The Codex Egberti – taking its name from its commissioner, the Archbishop Egbert of Trier – features one of the most elaborate picture cycles on the Life of Christ in the history of book painting. Produced in the 10th Century on the island of Reichenau, the work's enormous narrative appeal continues to fascinate readers even today.
Oldest Picture Cycle on the Life of Christ
The Codex Egberti stands out even amidst the richly illuminated manuscripts from the prolific period of the arts under the Ottonian kings.
Right from the very first leaves, this precious volume bears testimony to the bibliophile penchant of its commissioner, Archbishop Egbert of Trier: it opens with a dedication and a portrait of the Bishop on a double page in gold and purple.
Two monks at Egbert's feet, Kerald and Heribert of Reichenau, present the volume to the donor. This is followed by four impressive full-page illustrations of the Evangelists.
The ensuing 51 narrative pictures on the Life of Christ fascinate the viewer with their delicately shining grounds and carefully composed groups of figures in each miniature. Although the Codex Egberti is not the earliest picture cycle on the Life of Christ, it is certainly – with its 51 paintings – one of the most elaborate.
The Brilliance of Silver and Gold: 60 Ornamental Pages and over 240 Initials
The Gospel Pericopes, or Evangelistary, referred to as the Codex Egberti represent the readings from the four Gospels throughout the ecclesiastical year on 165 leaves.
Each reading starts with a large initial I, which is filled with an interlace band in gold and silver. Precious gold was also used for the fine details in the countless miniatures, e.g. for emphasizing the three-dimensionality of drapery folds.
The Codex Egberti – A Fusion of Various Styles
Bishop Egbert was active during the second half of the 10th century, a period considered to be among the most fruitful in the history of art.
Centres of outstanding artistic creativity emerged from the scriptoria of the abbeys at the time, and the Benedictine Abbey of Reichenau was the most famous of all.
The artist-monks of Lake Constance developed a style which was to mark Ottonian book painting. The monks successfully created a breathtaking synthesis between northern and southern art forms.
Their pictorial heritage includes the precious Carolingian traditions as well as traces of Insular painting and Byzantine influences. The Codex Egberti represents an early pinnacle of this new form, where the spirit of the old meets with the new in a very special manner.
Pictures of Great Narrative Force
In addition to the miniatures on the Life and Wondrous Doings of Christ, the rich picture cycle includes portraits of the Evangelists and Bishop Egbert, that have always fascinated viewers with their awe-inspiring, solemn effect.
Each miniature – from the Nativity to the Ascension and Pentecost – is filled with great spiritual power. It seems an unusual selection, as the Codex Egberti presents some miracles of Christ that otherwise seldom appear in manuscripts.
The coherence of the cycle clearly proves that there was one master responsible for the book's artistic concept. Art historians have identified him as the "Master of the Registrum Gregorii", a monk who, on Egbert's initiative, also decorated a collection of letters from Pope Gregory the Great.
The Master of the Registrum Gregorii: a Waymark of Ottonian Illumination
A distinctive feature of the painterly craft of the Master of the Registrum Gregorii, whose hand is recognisable in at least seven miniatures of the book, is his tendency to rely on late Antique models influenced by the style of Byzantium.
Both the Trier and the Reichenau libraries included old volumes that the Master of the Registrum Gregorii used as a source for his work. The Master certainly trained his artistic expression by studying the mosaics in Trier, or even perhaps during a journey to Italy.
Although he was susceptible to the ideals of classical Antiquity, some of his miniatures still betray the search for new iconograhic trends. His art incorporated both an appreciation of the old and an openness for the power of the new.
Classical standards served as a basis for his individual painting style, which on the other hand offered entirely new solutions for the problems of space and three-dimensionality.
The Mysterious Effects of Glittering Gold
The particular effect emanating from the mysteriously iridescent backgrounds in the Codex Egberti not only relies on the artist's masterly combination of colours.
In each miniature, the use of delicately applied gold adds a charming touch to the subtly shimmering pastel-coloured grounds. And the combination of gold, silver, and red lead makes the numerous I-initials in the book particularly attractive.
Today, after more than 1000 years, the gold and much of the silver are still both in excellent condition, lending the book the same splendour that it had in Bishop Egbert's day.