Created around 1031, the Echternach Pericopes is a treasure of Ottonian book manufacture admired for the vibrancy and inventiveness of its illuminations. Long one of the more productive scriptoria in the Roman Empire, the abbey of Echternach achieved its creative apotheosis with the patronage of the Salian dynasty, when this sumptuous manuscript was produced. The Echternach Pericopes is furnished with an extensive cycle of nearly full-page narrative illuminations of a Christ in Majesty, each of the four Evangelists, twenty-eight scenes from the life of Christ, and eight scenes from lives of saints, and is further adorned throughout with purple, gold, decorated initials, and textile-imitation patterns. Amidst this material opulence the artists deploy a distinctly restrained monumental style characterized by exaggerated gestures of figures and abstracted washes of color that heighten the otherworldly drama of the subject.
A liturgical manuscript meant to be read aloud, the Echternach Pericopes consists of short extracts for feast days arranged in the order of the liturgical year. The sanctoral cycle includes seventy-three feasts, more than any other book of Pericopes from this period, with a unique emphasis on St. Stephen. It is possible that this manuscript was intended for use at a church dedicated to that saint, but specifics of patronage and original use are unknown.
Paintings for Liturgical Drama
With its forty-one nearly full-page narrative miniatures, two textile patterned pages, three title pages, and eight initial pages, the Echternach Pericopes is among the most richly decorated Ottonian liturgical manuscripts. The narrative scenes, which include twenty-eight illustrations of the life of Christ and a seven-scene cycle dedicated to St. Stephen, are set against stylized backgrounds of either burnished gold or luminous washes of tonally graded color, and are framed with simple bands of gold, red, and green. Combining antique, Carolingian, and Byzantine influences, the decorative program may be attributed to two or three artists and shares many features with the famous Codex Aureus of Echternach (Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Hs. 156 142).
A Luxurious Prayerbook
The main text is written in a refined Caroline minuscule by a single scribe who also contributed to the Codex Aureus of Echternach. A second scribe enlivened the pages with a small gold majuscule at the beginning of every sentence, gold initials of foliate interlace to introduce each pericope, and with gold rubrics in mixed Rustic and Uncial forms. Display pages of gold Rustic Capitals and Uncials on purple and colored grounds complete the adornment of the luxurious liturgical text.
A Treasure of Churches
The manuscript likely stayed at Echternach through the second half of the twelfth century before making its way to Bremen cathedral. In the thirteenth century, an oath for the archbishop of Bremen was added to the beginning of the book, and in the fourteenth century the carvers of the stalls of the cathedral used the Ottonian miniatures as models. Discovered in the library of the Jesuit College of Cologne in the eighteenth century by Joseph Harzheim, the manuscript was confiscated by the French Republic in 1794 and brought to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. In the restitutions of 1816, the Echternach Pericopes was sent to Brussels, where it joined the manuscript department of the Royal Library of Belgium.