the text in his ears (Van der Horst 1984, 35).

35 initials

Ms. 87 contains the chapters (hereinafter called Books) and each Book starts with a decorated initial. From the 35 initials there are twelve historiated initials (depicting a scene from the Book of Job), twelve decorated initials with droll-like figures and eleven decorated initials with embellished and plant motifs. Of each of these three categories the decorated initials with strange creatures are the ones that could help answer the introductory question: which relation do the comical figures have with the text of the Moralia? Some examples will be discussed further here.

Twelve historiated initials

Book 3 (historiated initial `B’ fol. 32v).

God speaks with the devil, or rather Dracontopes (Van der Horst 1989, 14): a mythical creature in the form of a man-headed dragon, with cock’s feet for feet and dragon wings for arms. Above his tail we can see a face with animal-like features: the devil represents the world upside down (Gerritsen-Geywitz 1984, 63). God is depicted as an old man with a full grey beard and wears a mauve robe. In this conversation, God puts the fate of his most loyal servant Job in the hands of the devil. The devil wants to prove to God that even the most pious man on earth will renounce God if he meets with illness and misfortune. (Job 2:1-6). Job’s virtue will be put to the test. The devil thinks that Job’s God-fearing behaviour can only be taken away if God removes His blessing and protection. Job will turn against God, so the devil says, if everything he loves is taken away from him.

God is not wholly convinced of the use of Job’s trial. That’s why they agree to save Job’s life in any case. His hearth and home will be destroyed by fire and natural disasters. In the Bible story Job will accept his fate without complaining and is prepared to accept the evil from God’s hands without protest. For how else should a righteous man during his sufferings react to and speak about the tortures inflicted upon him?

Gregory describes why God agrees to having his most loyal servant put to the test by the devil. The devil, symbol of evil, doubts the irreprehensible awe that Job has for God and that he will do nothing out of the ordinary (Job 1:9). Here Gregory makes a comparison between Job and Luke in Luke 16:25.

Book 8 (decorated initial `P’ fol. 79v.)

Job is lying on a sand hill. In the background we see a castle-like building, surrounded by trees. He is almost naked, only wearing a loincloth. His body is covered with boils. He is raising his left hand as if he is about to speak, his right hand is loosely on his hip, holding his loincloth. This attitude is typical for a sad state of mind (Garnier 1982-1989, 183). Based on Job’s faith, Gregory explains that Job is innocent and `that God will never cast away the innocent’ (Job 8:20). God is righteous and will award righteousness (Job 8:6-8). Job needs to resign to his fate and must wait patiently until he is exculpated.

Book 35 (decorated initial `Q’ fol. 334v)

Here Job speaks with God, praying and thanking. He feels overwhelmed and recognizes the greatness and righteousness of God, but he shows no remorse for his feelings of injustice – labelled by him as undeserved – for the suffering God has caused him. He stays silent after seeing God and endorses that he has failed in knowledge. But Job will never get real answers to his questions. Job prays for his three friends (Elifaz, Sofar and Bildad), as he is told by God, because they have not spoken about Him in a becoming way.

The text on the light blue back plate of the house altar says: unum crede deum nec vane iura per ipsum sabata sanctifices habenas in honore parentes (Believe in the one God and do not swear idly by Him. Keep the sabbath day holy. Honour your parents).

This is the beginning of the De decem preceptis (Walther 1969, nr. 19669), a verse form of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5: 6-21) and implies Job’s God-fearing conduct. The Moralia concludes with giving the most humble explanation of human suffering. The defiance and persistence during Job’s suffering shows what Christian faith should be about: not about gaining goodwill and fortune, but about reaching a deeper faith in Christian ideas.

Twelve decorated initials

Book 1 (decorated initial `V’ fol. 16v) and Book 19 (decorated initial `Q’ fol. 183v).

