One of the most impressive achievements of Dutch manuscript painting is no doubt the creation of a continuous cycle of illustrations for the Bible translation known as the Dutch History Bible. The text itself is a compilation from translations by the ‘translator of 1360’, probably a monk from Belgian Brabant, and Johannes Scutken, a monastic from the Devotio moderna circles. The biblical narrative is complemented by stories from secular history, while difficult passages are explained by means of sections from Jacob van Maerlant's Rhime Bible - usually outlined in red in the manuscripts. This adaptation met with considerable success, especially in the Northern Netherlands: some twenty copies - complete or in part - are still known, most of them made in Utrecht and dating from between 1430 and 1478. The two-volume History Bible in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek is the most abundantly illustrated extant copy. It contains as many as 69 historiated initials at the beginning of the individual books and 509 small miniatures in the text. The illumination was executed by eight artists, six of whom took the lion's share of the work. The history of Samson was painted by the Master of Otto van Moerdrecht, who executed 136 miniatures for the books from Joshua through Tobit. His style is characterized by bright colours and small, doll-like figures, moving about in an undulating landscape with jagged rocks, and always a stream in the foreground. The miniature in the left column shows Samson carrying the doors of the gate of Gaza on his back, while in the one in the right column Delilah is cutting his hair, the source of his strength. Another important aspect of the Bible are the instructions for the painters, which are often found in the margin, thus giving us an insight into the artistic practice of the illustration. In the case of the Master of Otto van Moerdrecht these instructions were (alas) written on the place where the miniatures were to be painted: part of the upper line is still visible at the top edge of the miniature on the right.
History Bible.Utrecht, c. 1430. Vellum, 2 vols, 291+298 leaves, 400 x 302 mm. Provenance: purchased by King William I and placed in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, 1829. 78 D 38, vol. 1, fol. 152v