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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



"Lindau Gospels," in Latin. Switzerland, St. Gall, ca. 880 (manuscript).Eastern France, ca. 870 (front cover) Salzburg, ca. 780–800 (back cover). Morgan Library & Museum, 1901.The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.1, front over. Photography by Graham S. Haber


J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), the financier, was particularly fond of collecting lavishly illuminated and gilded medieval manuscripts.   The later 19th century, when he started collecting them, must have been a good time to do so, as his only major rival in this field seems to have been Henry Walters (1848-1931), founder of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Certainly, Pierpont Morgan's passion for the medieval helps enormously to make a magnificent show out of "Imperial Splendor: The Art of the Book in the Holy Roman Empire, ca. 800- 1500" at the Morgan Library & Museum (through January 23, 2022). On the other hand, this exhibition is also a "spare no expense" loan exhibition, with yet more opulent and frequently eye-popping contributions not only from the Walters but also The Getty in California, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the National Gallery in Washington, and – but  you get the general idea.




As might be deduced from its title, "Imperial Splendor" deals with the art of an empire – but an empire with a religious orientation.   In the year 800, Pope Leo III made an ambitious attempt to revive the western half of the ancient Roman Empire, which had fallen into desuetude since 476, when the city of Rome was conquered by the barbarians. 


On Christmas Day – which was also New Year's Day, according to the calendars then used - - this pope crowned Charlemagne supreme ruler of what he called the Holy Roman Empire. The whole idea was that this emperor owed his legitimacy to the Church, but it's also true that Leo owed Charlemagne big-time for backing up his own claims to legitimacy in the face of antagonists, most especially the Roman Empire of the East.


Charlemagne at the time was the strongest ruler in Europe, claiming sovereignty over most of present-day France, most of present-day Germany, large parts of northern Italy, Switzerland, and parts of the Low Countries as well. His royal house was called the Carolingian dynasty ("Carolus" being Latin for "Charles"), but this was not because it had been founded by Charlemagne.  Instead it was named in honor of its founder and Charlemagne's grandfather, Charles Martel.


And, although Charlemagne was titular ruler of this vast territory, it was divided under him into a panoply of cities, principalities, duchies, and other smaller governmental entities.   This was especially true toward the east, where the ancient Romans had never penetrated and where bands of marauding vandals, from the Vikings to the Magyars, still combined to make daily life a time of uncertainty and unrest.


The current show at the Morgan begins with a short introductory section of art from the Carolingian period. Then it moves on even beyond the next phase of the Holy Roman Empire, after Charlemagne had died and three of his grandsons had divvied up his empire (having fought about it and signing the Treaty of Verdun in 843 ending the war). 


One son, Charles the Bald, got the territory then known as West Frankia (or Francia) and now the essence of modern France.  Another son, Louis the German, got East Frankia (or Francia), the essence of modern Germany. 


The third son, Lothar, got what was named in his honor Lotharingia.  Lotharingia stretched between East and West Frankia from the North Sea to Italy south of Rome. It incorporated much of what are now the Low Countries, Alsace, Lorraine, other parts of modern Germany, Burgundy, and the better part of Italy..


Along with these lands, Lotharingia also took with it the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, as Lothar was the oldest of these three brothers.  But that didn't last. Another century or so of warfare followed, with East and West Frankians both trying take over some or all of Lotharingia.


In some ways, one could say that this battle continued right up into the 20th century, since Alsace-Lorraine was only most recently ceded back to France in 1945.  But eleven centuries earlier, in 962, Otto I, the king of Saxony in East Frankia, had got himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor and the Ottonian era of the H.R.E began.


Most historians today, it seems, don't count the Carolingian era of the Holy Roman Empire as part of the Holy Roman Empire at all.  They say the H.R.E. only began with the ascension of the German King Otto I.  That way, they can define it as definitively a Teutonic phenomenon.  And certainly for the rest of its existence it encompassed predominantly German-speaking lands.


Here I mean those governmental bodies that went into the formation of modern Germany and also what was originally German-speaking Austria – though Austria at its height encompassed a number of non-German speaking countries, among them Hungary and Bohemia, the latter today being the Czech Republic.


This whole Holy Roman Empire was headed up over the centuries by many different Germanic rulers of smaller entities within it, one after the other.  During its final centuries, the title of Holy Roman Emperor wound up with the Hapsburgs of Austria, but they had to dissolve this empire when Napoleon whupped the tar out of them at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. 




