The Sacramentary of Metz constitutes a bibliophile jewel which, due to its rich ornamental and miniature decoration, surpasses everything which has come down to us in the canon pages of other medieval sacramentaries. Although the codex is a complete sacramentary which integrates the whole ecclesiastical year, it nonetheless constitutes a fragment, even while still containing the most important portion of the sacramentary (the Canon Missae with the Preface). It has also been suggested that this is only the beginning of a work which has never been completed.
Our manuscript has thus always been known and become famous as a sacramentary fragment, its luxury making it one of the most precious testimonies to late Carolingian illumination. It was made in the second half of the 9th century for a king, probably for Charles the Bald, king of an area then called Francia Occidentalis. Both the script, which is mainly executed in golden letters, and the decoration with ornament and miniatures, are of great artistic value and marvellously enhance the contents of the sacred text.
The imagery developed in Reims and Metz from late classical vocabulary comes alive in the manuscript which is also influenced by the magnificent school of Tours. The existing elements are grouped to a new harmony, and pictorial forms are created which were to influence medieval art for many centuries.
The unique decorative apparatus
Although the manuscript only comprises a few pages (10 folios), it contains magnificent depictions showing great movement and vivacity. At the beginning of the manuscript stands the portrait of the sovereign, depicting the coronation of Charles the Bald by the hand of God. This miniature presents some interesting iconographic details, such as the haloes around the heads of the king and the two bishops, which are interpreted as attributes to those involved in sacramental doings.
In addition, an old motive from late classical triumphal art, the coronation of the emperor by the hand of God, attracts the viewer’s attention, as it is unparalleled in the Carolingian period. It constitutes the most unambiguous expression of the conceited idea that royalty is immediately bestowed by God.
Imaginative ornamental art
Besides a total of seven sumptuous full-page miniatures, the ornamental decoration is of great importance. It underlines the theological contents and excels in a rich formal vocabulary, great inventiveness and determination, both in detail and in the overall conception of the work. Acanthus leaves, coloured pearl bands, edging of precious stones, rosettes of blossoms and palmettes imaginatively wind around the holy text. The overall goal of deploying great pomp and presenting wealth and plenteousness, is clearly visible throughout the book.
A masterpiece of calligraphy
The graphical presentation of the manuscript is an excellent example of the decorative use and combination of different scripts in a calligraphic masterpiece. The text is predominantly written in gold and only on some pages, lines alternate in gold, green and red.
The letters are frequently decorated with ornament and some lines and letters are highlighted on purple grounds. Besides a fine minuscule, all kinds of decorative scripts are used: capitalis quadrata, capitalis rustica, as well as sumptuous uncials for the main portion of the text.
A king’s sacramentary
Sacred books used in coronation ceremonies as well as for other celebrations and ritual feasts, were intended to invoke God’s blessing for the sovereign and the whole dynasty. This is probably the context in which the Sacramentary of Metz should be placed. The reason why it remained unfinished might have been the urgent need for a sumptuous sacramentary at the occasion of the coronation of Charles the Bald, as well as the fact that for lack of a complete manuscript, one had to do with the precious fragment just started at the time, which contained only the first and foremost portion of the Sacramentary. Based on the rich decorative apparatus, it is possible to state that the Sacramentary goes back to the environment of Charles the Bald and is today considered as the work of a school active at his court.