The Lindau Gospels Treasure in New York

The Morgan Library in New York is currently hosting an exciting exhibition titled “Imperial Splendor: The Art of the Book in the Holy Roman Empire ca. 800 - 1500” featuring manuscripts and few important examples of early Medieval metalwork – principally precious book bindings. All the treasure bindings for the manuscripts shown in the exhibition are superb pieces, priceless feats of Medieval craftsmanship and imagination. Among these, the Lindau binding shines as the most valuable and exquisite extant Medieval shrine for the Gospels in any collection in the world, private or institutional.

It is a veritable miracle that the Lindau Gospels have survived almost entirely intact since the time the cover was assembled. Like so many Medieval masterpieces, it is a composite artwork featuring elements that were crafted in different historical periods and in different parts of the Holy Roman Empire. The manuscript housed within was completed in the Abbey of St. Gall and eventually found home in the Abbey roughly 50 miles away where canonesses of Lindau had it in their possession until the early 17th century. Later, the binding was in possession of private individuals and bibliophiles until it found its way into the hands of J.P. Morgan – an astute collector and wonderful patron of the arts.

The most ancient part of the book is the low cover dating to the 7th century, Hiberno-Saxon in origin (most likely from a workshop in what these days is Austrian territory) and wrought in Insular style – an aesthetic that propelled the early Medieval craftsmen to new heights of technical and creative inventiveness. The back cover is very rarely on view as the book is often laid on its back for display. This current exhibition offers a rare and very valuable opportunity to look at the Lindau Gospels from the front and the back at one visit.

On an immediate, sensory level, the low cover is a beautifully executed plate, pleasing to the eyes and stimulating to the intellect. The design is organized around a central cruciform shape with flared arms, embellished with enamel and precious stones. Around this stable cruciform center oscillate interlaced organic shapes, fantastical animal forms, and colorful gems that motivate the eye to move in wonder around the cover and then rest on the heart of the cross wherein was originally housed an important relic and where now is mounted a large precious stone. Around the center are engraved words in Latin, translated: Jesus Christ Our Lord. The cover extensions that enlarge the plate to house a bigger manuscript are colorful but more abstract than the Insular shapes that dominate the quadrants around the Cross. Small reliefs with the Four Evangelists are enriching the corners. In the cross the half figure of Christ is repeated 4 times, one for each arm of the cross. That it is Christ is made evident by the nimbus around the head of each figure and is a wonderful testament to the fact that the Medievals understood re-iteration of images as a positive value.

The masterful front cover of the Lindau Gospels was made sometime in the last quarter of the 9th century in a court workshop of Charles the Bald, and accordingly shows a strong Carolingian stylistic influence – a happy marriage of Germanic, Mediterranean and Byzantine sensibilities. The front cover is a visual festival of cloisonne and champleve enamels, splendid garnet work, carved precious metal, and gem incrustation of roughly 327 precious and semi-precious stones. The center image is a repousse figure of the Crucified Christ. Note the angelic figures at the top, Virgin Mary and St. John in the Middle, and mourning female figures at His feet. All the figures are floating horizontally, which is not only an aesthetically successful solution but also shows a wonderful inventiveness on the part of the goldsmith who was apparently unafraid to show bodies in an unusual figural orientation. All figures are oriented towards Christ in their midst. And the Crucifixion while unusually rendered is somehow all the more poignant.

The cross that frames the Crucified on the front cover is studded with colorful stones. The cross, an instrument of torture and death, is here transfigured into a nimbus-like frame where not only the head but the entire body of Christ is surrounded with the soft glow of golden and jeweled splendor. Another important feature of the front cover are the raised clusters of jewels, each with a large sapphire in the center. While clearly alluding to the breathtaking description of the Heavenly Jerusalem, these clusters also served to protect the relief of Christ’s body from any damage while the book was open for reading. If you are going to be practical, be practical like the Carolingian goldsmiths.

How can something as small as a book cover be this excessive and yet so breathtakingly beautiful and elegant remains a mystery to be pondered. The exhibition confidently and effortlessly asserts that the Lindau treasure binding continues to be an especially magnificent and precious sight to behold. It is priceless, it is sober, it is a revolution of visual values. The “Imperial Splendor” exhibition at the Morgan is open to visitors until January 23 – a must see for all art lovers and earthly pilgrims.


Photo Credits: 

2, 3, 7 Morgan Library Digitized Lindau Gospels

1, 4, 5, 6  Kinga Lipinska

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.