The Gospels of Henry the Lion is an extremely ornate, highly luxurious copy of all four of the Holy Gospels on 226 parchment pages. Fifty of the pages are colorful and elaborate full page illuminated miniatures. The manuscript is in excellent condition, all of the pages are intact and when considering its particularly mysterious history that’s pretty amazing. This manuscript definitely seems like it would have been commissioned to be a display piece rather than functionally used, but surprisingly, its existence did serve a very functional purpose; passages would have been read from it during masses. Through the evolution of court culture, commissioned religious books with large pictures served to increase accessibility to the text and would have been seen as a status symbol. This manuscript is pretty huge, 34.2 × 25.5 cm, and when this book of gospels was commissioned in 1188 to honor the Brunswick Cathedral it was during a time of great artistic innovation, which is evident though its design and decoration. Henry the Lion, one of the most powerful rulers of the Middle Ages, definitely displayed his wealth and power with this incredibly luxurious set of gospels.
The twelfth century saw a rapidly advancing cultural and artistic renaissance, the growth of cities, development of urban universities, and the interest of secular populations to become more involved in their own religion sparked many of these changes. Because of these developments more and more books were being composed and copied in the vernacular of their different regions. The Gospels of Henry the Lion are not written in vernacular. Despite vernacular becoming more increasingly common this manuscript is written in Latin, which was still considered the language of learning at that time. The fact that it was written in Latin indicates its high importance for religious purposes. But the large miniatures make the text accessible for even less educated lay audiences. And it makes sense that a ruler would want to both connect with his subjects and also remind them of his extreme wealth and influence. There is no way other nobles in Henry the Lion’s court could have competed in commissioning a book to rival this manuscript. The original binding most probably would have been impressive too, but the current binding, red leather containing relics of saints and other metalwork of religious iconography and looks quite impressive and quite heavy. When the cover was updated in 1594, The Dean of the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague got his own coat of arms on the cover.
Almost every page has decoration of some kind, many of the pages being entirely illustrations. The colors are vibrant reds, blues, greens, and illuminated with much gold leaf. There are thousands of illustrations throughout the book even the pages with fewer decorations are still beautifully detailed. Many of the pages show traditional religious iconography. One of the pages that is of particular interest to me is Folio 171v. This folio depicts the coronation of Henry the Lion and his wife Mathilde in the lower portion. Henry the Lion is shown kneeling with Mathilde standing beside him, the hands of Christ place crowns on their heads as other important family members including his parents, Duke Henry the Proud and Duchess Gertrude, his grandparents, Emperor Lothar III. and Empress Richenza, Mathilde’s father, King Henry II. of England, and her grandmother, Matilda, stand looking on. Each figure in the lower section is labeled and includes captions. In the upper portion of the miniature is Christ surrounded by eight saints, one of which is depicted as Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. The page is exquisitely detailed with color and copiously illuminated. Henry the Lion shapes the image that will be remembered of him with pictures in a highly lavish and skillfully painted manuscript. The inclusion of such regal images of himself and other important family members indicates the, rightly deserved, sense of self-importance and inclination to strengthen the image of his family in memory and even in years to come.
Not only is the manuscript itself beautiful, it also boasts a tantalizing mystery about its enigmatic providence, and has limited visibility to the public throughout the year. Almost like a reclusive celebrity, the Gospels of Henry the Lion makes a public appearance only six weeks every year, and then returns to its special safe designed to keep the manuscript in its best condition for the rest. Also, not much is known about the location of the book before arriving in Prague and then being acquired by King George V of Hanover in 1861. After being dethroned in 1866 George V took the gospels with him to Austria. The manuscript somehow ended up in England after World War II, and in 1945 it was offered for sale to the King of England, but he refused the offer. It is unknown where the book remained for the thirty-eight years until it was put up for sale in August, 1983 to the auction house Sotheby’s in London by an unknown party. The book was offered for sixteen million euros ($20.7 million), making it at that time the most expensive piece of art ever purchased. The manuscript was purchased with combined funds from Germany’s federal government, the state governments of Lower Saxony and Bavaria, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, and private donors. The gospels were brought back to Germany and are now housed in the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel just outside of Braunschweig in Lower Saxony. The manuscript’s spotty provenance is only half of the mystery as it is still unclear who received the 16 million euros.