These initials also appear to be connected to the text. The naked man eating an apple occurs twice in the manuscript (Book 1 and Book 19). Central theme of the Moralia is the soul being put to the test and the ascension of the soul. In Book 1 an indirect reference is made to the Fall of man. The fruit eating man of Book 1 and 19 could be a reference to Adam and Eve who ate from the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Paradise, thus losing God’s favour which resulted in the Fall. In Book 19 a reference is made to the `Song of Wisdom’, the knowledge that cannot be found by man, just as Job had to go without any coherence or meaning of God’s acts leading to his sufferings.

Book 24 (decorated initial `H’ fol. 225r).

A purple monster with a human, grim face with a big hooked nose has a yellow beard and pointed ears. Pink acanthus leaves adorn his back, neck and head. In book 24 Gregory makes a connection between the spiritual fight of Job and the truths and untruths about God in relation to Christ the Mediator. It fits in with the spirit of medieval times to refer to the Jews as being the instigators of evil. The devil’s figure with his yellow beard (and face) and the caricatural nose is an indirect reference to this idea.

The pointed ears are represented in the same way as the horns of the devil. From 1215 onwards (Council of the Lateran) the Jews were obliged to wear a yellow piece of clothing so as to be visible in society as representatives of the Jewish people. The colour yellow and the external characteristics in pictures referred to evil: in the Christian context the Jewish people. A remarkable detail is that Gregory was known for his tolerance towards the religious practice of the Jews. He admonished the bishops who ordered the closing down of synagogues and had Jews baptized against their will.

Book 27 (decorated initial `Q’ fol. 251v).

In Book 27 we see a similar drole-like figure as in Book 24. The only difference is that above the head a lion-like figure rises up, playing a shawm. Just like the devil this fantasy figure has a face with animal-like features on his body. In this case a yellow face with a hooked nose. Again this is a reference to the Jews by representing evil and hell in the face on the belly or on the backside; an iconographic image that was immediately understood by medieval Christians.

Book 23 (decorated initial `P’ fol 217r) and Book 29 (decorated initial `D’ fol. 270r).

The dragon sticking out its tongue occurs twice also in Ms. 87 (Book 23 and Book 29). The dragon with a human head and wearing a beard is sticking out its tongue, has wings and paws. The curl on the head is also seen with the dragons in the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, Ms. M. 945, fols. 28r and 60v and M. 917, pp. 9, 11 en 57). The references to the world of evil will in the end be no cause for worry: evil people will be eliminated by God. The relation between Job and the dragons is symbolized by Job as `brother of the dragons’ (which stands for justice in the world) and the forced life among the blameworthy, that is the life among the Jews who are depicted in the shape of the devil. Gregory collected biblical references to monstrous animals to be able to interpret the evil character of the devil (Robert 1998, p. 577).

Traditional imagery

The historiated initials follow for the most part an already existing iconographic imagery. Research shows that in Moralia with a cycle of images there is a storyline with a similar representation of the major events about Job’s suffering. This is also the case in Ms. 87 (Peeters-Nunes 2014, p. 77). In Ms. 87 some initials claim their own thematic accents by a new representation of the historical figures, but they remain mutually connected. This new representation drifts away from the iconographic tradition. This renewal can be seen for instance in Ms. 87 where Job is depicted with each of his friends separately instead of Job with all his friends together, as was more usual. Also there is, in addition to the traditional representation of Job’s wife at the start of his suffering, a second woman. She may have another iconographic meaning that is still to be researched or she is the personification of a metaphor unknown to our times. The differences in the cycle of images could have come about because several illuminators worked on the manuscript and added their own interpretations.


The iconographic tradition was not followed in the case of the twelve droll-like initials either. Maybe because the chapter in question from the Bible story was viewed as less important and for that reason was decorated less profusely. The droll-like initials indicate a relation between text and image, although less clearly compared to the case of the historiated initials. An example is the reference to including the souls in the heaven of souls (the paradise) together with the seraphs (Book 31, `I’ fol. 292v). It may be that the illuminator indirectly wanted to label them as `historiated’, giving them a clear function or status in the initials hierarchy.

