The lavishly illuminated manuscripts from the scriptorium in Echternach are famous all over the world. One of these treasures is today among the best preserved jewels of the manuscript department in the Bibliothèque royale de Belgique in Brussels: the Echternach Pericopes, a luxury manuscript from the era of the Salian emperors.
Imaginative creations in harmonious colours and glowing gold
The Echternach Pericopes opens with a display of incredible opulence: two purple pages with fabric imitations – resembling a cover for the unbound body of the book – are followed by a marvellous Maiestas Domini on a royal ground of purple and gold.
When striving to depict the greatest supernatural power, artists could not be extravagant enough! The ensuing pages are dedicated to the four evangelist portraits, the picture cycle for the Gospels as well as to miniatures showing two saints on a generously applied golden ground.
All in all 155 folios in the format 20.5 x 14.7 cm are decorated with a total of 41 gilded miniatures, 13 profusely ornate text pages, as well as over 250 lavishly enlaced gold initials that extend over several lines.
This love of decoration makes it easy to understand why Echternach was chosen to be the family convent of the Salian emperors in the 11th century, just as Reichenau had previously been the first monastery in the Ottonian realm.
However, the fascination of the Echternach Pericopes, then and now, is not only due to its wonderful decoration, but also to its high-quality painting and its unmatched, innovative iconographic programme.
One of the greatest scriptoria of the Western world
Echternach Abbey was founded by an Anglo-Saxon named Willibrord of Northumbria. The pious man and his eleven companions ventured on a mission to the rugged area of Friesland in 690 to convert the heedless population.
Willibrord was originally based in Utrecht, but was soon to build himself a new homestead, the abbey of Echternach in what is today Luxemburg. Starting from a more than modest base, the monks of Echternach had turned the abbey's library into one of the richest of the region by the 11th century.
Their scriptorium became famous for a great number of masterworks of book illumination, which now count among the greatest artistic achievements of the Western world. The Echternach Pericopes was probably made around the year 1030, during the heyday of Echternach illumination.
Touching scenes from the Life of Christ
The Salian abbey of Echternach developed its own formal vocabulary, which was based on both older – i.e. late antique, Carolingian, Byzantian and even Insular – and contemporary exemplars. The artists of the workshop in Echternach fused all these ideas into their own characteristic profile.
The highly informative narrative of the four Gospels constituted a model text that invited them to create emotionally moving illustrations. Even though a number of scenes seem to follow a predetermined pattern, the monks of Echternach liked to deviate from the usual compositions of their day.
For example they created an Annunciation to the Shepherds (see fig. on the right), which rather than being part of the Nativity, was conceived as a homogenous miniature of its own. The wonderfully glowing colours perfectly match the gold in both frame and nimbs.
The life of the ordinary people seen by the monks of Echternach
An absolutely unique feature is the cycle of St Stephanus, which is composed of seven self-contained pictures. No other manuscript is known to contain a similar picture sequence about this martyr.
The impressive cycle not only depicts the search for and discovery of the holy man's bones but also deals with the life and work of the ordinary population. Motifs range from peasants digging with hoe and spade, to vintners being paid with gold pieces.