Not that the show at the Morgan goes up this far.  Not a bit of it.  This show is devoted primarily to the art of the book as it existed in the eras before Johannes Gutenberg developed movable type and made mass-production of books possible.   His breakthrough Bible was published in 1455, and this show includes a tastefully illuminated Gutenberg Bible, too. 


However, its conclusion includes some printed books with woodcuts or illuminations for illustration from the later 15th and even 16th centuries – as well as some lovely contemporary paintings, ranging from portraits to triptychs presumably for altarpieces, and some other precious contemporary items..


In all the show has some 70 illuminated manuscripts.  Sometimes whole books are displayed, sometimes just pages, or fragments of pages, sometimes in Latin, sometimes in German – and sometimes as musical notes. Everything is beautifully, elaborately done but what fascinated me most was the variety of churchly texts included (along with the occasional secular text.). 


There are Bibles, naturally, but also Gospel books (containing the four books of the New Testament telling the story of Christ's life): Psalters (collections of psalms from the Old Testament); prayer books; and missals (texts used in Catholic mass).


Other types of manuscripts that make an appearance: the lectionary (selections from the Bible to be read at church services); the sacramentary (rites for Mass and other sacraments); the gradual (the choral parts of the Mass); the antiphonary (containing antiphons, these being short sentence sung or recited before or after a psalm or canticle), and finally, histories of time (compendiums or compilations).


The show follows a chronological route, and is divided into three principal sections:   "Imperial Networks" (9th -- 11th centuries); "Imperial Monasteries" (12th- 14th Centuries); and finally "Imperial Cities" (15th--16th centuries). At the beginning are brief displays of Carolingian and Ottonian "beginnings" and at end is a handsome section on "Nuremberg: Dürer and Humanism."


The largest manuscript on display is a two-foot-high, two-volume gradual known as "the Geese Book," because of a humorous drawing in it of a gaggle of geese.  It comes in the Nuremberg section (although illuminated by one of Dürer's rivals) and is owned by the Morgan.  The smallest manuscript comes near the beginning of the show. It is a Latin psalter which measures maybe 5 or 6 inches high, and comes from the Walters in Baltimore.  So here two rival collectors wind up together in the same show.


It is certainly a great pleasure to progress all the way through this magnificent exhibition. In the process one may observe the gradual evolution of the way that human figures are portrayed, from strict and schematic to progressively nearer to what today we might call "naturalistic" (i.e. embracing Renaissance norms).


But silly me!  Much as I admire the Renaissance in human terms, the earlier, more schematic illuminations in this show appealed to me more as a lover of abstraction. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that our present fascination with the medieval dates back to those eras when "modernism" (beginning with the Romantics) was re-discovering the simplicity and stylization of the medieval after centuries in which such virtues had been dismissed as "crude" and "barbaric" from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment.


Abstraction being my predilection, I was most intrigued by the earliest parts of this show: the Ottonian and yes, the Carolingian.  At the entrance to the show is one of its earliest and greatest masterpieces, and the one of the Morgan's most precious treasures: the Lindau Gospels.  


This monumental volume achieved its final form around 880 at Lindau Abbey, a Benedictine convent situated on a small island in Lake Constance, at the crossroads of present-day Germany, Austria and Switzerland, but both covers were made earlier and came from elsewhere.


The front cover is truly beautiful, with its dulcet figure of Christ on the cross in the center, surrounded by precious jewels.  According to its label, it must have been a royal gift, being one of only three surviving examples of metalwork that can be attributed to the workshop of Charles the Bald, king of West Frankia, to whom the title of Holy Roman Emperor passed after the death of his half-brother Lothair. 


However, this front cover is also very well known (at least, I'm sure I've seen it before in an art history textbook, though I can't at the moment remember which one) And the back cover – which is also on display in this exhibition – I had never seen before. It is truly elegant and very abstract, with a large and very decorative cross design running from bottom to top of the cover, and clear out to its four sides.


The Morgan has very kindly provided me with a lovely photograph of the front cover of Lindau Gospellsl. However, as far as the catalogue to this show is concerned, the back cover is the really important part of it.  This catalogue was written by the show's curators, Joshua O'Driscoll and Jeffrey F. Hamburger, and they express themselves about it so eloquently that I have decided to let them tell my readers all about it -- even if the quotation is somewhat sizeable. 


