Throughout the Middle Ages, precious metals were a crucial part of “high-profile” book ornament: they defined the “gold-standard”, so to speak, of a certain level of book decoration. Yet the way in which this standard was conceived of varied greatly in different periods and regions. In fact, no other component of book ornament could be applied in so flexible a manner: certainly, the use that has gained most attention from art historians is its employment as gold-ground in miniature painting. In Western book illumination, gold ground can be found from the late tenth century onwards, and may therefore be considered a relatively late innovation. Secondly, the modern notion of codices aurei or argentei refers to the ink used for writing the texts. Chrysography and agyrography were common techniques of precious book ornamentation in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, often used in combination with purple dye for the ground of the pages. A third possibility for the use of precious metals is addressed when medieval sources call a book “golden” or “silvery,” expressions that usually imply that these precious metals were used for revetting the book’s exterior. 

Following the holistic approach of our research group, this project will undertake the first comprehensive investigation of golden books in the Western Middle Ages. Breaking with the traditional separation of individual practices of book decoration, we will examine different areas and techniques of golden book ornament in a comparative and synoptical manner. By doing so, our understanding of “golden books” and their specific concepts of material ornament will proceed beyond the traditional approach of material iconology. Among the objects that we will analyze, a first important group comprises the “very golden books” that combine the use of precious metals for the covers, the script and the illumination. Other, equally interesting cases are the result of practices that restricted the use of precious metals to individual areas of the book. As a third case, we will consider books from those book cultures that rejected the use of gold completely. And finally, books whose golden ornament has been subject to looting will be examined.  

As with so many lavishly decorated books of the liturgy, the main use of the early eleventh-century Uta Codex, shown above, seems to have been its carrying and display, without opening the book for reading: the pages of this lectionary are still in astonishingly good condition and do not show signs of wear. The primary “interface” for seeing and handling such a book was its spectacular and sophisticated binding. In the case of the Uta Codex, this was a book box in which the manuscript was locked. The monumental sculptural decoration in gold plate shows Christ as the ruler of heaven, enclosed in a wide frame decorated with gemstones, enamels and filigree, and equipped with his regalia: the mandorla, the throne and the book. The high relief of the golden surfacescape dramatically brings to the fore the role of the gospel book as a vessel for the incarnate Word. Christ is holding an object that seems to be a book whose encrusted golden cover resembles the jeweled golden book box. A closer look reveals that this binding contains no codex and is therefore a cover for Christ’s body itself. In direct keeping with this, Christ’s thumb incises deeply into the golden cover, thereby affirming the close interrelation between the incarnation and the inlibration of the Word in medieval Christianity.

Researcher: David Ganz

Image Credit: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 13601, book box of the Uta Codex