The Burning Book: One of the Wonders of the Middle Ages
The Burning Book: One of the Wonders of the Middle Ages

One of the most impressive miracles of the Middle Ages is the burning book, which soared three times over the flames as a sign of the triumph of the Christian doctrine over the heresy of the Albigensians.

The memorable miracle is associated with the horde - "the judgment of God" (Latin ordalium - judgment, judgment) as one of the types of archaic law, the practice of testing by fire and water to establish the truth. In the spring of 1207, in the French city of Fanjo, with a large crowd of people, a dispute took place between the Catholic preacher Dominique de Guzman Garces, the future Saint Dominic, and the Albigensians - representatives of one of the branches of the neo-Manichean sect of Cathars. They argued about whose faith was true.

The long history of this controversy is captured in the famous "Triumph of the Church" fresco from the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella (Florence) by the early Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Bonaiuti. Saint Dominic preaches against heretics, pointing with a gesture directing his spiritual children, allegorically depicted as a flock of black and white dogs - "Dogs of the Lord" (lat. Domini canes).

Saint Thomas Aquinas, with an open book "Sum against the Gentiles", is conducting a theological conversation with heretics. One of them tears up his book, renouncing delusions.

Andrea Bonaiuti

When the verbal arguments were exhausted, the judges suggested relying on God's will: throw the book of Dominic (according to another version - the Gospel) and the book with the Qatari doctrine into the fire. Which one will survive is the right one. According to the biographer of Dominic, Blessed Jordan of Saxony, the heretical book burned down, and the book of Christ's faith was rejected three times by fire and remained unharmed. Then the miracle was repeated in Montreal, only not books were thrown into the fire, but notes.

In the Catholic tradition, this case was called "The Miracle of Fire" or "The Miracle with a Book", was repeatedly captured in icon painting and painting. The painting by the Spanish artist Pedro Berruguete illustrates the passionate belief in the invulnerability of the book of Christ. Like a golden-winged angel, she flies out of the flame and rises above the crowd. It seems that the letters are about to melt and pour a hot rain on unbelievers and doubters.

Pedro Berruguete

The interpretation of the same plot by Berruguete for the altar of Santo Domingo in the Monastery of St. Thomas allows for a clearer picture of the emotional context of the situation. On the carefully drawn faces of the audience, one can read amazement, emotion, fear, anger, delight - a whole gamut of mixed feelings and states. For greater persuasiveness, the test by fire is passed three times.


The earlier depiction of this scene for the altar of the Coronation of Mary, made by one of the greatest Italian masters, the Dominican monk Fra Beato Angelico, numbered among the blessed of the Catholic Church, is distinguished by its laconic composition and restrained colors.

Those gathered as if do not expect any miracle, continuing to argue with enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the flame pushes out a small red-bound booklet with gilded edging. But no, this is not a spontaneous jerk caused by the evaporation of moisture from burning wood, but a real miracle!

Fra Beato Angelico

If Berruguete's book soars majestically upward, marking the triumph of Christian truth, then Fra Angelico portrays the miracle as something irrational, but quite natural. Dominic never doubted the outcome of the dispute for a moment. In the same way, the figurative structure of the scene depicted by Fra Angelico is subordinated not to worldly, but to monastic logic. For it is said in the Gospel: "According to your faith, let it be done to you."

Even more succinctly, this plot is embodied by the Italian Mannerist artist Domenico Beccafumi for the Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit in Siena. The whereabouts of this work are currently unknown.

Domenico Beccafumi

The Italian master of the Florentine School, Piero di Cosimo, places the burning book in the center of the pictorial composition of a part of the Pugliese altar, emphasizing its symbolic meaning, as if fixing a miracle in eternity.

Piero di Cosimo

Late pictorial interpretations of the dispute between Saint Dominic and the Albigensians are reminiscent of genre scenes. Artists of the brush see in him not so much a religious miracle as a stable plot that can be associated with the realities of a particular era. A typical example is the painting by Bartolomé de Cardenas, a painter from Portugal who bore the title of “the first chamber painter of His Excellency the Duke”. The duke himself is depicted here from the full face to the left of the viewer, turning into a participant in the legendary scene.

Bartolomé de Cardenas

Those present at the dispute - the clergy, aristocrats, commoners - are shown as ordinary people, vividly reacting to an irrational situation. Attracted by the unprecedented sight, the townspeople lean out of the windows, shout out, exchange impressions. Churchmen, as befits clergy, are focused on the fiery confrontation between two religious teachings.

The painting is not very well preserved, but the realistic manner of execution makes it possible to imagine how the firewood crackles in the fire, how the pages of Dominic's book rustle in the air, how the excited crowd in the square buzzes …

According to another version of the legend, Dominic's book, pushed out by the flames, ended up on the roof beam of a nearby house. Today, several buildings in Fanjo, including a village church and a Dominican chapel, claim possession of that charred beam as evidence of a miracle. Be that as it may, the victory in this dispute converted many heretics to Christianity. Since then, one of the elements of St. Dominic's iconography has become a book, most often open on a page with the words: "Go and preach."

Pietro Damini

In the Slavic early Christian culture, a similar miracle with the burning Gospel is known, manifested at the request of the pagans by a bishop during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Basil I (867−886). The bishop, met with distrust at the meeting of the elders of the "people of the Ross", demonstrates the lack of power of fire over the book of the Gospel, after which the assembled people agree to accept Christianity. However, this plot did not receive a consistent display in the visual arts.

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