I do hope the Morgan isn't going to sue me for copyright infringement if I quote at rather greater length than I normally do.


"When Charlemagne was crowned emperor in Rome in the year 800," begin O'Driscoll and Hamburger, "he accomplished something that had not been done since the fifth century….. a formal recognition of his status as emperor was essential in providing a framework of legitimacy that would enable Charlemagne and his successors to maintain control over the diverse kingdoms and principalities that, at its height, encompassed much of present-day western Europe….

"Part of what enabled the Carolingians to manage such a sprawling territory was their commitment to the written word and learning in general. Charlemagne's court was famously welcoming to foreigners, especially scholars.


"The renowned teacher, Alcuin, head of the court school, was from England; his contemporary, Theodulf, a gifted poet and theologian, was from Spain; others were recruited from Italy. These intellectuals brought with them a diversity of knowledge and connections that greatly enriched cultural life in the Frankish kingdom….


"Along with scholars, manuscripts played an essential role not just as transmitters
of knowledge, but as instruments of reform and markers of imperial support. Paying attention as much to their visual qualities as to their contents, the Carolingians fundamentally shaped the role of illuminated manuscripts in the Middle Ages.


"Their most deluxe works were often commissioned as gifts, and thus operated along carefully cultivated networks of patronage and production…..the illuminated manuscripts of this period powerfully articulate notions of empire, authority, and tradition.

"One of the great monuments of early Carolingian book art is the back cover of a gospel book from Lindau Abbey…[It]  originated in or around Salzburg in the late eighth century—that is, a hundred years earlier than the manuscript it adorns. Made for a now-lost luxury gospel book, it offers a superb example of the level of prestige and value accorded to manuscripts of the Gospels in the early Middle Ages.


"Its exuberant ornament showcases a variety of artistic techniques and regional styles seamlessly integrated into a harmonious composition. The design consists of a large enamel and silver-gilt cross with flared arms, set inside a rectangular enamel frame.


"At the center, a topaz is set within a lozenge (both early modern replacements) around which run four standardized abbreviations of holy names known as nomina sacra: I ̄HS X ̄PS D ̄NS N ̄OS (Iesus Christus Dominus Noster—Jesus Christ, our Lord).


"The particular arrangement of the inscription, with its four groups of three letters, exemplifies the pervasive number symbolism underlying the design—one of the many ways the cover generates meaning through aniconic (non-figural) means.


"In like fashion, four nearly identical busts of Christ surround the center of the composition, just as four decorative bosses occupy the quadrants between the arms of the cross, and four medallions of the evangelists (sixteenth-century replacements) fill the corners of the frame.


"The repeated emphasis on four elements around a central point—a quincunx pattern—powerfully articulates the fourfold harmony of the Gospels, a fundamental theme of early medieval book art.


"Additional details lend the cover a cosmological dimension. The Greek letters alpha and omega are inscribed on the vertical arm of the cross and refer to the beginning and end of time.


"Likewise, the mass of snakes and other creatures filling the four carved plaques between the arms of the cross establish a link between the Gospels and the primordial act of creation.


"Together, these motifs demonstrate that a gospel book was itself considered a source of life—that is, eternal life.

"The rich thematic nuances of the Lindau back cover are all the more impressive in light of the incredible variety of metalwork techniques on display.


"Not counting the later replacements or additions, there are eight distinct techniques including two types of champlevé enamel, cloisonné enamel, garnets and inlaid glass, precious stone settings, the chip-carved plaques between the arms of the cross, and the two pierced-relief medallions on either end of the cross's vertical arm.


"This virtuoso technical display can be understood as more than just showing off. By bringing together wide-ranging artistic traditions—particularly the insular and the Mediterranean—the cover exhibits one of the hallmarks of cultural production in the Frankish kingdoms during the eighth century…..

"A lack of direct evidence means that the early history of the Lindau back cover will likely never be known for certain. Regardless of its precise origins, however, its significance cannot be overstated.


"It is without doubt the product of an ambitious and highly experienced workshop under the direction of someone with a decidedly cosmopolitan outlook.


"Moreover, the cultural interplay evident in its design and in the variety of its techniques reflects a broader moment of plurality and exchange in the late eighth century that set the stage for the sweeping reforms to be ushered in by Charlemagne and his court."

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