If you ask someone to explain the phrase “Holy Roman Empire,” he might mutter something about the Habsburgs, the Reformation, or the Thirty Years’ War before throwing his hands up in defeat. Attempts to simplify the history of this patchwork entity—which at times included parts of modern-day Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and northern Italy—often end in frustration. In the eighteenth century, it was derided by Voltaire, who famously quipped that it was “in no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire,” and by James Madison, to whom it appeared “a nerveless body, incapable of regulating its own members.” But despite its loose structure and wobbling borders, the Empire managed to last a thousand years—twice as long as imperial Rome itself. And as the manuscripts on display in “Imperial Splendor” at the Morgan Library make clear, a vibrant network of patrons, scribes, and artists flourished across the Empire’s many principalities from the early middle ages through the advent of the printing press.

“Saint-Remi Gospels,” in Latin France, Reims, ca. 852, Morgan Library & Museum, Photo: by Janny Chiu.

The first case displays several religious books linked to the Carolingians, the Empire’s founding dynasty. In a ceremony on Christmas Day in 800, Pope Leo III, having secured Frankish protection against the Lombards, crowned Charlemagne emperor at the old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, granting him official status as the rightful successor in a supposedly unbroken line of Roman rulers. Foreign scholars, such as Alcuin of York, flocked to Charlemagne’s court, where monastic scribes were busy producing illuminated copies of works both sacred and secular. Though he struggled to form letters himself, the emperor passed reforms aimed at improving education and also encouraged the adoption of Caroline minuscule, a relatively easy-to-read handwritten script that is the basis for the printed lower case we use today.

To reflect their ruler’s new imperial status, scribes from this period (sometimes called the “Carolingian Renaissance”) appropriated decorative motifs from ancient Roman reliefs, mosaics, and architecture. A ninth-century Latin Gospel from Tours, for instance, open to the beginning of the Book of Matthew, contains golden capital letters resembling ancient Roman stone inscriptions, written upon bands of purple paint.

“Golden Gospels,” in Latin Germany, Trier, ca. 980, Morgan Library & Museum. Photo: by Janny Chiu.

Other manuscripts imitate different sources. The luxurious tenth-century “Golden Gospels” from Trier mirror late-antique codices assembled from dark purple parchment, dyed using orchil extracted from lichen. Resembling a sixth-century Syrian Gospel book leaf displayed nearby, the Trier manuscript contains double columns of unadorned text written entirely in gold ink using an uppercase script chosen for its old-fashioned appearance.

Several books have retained their jewel-inset treasure bindings, which attest to far-flung trade networks. Lining the front and back covers of the ninth-century “Lindau Gospels,” decorated with a crucified Christ and mourning figures made from hammered gold, is silk from Syria and Byzantium. No surprise, bindings like these made manuscripts a common target for plunderers. To deter such attacks, the eleventh-century “Berthold Lectionary” bestows a curse of “violent bodily pains” upon anyone who steals it.

“Lindau Gospels,” in Latin, Switzerland, St. Gall, ca. 880 (manuscript), Eastern France, ca. 870 (front cover), Morgan Library, New York. Photo: Graham S. Haber.

No doubt the eponymous Berthold would be horrified to see single leaves of parchment and vellum, perhaps torn deliberately from their original bindings, framed on the walls above his own book’s display case. (Dealers in centuries past had no qualms about snipping illustrations, or even decorated initials, from medieval manuscripts in order to sell them as individual pieces.) Drawn upon one such leaf, dated to the mid-twelfth century and forming the frontispiece for a schoolbook, is a robed and sceptered queen (Philosophy) connected by narrow streams to seven female figures representing the classical liberal arts. The catalogue tells us that the hidden verso contains drawings of those arts’ famed practitioners, such as Cicero, Pythagoras, and Euclid. Before the emergence of universities, monastic and cathedral schools were the primary centers of advanced learning for laymen belonging to an increasingly powerful class of nobles. These nobles began to commission works directly from groups of scribes, hence the emergence of personal manuscripts such as a small twelfth-century psalter that likely belonged to a Guelph princess, who is depicted on an open page wearing red, ermine-lined brocade and raising her hands in prayer.

In the fifteenth century, when the exhibition’s remit ends, free imperial cities such as Mainz and Nuremberg were prosperous, semi-independent urban centers that fostered cultural behemoths such as Johannes Gutenberg and Albrecht Dürer respectively. These and other large cities such as Prague, Vienna, and Augsburg (each represented here by lavishly decorated Gospels, full-length Bibles, missals, antiphonaries, and graduals of all sizes) were sometimes permitted to mint their own coinage, raise militias, and collect taxes. “Commerce and creativity went hand in hand,” says one of the labels; indeed, professional book artists traveled widely, producing illustrations whose complex perspectives rival those seen in painted wood panels.

Next to copies of the Gutenberg Bible and the Nuremberg Chronicle, there is a final case of printed books illustrated by Dürer that were produced for the open market rather than for a patron. Apocalypse with Pictures, his first major book project (published in 1498), contains woodcuts illustrating episodes from the wildest prophetic visions in the Book of Revelation. Using clusters of fine lines and delicate cross-hatching, he achieved a level of expression that had been formerly restricted to painting and engraving. On the day I visited, the Apocalypse was open to the page in which Saint John eats the “little book,” a corner of which is shown pouring into his mouth like liquid, perhaps tasting as “sweet as honey,” as the passage in Revelations goes. The angel from whom he receives the book is said to have feet made from “pillars of fire,” which Dürer interpreted as two classical columns whose capitals have burst into flames.

It would have been nice to hear more about why these books were collected by Americans such as J. P. Morgan and Henry Walters, mentioned only briefly on a wall panel and in the catalogue; helpful, too, would have been a magnifying glass, given the delicate scale of the illumination (remarkable when you consider that the scribes’ only light source was a ray of sunlight, a fireplace, or a feeble candlestick). But these are small complaints. I imagine visitors will leave pleasantly exasperated and full of questions—above all, why do we not hear more about the Holy Roman Empire?

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 5, on page 68
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