Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Godescalc Evangelistary

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.
Pictures Link


  1. The heavy use of illumination in the Godescalc Evangelistary was expected, especially due to its intended use as a public document, but the fact that golds and silvers were used so extensively was surprising. Upon first inspection of the manuscript, I had initially thought that it was yet another private book, especially seeing as the wear on the illuminations and text seems rather minimal. Whoever had been handling this manuscript must have been fairly careful with it, perhaps realizing how precious a document it was or simply respecting the gift of the King, as many of the other public works I’ve observed were usually much more worn from use.
    One of the details that caught my attention, aside from the striking illuminations, was St. John’s position in the book. It reminded me immediately of the verse in the bible wherein John and his brother, James, requested positions at the right and left of Christ in heaven. Sitting at the right hand was a rather important positon after all, and seeing that he is placed as such in the above illumination is rather interesting. I would be interesting in learning more about the reasoning for the placement of this illumination and why the artists decided to create the imagery here as such.

  2. The extreme artistry of the Godelscale Evangelistary is quite odd, given that it was meant for public use where one would expect a simpler, cheaper book to be implemented. But given that Charlemagne meant for this book to symbolize a return of imperial power in Europe, it makes a great deal of sense that he would want to have the book be as grand as possible so the masses could see it and be awestruck.

    Dying the pages purple would be particularly significant to this goal because in the age of Rome, purple could only be had by the nobility. The dye that was used in the time of Ancient Rome was called Tyrian Purple, and it was obtained from the boiling of the shells of the marine snails in the family Murex. Tyrian purple could fetch its weight in silver, and the dye was greatly value not only for its hue but also for its resistance to fading. Indeed, a cloth dyed with Tyrian purple will actually become brighter and more vibrant when exposed to sunlight for long periods of time.

    The purple coloration of the Evangelistary's pages, when combined with the gold and silver used in the illustrations and illuminations, would be spectacular to the everyday European peasant living in a time before cheap synthetic dyes allowed nearly anyone to own items in whatever color they may desire.

  3. The extreme decoration of this document that was made for public use reminds us of the role of manuscripts as relics and symbols rather than practical methods of distributing written information. The Godelscale Evangelistary was meant to show the power and wealth of Charlemagne and reenforce his status as ruler.
    Besides the obvious display of wealth that this manuscript presents its illustrations are also very interesting. These pictures use elements from various cultures and combine them in one image. This can also be taken as a symbol of the growth of the Carolingian Empire and its attempt for it to include aspects from places that it now rules into its imagery, rather than replacing previous styles completely with their own. I have little doubt that this fusion was a deliberate act to also symbolize the fusion of peoples and countries into the whole of the Carolingian Empire.