Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Gospels of Henry the Lion

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 Wolfenb├╝ttel 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.


  1. An interesting distinction between The Gospels of Henry the Lion and many other books that were being produced at the time is, as is stated in this post, that these gospels are not written in vernacular. The people to whom this manuscript would have been read were most likely speakers of Middle High German, but despite a growth of education within the common people, not just the aristocracy, they would probably not have been able to understand all the Latin that was being spoken at mass.

    This choice to embrace the traditional Christian language, along with the Gospels’ incredibly ornate binding and their gloriously illuminated pages, is reminiscent of a time when the manuscripts themselves were valued more for their form than their function, when literacy was low in the Roman Empire. Books were more valued as items of worship than for what was written inside them. The difference with The Gospels of Henry the Lion, however, is that they represent an intermingling between the church and state; the abbey that brought the work into creation was commissioned by –– and this should be obvious –– Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony. While the Gospels were made in a style closer to that of more traditional Christian texts, there are facets of its production that, like other manuscripts from this time, reflect the new age of book production.

  2. I think that the Gospels of Henry the Lion are probably the most beautiful manuscript we've looked at so far, and its brilliant preservation just adds to that fact. With how impressed I am today, I can only imagine the text’s impact on those who were read Scripture from it in the 12th or 13th century. It seems to imbue a sense of awe fitting of the Church.

    The work was commissioned for the Brunswick Cathedral by Henry the Lion, who at the time of its commission would have been in a very weakened position politically. Indeed, for much of the Cathedral’s construction Henry was in exile, having been stripped of most of the land which he once held rule over. He would have had to have commissioned the work following his return, in a period of only a few years at Brunswick before being exiled once more. Even so, he didn’t take issue with commissioning the large and ornate work, which seems to me to be evidence that he hadn’t had much intention of stirring the pot prior to his second exile, and that his punishment didn’t occur due to any active defiance on his part. I wouldn’t waste my money and effort on such an ornate work if I planned to risk something which could have me exiled.

  3. The Gospel book is both an interesting manuscript but also a beautiful one. It was commissioned at the Benedictine Helmarshausen Abbey by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony for the altar of the Virgin Mary at the Brunswick Cathedral. The manuscript is extremely lavish, as mentioned in the blog post, and makes use of bright colors and gold. This can be explained by the fact it was made for a cathedral where it was likely part of services and seen by a large population; it needed to be bright and visible to be seen. The manuscript is considered one of the greatest examples of a Romanesque illumination in the 12th century. It was meant to symbolize Henry’s wealth and power but it was also meant to show his claim to the title of Holy Roman Emperor, even though this claim went unfulfilled. The dedication page of the manuscript specifically justifies Henry’s claim to the title of Holy Roman Emperor by claiming he is a descent of Charlemagne.

    The manuscript has a bit of a spotty history but an interesting fact is that in 1983 the manuscript was sold at Sotheby’s, London to the West German government for $32.5 million (though different sites give different prices it was sold at). This price was the highest paid for any work of art at the time.

  4. The beautifully ornate illuminations are surely worth the amount of money spent on it (then and now). Even by the cover, I can see it’s going to be an ornate book with all the colors. Being for Henry the Lion, its only right to assume that he would make a cameo in the Holy Book. On top of that Henry is only being crowning by Christ making reminiscent of the Book of Hours we have seen previously. It is very different from the Book of Hours because his cameo doesn’t have him reading his book inside the book with some religious figure reading the book behind him.
    I am still in wondering about the mysterious seller and his connection to getting the manuscript back. But it seems ironic that the book would switch between the public and private. It was in the public during the majority of its time and then disappeared into the private, before resurfacing as a complete public. At all points the book is used for learning the Latin at the time and seeing the illuminations fit with the Latin words.

  5. Wow, first off that cover is crazy with all the bosses and precious metals. I don't think we've encountered quite a cover; though maybe older books once had ones as gaudy as this. I wish they gave weights for books, because I'm sure this one weighed a ton. The relationship between wealthy patron, Cathedral school, and aristocratic book production really shines through in the Gospels of Henry the Lion. I wonder, as I look at the third image from the top, what the marginal words are, considering this was written in Latin without a gloss, no?

    Also, I think that though the nature and context of manuscripts has changed drastically since our time looking at Christianity/written word following the fall of Rome's Eastern Empire, the sustained nature of text (and illumination) being used for liturgical purposes carries on even until now, with a manuscript that was produced just before the dawn of the thirteenth century. I agree with Liam that this manuscript is one of the most beautiful we have examined, along with (in my opinion), the Lindisfarne Gospels.