In the case of the eleven initials of the Books of the Moralia which have been decorated with embellished or plant motifs no relation was found between text and image. This is completely in line with the hierarchy of the initials: the decorated initials with embellished and plant motifs are lower in rank than the initials with animal and human motifs which in their turn represented the less important Books than the historiated initials of the major Books.

The Master of Catherine of Cleves

There are several similarities to be found between the decorated initials of the Moralia and those in the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves , such as the two dragons sticking out their tongues, the little men eating fruit and the seraphs. In addition comparable motives have been found in two manuscripts in the collection of Museum Catharijneconvent, ABM h15 en BMH h165 (cf. Dückers en Priem 2009, 174-7). This leads to a strong assumption that the decorations in Ms. 87 must be sought in and/or from the neighbourhood of the workshop of the Master of Catherine of Cleves. This assumption is based on some stylistic characteristics, such as the use of colour and the same attitudes and poses of the figures (sometimes mirror wise). Hats and clothing seem to be similar, as well as the depicted accessories. It could mean that stencil plates were used (Hintzen 1921, 37).

If we look at the initials of the Books, 17, 30 and 32 there could even be question of a second or even a third illuminator. The initials mentioned are different in style as to the detailed elaboration of the figures (for instance another type of Job), the use of colour and omitting gold leaf compared to the other initials. It looks like the Books 17, 30 and 32 have been made in the vicinity of the workshop of the Master of Catherine of Cleves and not in the workshop itself. According to Gisela Gerritsen-Geywitz the initials were added in a later stage. According to her the initials do not reveal which illuminator made them (Gerritsen-Geywitz 1984, 50-52, 61-63).

Pen work: Gouda or Utrecht?

In three series in Ms. 87 initals are decorated with pen work: with pen and in inkt drawn decorative lines in red and blue of initials, occasionally with tail ends along the column and in the margin (As-Vijvers 2009, 45). They can be found in the Prologue, the Prefacio and the Tabula (respectively fols. 2r, 14r-16v and 342r-384v). The pen work is an aid to locate and date medieval manuscripts, in particular those of the Northern Netherlands.

Based on the fanning out of the pen work in the lower margin and the drawn decorative lines it may be concluded that it concerns pen work from Gouda from the period 1425-1450. This pen work is characterized by ‘small snakeheads,’ `radishes’ and lines curving towards each other, sometimes at the end of a long, curved loop with a pointed line curving inward and/or a curved curl towards the initial, the so-called `tie-clip motif’ (Korteweg 1992, 9).


Based on the pen work and the inscription, the production of Ms. 87 could have happened like this: the text of the Moralia was copied in Gouda. After all, if the pen work comes from Gouda, it seems logical that the manuscript is also made up by monks in one of the cloisters in or around Gouda. It could have been in the Augustinian Regulierenklooster Emmaus in Stein near Gouda which was established there around 1447 (Korteweg 1992, 68-77).

Because pen work is a regional or local affair, and because Gouda did not have illuminators, it was possibly put out to specialists in the city of Utrecht: the Master of Catherine of Cleves or illuminators working near him. When the manuscript was finished, it was donated to a cloister by Gherardus de Vloeten in or shortly after 1448. The verse, noted down on fol. 1v, says Nobis gherardus de vloeten vir venerandus De Job egregia moralia contulit ista. Next the manuscript was bound in the characteristic way of the Canons Regular and supplied with the ownership inscription Pertinet ad regulares in Traiecto (belongs to the Canons Regular in Utrecht). However, it cannot be demonstrated that the information from both inscriptions can be joined together to conclude that Gherardus de Vloeten donated the manuscript to the Regulierenklooster. But the most obvious conclusion would be to suppose that there is a connection between the makers and the receivers of the manuscript: written or copied by the Stein Canons Regular, made for their fellow brothers in Utrecht.

