King Charlemagne and his wife, Hildegard, commissioned the Godescalc Evangelistary in the year 781 AD. The Godescalc Evangelistary is the earliest known manuscript produced in the scriptorium (which literally means “a place for writing”) at Charlemagne’s Court School in Aachen, Germany. The manuscript was to commemorate Charlemagne’s journey to Italy to meet Pope Adrian the First and to remember the baptism of his son Pepin. The illuminations of the manuscripts were a product of the Carolingian Renaissance and the fusion of Insular Anglo-Saxon, early Christian, and Byzantine styles. Each motif of the opening page of the Gospel is based heavily on the Saxon origin, while the people were based on the Byzantine models. The manuscript contains the new Carolinian minuscule script, which becomes the foundation of Carolingian manuscripts thereafter. The manuscript also contains the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). The Godescalc Evangelistary outlines prayers services and sections in the Gospel to be read at Mass. It was also used as an important part of Charlemagne’s educational reform.
One may look at this and noticed that the pages are dyed purple. That person would notice that 127 pages are purple parchment and that all the ink is written in gold or something. So that means this manuscript is extremely expensive. The manuscript being commissioned by King was lavish in the script, parchment, and illuminations. Unlike other lavished manuscripts the Godescalc Evangelistary was to be read to the public. You heard right, it was meant to be read to the public and not to sit on a shelf collecting dust while looking pretty. King Charlemagne commissioned the manuscript to be a cultural renewal of the Carolingian people. He did it for the people, although some of the illuminations had some images in his favor. The script is written in gold and silver to be long lasting just like the spiritual content of the manuscript. Gold and other precious metals were considered a gift from God in the Carolinian Kingdom. The manuscript even has a little poem and dedicated to the art of the script:
“Golden words are painted [here] on purple pages,
The Thunderer’s shining kingdoms of the starry heavens,
Revealed in rose-red blood, disclose the joys of heaven,
And the eloquence of God glittering with fitting brilliance
Promises the splendid rewards of martyrdom to be gained” (Wiki Page).
This shows the authors’ intentions to represent God in the art of script. If Christ is the Word, then He must be represented in the text, and that is what Godescalc (one of the authors) tried to achieve with the Godescalc Evangelistary.
Notice the manuscript is named after one person, but was written by more than one person. That is true that Godescalc worked on the piece, but he had the help of a huge staff. There was a team of writers, parchment makers, editor, painters, illuminators, and a bookbinder. Godescalc started a trend of heavily decorated Biblical manuscripts, but none as lavish as the Godescalc Evangelistary. The manuscript looks like it was made for a king and that are because it is. His work offered a new style of illuminations for Carolingian scribes and illuminators. The Godescalc Evangelistary offered a new form of writing that was so successful that all manuscripts of the area (even in France) adopted it after the year 800.
Other than the script there was six essential illuminations in the Godescalc Evangelistary. The four Evangelists are represented in their own illumination. Each has their motif (the symbols of each Gospel writer) and a book (mostly recognized as their Gospel) in hand. Each represents God’s power over them to write the Gospels. King Charlemagne wanted to use the illuminations to raise educational value in the people’s eyes; convince people that education is an important aspect of daily life. Not only that, Godescalc makes the St. John illumination sit next to Jesus, but in a throne. Well, who sits on a throne? The king. It hints at the subtle detail that Charlemagne’s imperial authority is over that of the Church. The fifth illumination is a picture of a young Jesus Christ holding a book in his left arm while blessing with his right. The anatomy of Christ is heavily influenced by Roman art such as the paintings in the Lateran Basilica where Pepin was baptized. Christ is also sitting on a cushioned bench, much less than the Illumination of St. John on the same folio. The sixth illumination was the fountain of life, which could be found in much older manuscripts. It is used to represent the birth of Christ as the eternal life promised by the fountain. The shrine of the fountain is heavily influenced by Pepin’s baptism in the Lateran Basilica in Rome. The Folio containing the fountain talks about the eternal life and the golden kingdom. The illuminators and scribes went all out on this folio bringing the symbolism to the forefront and to appease the King. The birds and the plants show the fountain is the source of the rivers of paradise. These rivers identified with the four Gospels. The peacock in the illumination a symbol of immortality and the waterfowl are symbol of the apostles. Waterfowls in Eastern theological commentaries were seen as “fishers of men”, which is why they are seen as a symbol of the apostles. On the page next to the illumination is the Virgil of Christmas, which promises a golden kingdom and golden words.
So aside from the hint hint, wink winks of the authors to brown-nose imperial family, the manuscript was a educational and cultural success. It got one standard language for the Carolingian kingdom and created a new style of illumination.