The Coronation Gospels


The Coronation Gospels

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The Coronation Gospels

Museum of Art History, Vienna, SCHK.XIII.18

Originating around 800 in the palace school of Charlemagne, the Codex Aureus, written in golden ink on purple-coloured pages, evolved to be the most important medieval book of all: as part of the imperial regalia it played a central role in every coronation of a Roman-German king.


The most important book of the Middle Ages

The Coronation Gospels can justifiably be called the most important book of the Middle Ages, because it was present at every coronation of the kings of the Romans, at least from the twelfth century onwards. As far as we know it was the Bible on which the gospel oath was sworn and hence played a central part in the ceremony. In order to emphasize its symbolic and procedural significance, the original Carolingian manuscript was bound with a cover of gold and glittering precious stones which made it a worthy constituent part of the imperial insignia of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. These imperial insignia are preserved today in the Treasury of the Museum of Art History in Vienna.

Principal work of the so-called Palace School

Together with a small number of other manuscripts dating from the time of Charlemagne, the Coronation Gospels are ascribed to the so-called Palace School. In contrast to the Court School, which was active at the same time, this group of artists was concerned with the revival of Hellenistic art: the representations of the Evangelists show them sitting like the philosophers of Antiquity in the open air in front of open landscapes and architectural structures.


The space and pictorial concepts are illusionistic and are very different from the stage-like spaces of other mediaeval artworks. With their entablature (in this case: architecture), the liturgical plates are derived from the art of Antiquity. The book illustrations look more modern than “mediaeval” art, but actually refer back to a centuries-old tradition of art in the Mediterranean region. We therefore surmise that the illustrators came from Italy or possibly even Byzantium.

Aachen in 795 and 1000 AD

The Coronation Gospels were written and illuminated in Aachen in about 795 AD. From the outset the book was planned as an outstanding work: written in golden ink on purple-coloured pages, it underlined the claim of Charlemagne that he was following in the tradition of the Roman Emperors. However he took the pledge of his ambition with him to the grave when he died in 814. To this day we do not know exactly where Charlemagne’s grave lies. And so we do not know either where the legendary event which is so important for the manuscript actually took place in the year 1000. Otto III had the grave opened and discovered the codex on the knees of the emperor, who had been buried in a sitting position. He removed the book – and thereby laid the foundation for its ascent to become the central book and work of art in the Empire. During the coronations of the kings, which without exception took place in Aachen until 1531, according to tradition the book was opened at the first page of St. John’s Gospel, and the future king took his oath under the eyes of St. John the Evangelist on the words “In the beginning was the Word”.


The unique cover

Even by the standards of imperial magnificence, the cover of the Coronation Gospels is of exceptional importance and beauty. Hans von Reutlingen created the relief, which is fully three-dimensional in places, in around 1500. The figures are surrounded by exquisite tracery and mullions; every detail is a masterpiece of High Gothic gold work. In order to heighten the impression of luxury still further, precious stones were arranged across the cover and anchored in hand-wrought settings. The  large sapphire on the breast of the figure of God the Father is especially remarkable.

The facsimile – a collectible and artwork

The unique and exhaustive facsimile of the Coronation Gospels is published with only 333 hand-numbered copies. The facsimile volume contains 472 pages and retails the original format of 340 x 265 mm.

Each page of the book is entirely coloured in purple. The four full-page portraits of the Evangelists are gilt with real 23-carat gold. The gold of the 16 liturgical plates, the four initial pages and the text pages are reproduced with gold leaf. Each individual sheet is stamped out according to the original contours of the sheet, and tacked in single layers by hand to form five genuine double bands to which a hand-stitched headband is attached at the top and bottom. The decorative cover of the binding is made of copper; it is nickel- and silver-plated, gold-plated and patinated by hand; on the cover are 19 ornamental stones: amethysts, smoky quartz, a tourmaline, rhinestones and a synthetic sapphire; the frames are engraved, and gilt catches and five gilt book studs on the back cover of the facsimile complete the edition.

The casket consists of a base covered with black velvet and maple wood elements, together with a cover made of UV-absorbing acrylic glass.


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