The Coronation Gospels can justifiably be called the most important book of the Middle Ages, because it was present at every coronation of the kings of the Romans, at least from the twelfth century onwards. As far as we know it was the Bible on which the gospel oath was sworn and hence played a central part in the ceremony.
In order to emphasise its symbolic and procedural significance, the original Carolingian manuscript was bound with a cover of gold and glittering precious stones which made it a worthy constituent part of the imperial insignia of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. These imperial insignia are preserved today in the Treasury of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Principal Work of the so-called Palace School
Together with a small number of other manuscripts dating from the time of Charlemagne, the Coronation Gospels are ascribed to the so-called Palace School.
In contrast to the Court School, which was active at the same time, this group of artists was concerned with the revival of Hellenistic art: the representations of the Evangelists show them sitting like the philosophers of Antiquity in the open air in front of open landscapes and architectural structures.
The space and pictorial concepts are illusionistic and are very different from the stage-like spaces of other mediaeval artworks. With their entablature (in this case: architecture), the liturgical plates are derived from the art of Antiquity.
The book illustrations look more modern than “mediaeval” art, but actually refer back to a centuries-old tradition of art in the Mediterranean region. We therefore surmise that the illustrators came from Italy or possibly even Byzantium.
Aachen in 795 and 1000 AD
The Coronation Gospels were written and illuminated in Aachen in about 795 AD. From the outset the book was planned as an outstanding work: written in golden ink on purple-coloured pages, it underlined the claim of Charlemagne that he was following in the tradition of the Roman Emperors (although his coronation as Emperor would not take place for another five years).
In the opinion of his contemporaries and those who would follow across the centuries, Charlemagne lived up to this claim in full. However he took the pledge of his ambition with him to the grave when he died in 814. To this day we do not know exactly where Charlemagne’s grave lies.
And so we do not know either where the legendary event which is so important for the manuscript actually took place in the year 1000. Otto III had the grave opened and discovered the codex on the knees of the emperor, who had been buried in a sitting position.
He removed the book – and thereby laid the foundation for its ascent to become the central book and work of art in the Empire. During the coronations of the kings, which without exception took place in Aachen until 1531, according to tradition the book was opened at the first page of St. John’s Gospel, and the future king took his oath under the eyes of St. John the Evangelist on the words “In the beginning was the Word”.
Codex Aureus et Argenteus
The magnificence of this manuscript equals the display of grandeur which was customary during royal coronations. All the pages are coloured purple – whereby substitute plant dyes were used, mixed with a small quantity of the almost unobtainable and prohibitively expensive real purple.
On this dignified dark red background the texts of the four Gospels were then written in golden ink. The headings and marginal texts (cross-references to the other Gospels) were written in silver ink.
Miniatures and other ornamental pages were adorned with wafer-thin gold leaf. The manuscript itself was bound in red velvet during the time when it was in use.
For conservational reasons the cover and the manuscript are kept separately today: the cover is on display in the Treasury, while the manuscript is preserved in a climate-controlled safe. In the facsimile edition the two components of the book have been reunited.
Even by the standards of imperial magnificence, the cover of the Coronation Gospels is of exceptional importance and beauty. Hans von Reutlingen created the relief, which is fully three-dimensional in places, in around 1500. In the centre God the Father sits enthroned. He is dictating the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, which is depicted at the edge of the picture – one of the key moments in the New Testament narrative of salvation. In the four corners, the Evangelists are shown by means of their symbols (in the manuscript itself this typically mediaeval visual element has been eliminated entirely). The figures are surrounded by exquisite tracery and mullions; every detail is a masterpiece of High Gothic gold work. In order to heighten the impression of luxury still further, precious stones were arranged across the cover and anchored in hand-wrought settings. The large sapphire on the breast of the figure of God the Father is especially remarkable.
We have 2 facsimiles of the manuscript "Coronation Gospels of the Holy Roman Empire":
- Krönungsevangeliar des Heiligen Römischen Reiches (Library Edition) facsimile edition published by Faksimile Verlag, 2012
- Krönungsevangeliar des Heiligen Römischen Reiches (Deluxe Edition) facsimile edition published by Faksimile Verlag, 2012