Further reading

  • Adriaen, M., S. Gregorii Magni, Moralia in Job, Libri I-XXXV. 2 vols. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 143 & 143A  (Turnhout, 1979).
  • As-Vijvers, A.M.W., De hand van de meester. Het Getijdenboek van Katherina van Kleef (Antwerp, 2009).
  • Blom, C., Zonder grond onder de voeten (Zoetermeer, 2009).
  • Dückers, R., & R. Priem, The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. Devotion, demons and daily life in the fifteenth century (Antwerp, 2009).
  • Garnier, F., Le langage de l’image au moyen âge. Vol. II: Grammaire des gestes (Paris, 1982).
  • Gerritsen-Geywitz, G., ‘Regulierenklooster’, in: K. van der Horst, et al. (ed.), Handschriften en oude drukken van de Utrechtse Universiteitsbibliotheek (Utrecht, 1984), p. 50-71, 72-75, 76-79.
  • Hintzen, J.D., ‘De geminieerde handschriften der Utrechtsche Universiteits-Bibliotheek’, in: Het boek 10 (1921), p. 1-13.
  • Horst, K. van der, ‘Het kartuizerklooster’, in: K. van der Horst, et al. (ed.), Handschriften en oude drukken van de Utrechtse Universiteitsbibliotheek (Utrecht, 1984), p. 26-44, 48.
  • Horst, K. van der, Illuminated and decorated medieval manuscripts in the University Library, Utrecht (Maarssen & The Hague 1989).
  • Ker, N.R., ‘The English manuscripts of the Moralia of Gregory the Great’, in: A. Rosenauer et al. (ed.), Kunsthistorische Forschungen, Otto Pächt zu seinem 70. Geburtstag (Salzburg, 1972), p. 77-89.
  • Korteweg, A.S. (ed.), Kriezels, aubergines en takkenbossen (Den Haag, 1992).
  • Peeters-Nunes, M.S.M., De moraal van Job: een 15e-eeuws ‘Moralia in Job’ handschrift (Hs. 87) uit de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht (Master thesis) (Utrecht, 2013).
  • Robert, H.E., Encyclopedia of comparative iconography: themes depicted in works of art, Vol. 2, (Chicago, 1998), p. 576-577.
  • Terrien, S., The iconography of Job through the centuries. Artists as biblical interpreters (University Park, PA, 1996).
  • Walther, H., Initia carminum ac versuum medii aevi posterioris latinorum; alphabetische Verzeichnis der Versanfänge mittellateinischer Dichtungen (Carmina medii aevi posterioris latina I) (2nd edn., Göttingen, 1969).
15th century
Mirelle Peeters-Nunes, February 2015
Ms. 87, cover
Ms. 87, prologue
God and the devil, Ms. 87 fol. 32v
Job on the sand hill, Ms. 87 fol. 79v
Job thanking God before an altar, Ms. 87 fol. 334v
Naked man eating an apple, Ms. 87 fol. 6v
Naked man eating an apple, Ms. 87 fol. 183v
A purple monster with a human face, Ms. 87 fol. 225r
Drole-like figure playing the shawm, Ms. 87 fol. 251v
The dragon sticking out its tongue, Ms. 87 fol. 217r
The dragon sticking out its tongue, Ms. 87 fol. 270r
Initial with flowers, Ms. 87 fol. 144r
Together with the seraphs, close-up, Ms. 87 fol. 292v

Gregorius Magnus, Moralia in Job (Ms. 87)(3 A 3)

  • Gouda and Utrecht, shortly before or in 1448.
  • Parchment, 384 leaves, c. 400 x 290 mm.
  • Gothic hybrida.
  • Latin.
  • 12 historiated initials, 12 decorated initials, 11 initials, pen work.
  • Contemporary 15th-century binding of brown calf over wooden boards, tooled in blind with frame divided by triple fillets into lozenge compartments; five copper bosses.
  • In 1448 donated by Gherardus de Vloeten to a religious institution, most likely the Canons Regular in Utrecht.
  • After the monastery of the Canons Regular was closed in 1584, the manuscript entered the city library in St John’s Church, the predecessor of the Utrecht University Library.