Provenance of the Lorsch Gospels

For nearly twelve-hundred years the Lorsch Gospels has survived theft and relocation to remain a magnificent example of Carolingian art and artistry. While the manuscript has been divided into two parts and separated from its ivory covers for the past three-hundred and fifty years, this century's scholarly efforts have reunited the work. The resulting studies of the document as a whole have affirmed the manuscript's importance in the history of Carolingian art, medieval illumination and script, and the heritage of scripture.

During the eighth and ninth centuries, a small renaissance of Roman art blossomed at the Carolingian court through the encouragement of Charlemagne, his pan-European court, and the sanction of the papacy. Several monastic centers or ateliers were set up to create and reproduce fine manuscripts on commission from the court and other wealthy patrons. One such group, known as the Ada School,(1) was influenced by the scribe Godescalc who had created a Gospel book for Charlemagne around the year 783. His work, unlike that of his contemporaries, had a distinctly Byzantine air and his portraits of Biblical persons had Greek and middle eastern features rather than the likenesses of northern Europeans.(2)

About the year 810, Charlemagne commissioned a Gospel book that was created at the scriptorium at the Aachen court by Ada artisans. The inscription and illumination of the 473 page work was probably completed in this court city before the emperor's death in 814 by a group of artisans rather than by an individual.(3) Experts who compared the design of the canon tables and miniatures concluded that the document was the last in a chronological succession of all surviving manuscripts from the court of Charlemagne.(4)

While many other medieval Biblical manuscripts were intended for study or devotion, the Lorsch Gospels were created specifically for use on the altar during mass. The text, like that of other Carolingian New Testament works, follows closely the Latin Vulgate prototype established by Saint Jerome in the Fourth Century.(5) The double columns and relatively clear writing allow for ease of reading aloud in church. After the richly carved ivory covers were mounted on both sides of the manuscript, the outside of the work achieved a dignity and beauty that became the focal point of processions and the pronouncement of holy writ. The back cover was as important as the front because when the Gospel was read, the priest held the book up in a manner that the back was visible to the congregation. The ivory covers have themselves been the focus of scholastic and artistic debate in the past century and have perhaps become more famous than the manuscript they once bound.(6)

The first surviving mention of the manuscript now known as the Lorsch Gospels is in the catalogue of the Lorsch Abbey library compiled in 830 under Abbot Adelung. It was registered as Evangelium scriptum cum auro pictum habens tabulas eburneas. Gold letters in the manuscript and its location at Lorsch led to the work being called the Codex Aureus Laurensius.(7)

The Abbey at Lorsch had a strong connection to the imperial court. Although the abbey was founded in 764 near the city of Worms,(8) Charlemagne had the cloister moved to Lorsch in 774 and granted the abbey his royal protection. Charlemagne himself attended the consecration of the abbey church of Saint Nazarius; later his son and great-grandson were buried in the church's crypt where frescos from the period survive. Charlemagne's heirs may have sent the Gospels to Lorsch to honor the memory of the illustrious ruler and to give the abbey's collection a masterpiece worthy of Charlemagne's renown. For the next three hundred and fifty years the abbey enjoyed a period of influence and cultural brilliance under the patronage of the imperial court. The surviving catalogues of the abbey's library indicate that at the height of Lorsch's golden age in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the library was the best of its contemporaries.(9)

The Lorsch Abbey's influence began to wane in the twelfth century as its abbots became more preoccupied with maintaining the cloister's independence from episcopal power and less concerned with the support of artistic and cultural endeavors. This struggle ended in 1229 when Archbishop Siegfried II of Mainz acquired control of the monastery from Pope Gregory IX in 1229. Lorsch became a Cistercian house and was reduced to the rank of priory. In 1461 the Counts Palatine were granted control of Lorsch including its library; Otto Heinrich removed the contents of the library to Heidelberg forming the famous "Palatina" just prior to Lorsch's dissolution in 1563. The collection remained in Heidelberg for over fifty years until early in the Thirty Years War when the city fell to General Tilly and was sacked by Catholic troops in 1622. The powerful Catholic leader Maximilian of Bavaria presented the University of Heidelberg's library collection, including the "Palatina", to Pope Gregory XV.(10) To this day the collection retains the library classification "Palatine" in the Biblioteca Vaticano.

