John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew’s Gospel, in Greek [Byzantine Empire (Constantinople), late 9th century], sold at Sotheby's Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts and Continental and Russian Books sale 2018
Books & Manuscripts

The Homilies of the 'Golden-Mouthed' Preacher

By Martin Dean

S otheby's Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts and Continental and Russian Books sale in London on 3 July features a truly magnificent manuscript. This relic of the 9th century contains the first 44 homilies on the Gospel of Matthew by one of the early Church fathers, John Chrysostom.

Chrysostom became the Archbishop of Constantinople in 398, but he had already established himself as a powerful and popular preacher in his home city of Antioch, particularly among the common people. It is for this reason that his surname, which means ‘golden-mouthed’, was given by his admirers. His popularity was such that when he was appointed Archbishop he had to leave Antioch for Constantinople in secret, for fear that the departure of a figure so well-loved among the masses could cause civil unrest.

Born to a high ranking military officer and raised a Christian, his early training was in rhetoric, under a pagan teacher. But as his devotion to Christianity grew, he moved into a study of theology, and in his early 20s lived as an ascetic hermit, committing the Bible to memory and continually standing, depriving himself of sleep.

While Chrysostom was popular among the masses, his emphasis on the dangers of excessive wealth, greed, and the importance of charity rung hollow among a number of influential observers. These included Eudoxia, wife of the Eastern Roman Emperor Arcadius, who had come under direct attack from Chrysostom for her frivolity. With the assistance of the Archbishop of Alexandria, a synod was organised which indicted John on a number of fabricated charges. When John refused to attend, he was deposed from his seat and banished. He died in exile in 407.

Chrysostom’s homilies on the Bible are considered among his most important works, and this manuscript is a magnificent example.

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