"Receive, o most admirable king of kings, this modest booklet so worthy of our veneration for you, which I have written in gold and decorated with various illustrations". This dedication is found in a small, yet nonetheless precious illustrated manuscript that was given to the later Emperor Otto III. It is the Royal Prayer Book for Otto III, the only surviving prayer book made for an Ottonian ruler some thousand years ago.
A private prayer book as codex aureus
Today kept in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek of Munich, the Royal Prayer Book for Otto III is an historic, cultural, and bibliophile monument of the highest order: a private prayer book made for a king of the early Middle Ages, it constitutes an absolutely rare and precious item.
The bibliophile gem was produced with the luxury worthy of a king, as a codex aureus: its 44 leaves in the format 15 x 12 cm are made of the finest vellum and written throughout in gold on purple ground.
Precious gold was also used for the 25 golden initials that extend over several lines and for the countless small initials at the beginning of each sentence.
Three full-page portraits of the later ruler Otto III
The five full-page miniatures composed by the artist of the royal prayer book are an impressive feature. These gold-framed images provide a deep insight into the Ottonian emperors' concept of rulership.
The recipient of the manuscript is depicted in no less than three of them. The images were made with the intention to familiarise the young ruler – Otto was less than twelve years old when the book was given to him – with the high ideals of his rulership in reference to Christ.
The royal prayer book thus not only constituted an item of devotion but also a guideline for the prospective emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
A gift from Empress Theophanu?
However, who actually commissioned this magnificent prayer book? The Royal Prayer Book for Otto III was made in the years between the crowning of the three year-old Otto in 983 and the death of his mother, the Byzantine princess Theophanu, in 991.
Its character as a kind of princely mirror (a book in which Otto was shown the ideal picture of a king of divine right) suggests that it was either made on the behest of Theophanu who ordered the manuscript for her son, or on that of Archbishop Willigis of Mainz, her loyal adviser.
Thus it must have been either Theophanu or Willigis who selected the texts showing Otto what comportment was expected from a Christian king.
The short but dramatic life of Otto III
Otto III was born in 980 as son of Otto II and the Byzantine princess Theophanu. In order to secure the royal succession, the child was anointed king in Aachen by Christmas 983 upon his father's wish.
Aachen received the message that Otto II had died in Rome while celebrations were still going on. A dramatic event – were politics perhaps involved so that the sad message only arrived after the royal unction had already been completed?
Theophanu had only little time to mourn; self-confidently, she defeated Duke Henry the Quarrelsome's claim to the throne and took over rulership herself on behalf of her son, with Archbishop Willigis of Mainz as adviser.
At eleven years of age, Otto advanced to the throne himself. During a campaign in Italy, he enthroned his cousin Brun as Pope Gregory V who then crowned him emperor in 997 in Rome. Another idol of the widely educated Otto was Charlemagne, and also the powerful empire in the east: Byzantium.
Otto saw himself as a secular thrust of the Western empire and as patron of Rome and the Pope. Otto died quite suddenly in January 1002 of malaria, at only 21 years of age. His biggest project – the renewal of the Roman Empire – was however, left unfinished.
As the only surviving private royal prayer book from the Ottonian period, this manuscript is an historian and bibliophile monument of the highest order. Its acquisition for the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Munich in 1994 has been justly honoured as the most important acquisition since the movement of secularisation.