While the Lorsch Gospels were among the manuscripts in the Palatine collection, the book itself would undergo a complicated series of divisions, misappropriations, and misinterpretations that would only be better understood in the latter half of the twentieth century. At some point in the manuscript's history, the Lorsch Gospel book was separated into two parts. A note on the last page of the work indicates that in 1479 the work was rebound at Lorsch at the behest of Eberhard von Wassen.(11) The Gospels of Matthew and Mark may have been divided from Luke and John at this time for ease of reading and transport because the original volume was very heavy and bulky. At the time of separation, the back cover featuring Christ enthroned was remounted on the front of the second part.

Knowledge of the journey of the manuscript, whether separated or whole, becomes sketchy after the Lorsch Abbey library was removed to Rome in 1623.(12) The Vatican did acknowledge receipt of the Lorsch manuscript, but scholars are not sure if this was all or just half of the original document. After the Gospels arrived in Rome, the second half (and probably the only portion of the manuscript that the Vatican ever received) was rebound in a brown leather binding and the pages were renumbered in pencil. The ivory cover was placed in the Vatican's Museo Sacro, but the Gospels of Luke and John remain in the Biblioteca Vaticano to this day.(13)

The first half of the Gospels with the Madonna cover may have remained in a private collection in Rome, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, until the middle of the Eighteenth Century when this half of the text, now separated from the ivory Madonna cover and bound in leather, appeared in the possession of Cardinal Migazzi of Vienna. This manuscript was sold to Count Ignatz Batthyány, the Bishop of Transylvania and ex-librarian of the College of Saint Apollinario in Rome, in 1785. Batthyány then placed the work in his library in Karlsberg, Hungary where it remained despite the political upheavals of the next two centuries.(14) The ivory Madonna cover remained in obscurity until it suddenly reappeared in 1853 when it was auctioned with the Peter Leven collection of Cologne. At this time an alert art historian identified the cover as the pair of the Christ Enthroned cover in the Vatican collection. Over the next thirteen years the ivory was bought first by Prince Soltikoff and then the Webb Collection before the Victoria and Albert Museum of London purchased the cover in 1866 and has preserved it with other Carolingian ivories.

From the eighteenth century on, each part of the scattered Lorsch Gospels existed in a virtual scholastic vacuum: few if anyone knew that the manuscripts in Rome and Karlsberg (Alba Julia) and the covers in London and Rome once formed a whole document.(15) Not until after the 1889 publication of the Ada manuscript of Trier did scholars begin to consider the Vatican's part of the Lorsch Gospels in relation to the court schools of Charlemagne. In a 1901 article discussing the Trier work, German scholar Arthur Hascloff reported that a Hungarian colleague named Szentivány knew of a similar work in the Batthynanium. This publication led to the tracking down and examination of the manuscript; the different components of the Lorsch Gospels were once again considered as a whole document.

In 1965 the manuscripts and covers were reunited for an exhibition in Aachen entitled "Charlemagne: His Achievements and Influence. A facsimile edition of the Gospels was painstakingly photographed on this occasion thus giving the modern world a prototype of the original Carolingian masterpiece. In his introduction to this modern rendition, Wolfgang Braunfels outlined twentieth century scholarship on the Lorsch Gospels and provided the most inclusive histories of the manuscript.

The work's importance to the history of the book may not lie simply in its artwork as a manifestation of the court-sponsored ateliers of the Carolingian empire. While the Lorsch Gospels does illustrate the artistic heritage of the Godescalc and Ada schools of Aachen and became the template for this style to later works such as those by Gero, possibly the most significant part of the Lorsch Gospels story, at least from the historian's viewpoint, is that of its nearly twelve-hundred year journey to the present.

The Lorsch Gospels is a very well documented manuscript and it has passed through relatively few repositories (albeit some are unknown because part of the work had been stolen). But because of the division of the book and the separation of the covers from the text, the separate components ended up in far flung European locations and their relationship was forgotten. All miraculously survived the upheavals of the past few centuries, however, and each was considered a worthy representation of Carolingian art. Only after a few alert scholars recognized the units as part of a whole did the entire saga of the Lorsch Gospels come to light. Communication between experts was clearly the key. Had scholastic apparati such as journals not been available at the turn of the century, the reunion of the Lorsch Gospels may not have transpired until much later. How many other books and works of art have suffered a similar fate? The possibility of a new discovery that may lead to an entirely new interpretation of a seemingly well known artifact certainly exists; as the contents of repositories become more accessible in this, the electronic age, the likelihood of such a breakthrough can only increase with time.

1. The Ada School was supposedly named after the Ada Gospels, commissioned by Charlemagne and named for his sister, written by this atelier. Other schools that have been identified include the later Palace School, the Rheims School, and the Tours School. (James Snyder, Medieval Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture: The Fourth through Fourteenth Centuries [New York: Harry Abrams, 1988], 206.

2. In the case of the Lorsch Gospels, the ivory cover depicting Christ enthroned rather than the manuscript itself, reflects most clearly this earlier influence on the work of Godescalc's successors. (Jean Hubert, J. Porcher, W.F. Volbach, The Carolingian Renaissance [New York: George Brazillier, 1970 ], 78.)

3. In his introduction to the facsimile version of the Lorsch Gospels, Wolfgang Braunfels points out that no two designs are alike within the manuscript leading experts to believe that several scribes and illustrators labored simultaneously on the manuscripts and borders. (Wolfgang Braunfels, Introduction to Lorsch Gospels, [New York: George Brazilier, 1967], 6-7.)

4. Some aspects of the Lorsch Gospels did, however, serve as a model for other works by the court painter and manuscript illustrator Anno. Several miniatures featured in the Gero Codex were copies of those in the Lorsch Gospels. The portraits of the four Evangelists and that of Christ were duplicated in a book of Pericopes now in the Darmstadt Hessischen Landesbibliothek (Cod, 1948) and in the Peterhausen Sacramentary in Heidelberg (Universitäts Bibliothek, Cod. Sal. IX b.). (Christopher De Hamel A History of Illuminated Manuscripts [Boston: David R. Godine, 1994], 63.

5. Saint Jerome's Vulgate version of the Gospels was comissioned in 380 by Pope Damasus. The Lorsch Gospels includes St. Jerome's preface and dedication to Pope Damasus.

6. Most of the available literature on focuses not on the texts, but on the ivory covers. Researchers Morey and Longhurst, in a pair of articles published in the 1928 and 1929 volumes of Speculum, argued that the ivory cover in the Vatican was actually a restoration of a fifth century Alexandrian diptych. (Margaret H. Longhurst and Charles Rufus Morey, "The Covers of the Lorsch Gospels" Speculum: Journal of Medieval Studies 3:1 [January 1928], 73.) More recent scholars have determined that the covers were indeed created at the Ada atelier, but that the concept for the covers was drawn from fifth century ivory diptychs.

7. Several references consulted referred to the Lorsch Gospels as simply the Codex Aureus, but this term refers both to a group of gold-lettered manuscripts and the Codex Aureus now housed in the British Museum.

8. The original site was established in Altenmünster by Count Kankor and his mother Williswinda and was settled with monks from Gorze.

9. New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, s.v. "Lorsch, Abbey of."

10. Maximilian of Bavaria's reward was control of the Palatinate, the title of Elector, and the powerbase from which he later achieved the title and status of Duke of Bavaria. (William Durant, The Age of Reason Begins: A History of European Civilization in the Period of Shakespeare, Bacon, Montaigne, Rembrandt, Galileo, and Descartes: 1558-1648 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961), 558.

11. Historian Wolfgang Braunfels does not believe, however, that the book was necessarily separated at this time. He reports that the work may have remained together in Rome into the beginning of the Eighteenth Century. (Braunfels, Introduction to the Lorsch Gospels, 5)

12. At the behest of Maximilian of Bavaria, legate Leo Allatius accompanied the fifty wagons that transported the contents of the library over the Alps under wartime conditions. Some of the works did not arrive in Rome as expected and Allatius was accused of having confiscated portions of the collection during the long trip. (Braunfels, Introduction to the Lorsch Gospels, 6)

13. The Lorsch Gospels was officially catalogued as in the Biblioteca Vaticano.

14. While the collection has remained in one place, the city and surrounds of Karlsberg (Hungarian name Gyulafehérvár) have changed dramatically in the past two hundred years. In 1937 that part of Hungary came under Rumanian rule and the city was renamed Alba Julia (or Alba Iulia). The library known as the Biblioteca Batthyaneum is now part of the Rumanian National Library system. (Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, 1966, s.v. "Rumanian Libraries-- Biblioteca Batthyaneum.") The Lorsch Gospels are still in this Rumanian collection.

15. The introduction to the facsimile version of the Lorsch Gospels does mention a 1759 work by the Florentine Antonio Fracesco Gori, Thesaurus Veterum Diptychorum, that described in detail the Vatican ivory but admitted that a second ivory panel was lost. This is apparently the only known mention by contemporaries of the existence of another panel. (Braunfels, Introduction to Lorsch Gospels, 5)


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