Carolingian Codices

Saint Mathew the Evangelist, folio 15 verso from the Ada Gospels, ca. late eighth century or early ninth century (Stadtbibliothek, Trier, Germany).
Saint Mark the Evangelist, folio 81 verso from the Ada Gospels (Stadtbibliothek, Trier, Germany).

Books were a constant concern for Charlemagne and his friends, ministers, and collaborators. At this time, Western civilization was using again the fancy purplish parchment which was in vogue during the first Christian centuries. A manuscript still preserved in the Cathedral of Aachen is believed to have come from the scriptorium of the same palace. Other codex from the Cathedral of Trier included a note saying that it was done exclusively for Ada, a sister of Charlemagne, hence its name “Ada manuscript”. The same style employed in the production of the Ada’s manuscript was used in two magnificent codices, one in Lorsch and other in the British Museum. Other Carolingian schools devoted to manuscript illumination had their production centers in Metz, Reims and Tours.

Saint John from the Gottschalk Gospels
Saint Luke from the Gottschalk Gospels













The miniaturists working in the Scriptorium of Aachen revealed kind of an intellectual peace in their compositions: the characters were often represented as if they were enjoying the Rhine’s idyllic landscapes.  The oldest manuscript produced in the Aachen scriptorium was the Gottschalk Gospels (ca. 781-783), commissioned by Charlemagne himself and his wife Hildegard and entirely written in gold and silver letters on purple parchment. The technical progress achieved in the production of these manuscripts is evident when the Gottschalk Gospels is compared with the Gospels of Saint-Médard-de-Soissons from early ninth century, which assimilated the art of the Byzantine illustrators.

Saint John Evangelist from the Gospels of St. Medard de Soissons, 9th-century (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris).
The beginning of the fourth Evangelium (Evangelia Quattuor) from the Gospels of St. Medard de Soissons (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris).

In the manuscripts belonging to the group influenced by the style of the Ada codex, the illustrations’ backgrounds were architectural and civil landscapes. The Evangelists are not represented writing outdoors, but inside decorated kiosks. They are also dressed in rich robes. The Ada codex was made before Charlemagne’s death in 814 and it shows the same characteristics of the famous codex of the British Museum (also known as Harley Golden Gospels) here briefly mentioned. In this codex, Saint Mark the Evangelist is sitting inside a white marble apse with a dark blue vault; reddish Corinthian capitals support a triumphal arch enhanced with gems and copied from ancient models; young Saint Mark, robed in a gold and red cape, takes us to the atmosphere of the imperial court in the Chrysotriklinos of the Sacred Palace of Constantinople. Equally young and elegantly dressed in a blue tunic and fantasy cape in an almost identical architectural background is the image of St. John the Evangelist of the Lorsch Gospels or codex Aureus of Lorsch, undoubtedly a work of the same scriptorium at the Trier Cathedral which also produced all the Ada-style codices.

Saint Mark, from the Harley Golden Gospels, ca. 800-825 (British Library, British Museum, London).
The beginning (Incipit) of the Book of Luke, from the Harley Golden Gospels (British Library, British Museum, London).
An illuminated folio from the Codex Aureus of Lorsch or Lorsch Gospels (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican city).
Saint John the Evangelist, from the Codex Aureus of Lorsch (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican city).

The codices attributed to the school of the Reims Cathedral included highly expressive miniatures. They reflected the spirit and temperament of the founder of this school: the famous Bishop Ebbo. The Gospels bearing his name was made before 823 and displayed the same frenetic style -like a parody of the  Hellenistic illusionism- that characterized the school of Reims, the illustrations of the Ebbo Gospels were inspired in late classical painting and the landscapes were represented in the illusionistic style.

Saint Mathew, from the Ebbo Gospels, ninth century (Bibliothèque Municipale, Épernay, France).
Saint Mark, from the Ebbo Gospels (Bibliothèque Municipale, Épernay, France).











Reims was probably the birthplace of the Lothar Gospels, known as the Sacramentary of Metz as well as the masterpiece of Reims: the Utrecht Psalter of ca. 820. In this famous codex, the miniatures interspersed with text filled the pages with thousands of agitated figurines, as if the divine characters, as well as humans, were all epileptic and alienated. The Chinese Orientalism suggested by its figures has always attracted the attention of scholars. The illustrations of this Psalter provide one of the most extraordinary iconographic series of all the history of art.

The Sacramentary of Metz, ca. 850 AD. (Bibliothèque nationale, Paris).
Start of Psalm 81, Utrecht Psalter, 9th century (Universiteitsbibliotheek, Utrecht, Netherlands).
Illustration from the Psalm 23, Utrecht Psalter (Universiteitsbibliotheek, Utrecht, Netherlands).

The Carolingian manuscripts were represented mainly by Bibles or Evangeliaries, and is surprising the skill with which artists took advantage from episodes of the Old Testament to turn them into pictures of contemporary history. With some exceptions these miniatures illustrated a current event, like the pages of the First Bible of Charles the Bald at the National Library in Paris. This work was certainly given to the Emperor in early 851. The crowned portrait of Charles the Bald recalls the representation of King David in the same codex, playing the harp between musicians and cardinal virtues. This similarity was sought on purpose as an aspect of the Carolingian political theory. In this portrait of Charles the Bald, accompanied by two crowned officials and a group of members of the church, we see one of the first portrayals of a then contemporary event in a work of western medieval art.

A folio from the first Bible of Charles the Bald, 9th-century (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris).
The Initium to the Book of Genesis, Folio 11r from the Second Bible of Charles the Bald (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris).

The Second Bible of Charles the Bald, made between 871 and 877 in the monastery of Saint-Amand near Tournay and now kept in the National Library in Paris, has almost all its capital letters influenced by Irish interlace decoration. The Bible of Theodulf in Puy (also known as Bible of Le puy) retains in front of each illustration pieces of Byzantine and Sassanian fabrics between the pages of parchment, which serve as guards or covers to protect the miniatures.

Bible of Le Puy, second half of the ninth century (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris).