The Vienna Coronation Gospels represent one of the most beautiful
manuscripts of the Middle Ages and a major work of court art at the
time of Charlemagne. The book consists of 236 purple-dyed vellum leaves
with text written in gold and silver ink. Each of the four Gospels begins
with a painted portrait of the respective Evangelist. They are executed
in a quick and sure hand, creating the illusion of a framed panel painting.
The purple background of the page appears to be a dark wall, while the
borders around the authors’ portraits serve as picture frames enclosing a
free space filled with light. The type of depiction of these writing figures
clad in white, classic garments is in keeping with ancient portraits of
authors, and these extremely illusionist pictures are indebted to the
painting of late antiquity in style as well. Thus it has been assumed
that a foreigner – probably a Greek – created this outstanding work
of the Carolingian Renaissance around 800 at the court in Aachen
(Aix-la-Chapelle). Because the future emperor swore his oath on this book, touching the beginning of the Gospel of John with the fingers of his hand, it is called the Coronation Gospels. In around 1500 the Coronation Gospels received a precious new binding of gilt silver on which is depicted, chased in high relief, the figure of God the Father, his hand raised in blessing, surrounded by the rich canopy architecture of his throne in late-Gothic style. Dressed in the imperial vestments and a mitred crown, he appears as an archetypical ideal of a ruler, while his facial features resemble those of Charlemagne, whom all later emperors of the Holy Roman Empire saw as their predecessor. The illustrations on the following pages are of the Evangelists Matthew (fol. 15r) and John (fol. 178v).
© Masterpieces of the Secular Treasury, Edited by Wilfried Seipel, Vienna 2008