The Godescalc Evangelistary is one of the most important works of the European Middle Ages. Created for Charlemagne between 781 and 783, this large manuscript set the highest standards for book production in the Carolingian period and incorporated text and design practices that continue to this day. Every one of the 248 text pages is dyed purple and decorated with borders of interlace and geometric designs.
Lines of alternating gold and (now tarnished) silver lettering in two columns gleam off the dark pages. Six full-page illuminations prefix the text of the gospel readings for the liturgical year. The four evangelist portraits, Christ in Majesty, and the Fountain of Life showcase in pictures the revival of Classical Rome that was the cornerstone of the Carolingian Renaissance.
According to Godescalc, the scribe who records his name in the Latin dedication poem at the end of the manuscript, the book was created to commemorate the baptism of Charlemagne’s son, Pepin, in Rome. This poem, and the preceding calendar, preserve a wealth of information about the book’s patronage, purpose and the period in which it was made.
The Ancient and Insular Inspirations of the Carolingian Renaissance
The six full-page illuminations preceding the text draw on iconographic traditions reaching back to the ancient Mediterranean. The four evangelists, all seated on cushions and penning their respective gospels, look up to their attendant symbols, drawing inspiration for their works from the divine. On the opening page, Matthew sits alone within an earthly city. Mark and Luke next form a spectacular two-page image for although they low away from one another, the banding in the background runs continuously across both pages.
Following is John, writing in a heavenly city opposite the figure of Christ enthroned, gazing out from the page with large eyes—the source of the divine to which the reader must look. The final image, the Fountain of Life, is based on the Lateran baptistery, the ultimate source of eternal life.
While the inspiration for these images looks to the south, the ornate initials beginning the text look west to Insular books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels. With their elaborate and intricate interlace, the letters dematerialize into an image in their own right. This drawing together of the past and present of Christianity is at the core of the Carolingian Renaissance, a political, religious and cultural movement that would forever shape the course of western Europe.
A Religious Book with a Political Purpose
Written in gold and silver on purple-dyed pages, the main script is a mixture of Roman uncial and rustic capitals. An evangelistary, the content is the Gospel readings in Latin through the liturgical year beginning with Christmas. Following is a calendar and tables for calculating the date of Easter. It is the final section, a dedication poem written in dactylic pentameter, that is the first record of Caroline minuscule, a script derived from Insular writing and which forms the basis for modern type.
The poem also records the patrons, Charlemagne and his wife, Hildegarde, and that the book was commissioned for the occasion of his son’s baptism at the Lateran in Rome, and event that would help set the stage for Charlemagne’s later crowning as Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800.
A French National Treasure
The book spent almost a millennium in Saint-Sernin in Toulouse before it was taken into the possession of the state in the late eighteenth century. Napoleon I had it stored in the Louvre. It entered the Musée des Souverains in 1852 and is now housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale.
We have 2 facsimiles of the manuscript "Godescalc Evangelistary":
- Godescalc Evangelistary - library edition facsimile edition published by Facsimile Finder, 2015
- Godescalc-Evangelistar facsimile edition published by Faksimile Verlag, 2011