Although precious stones constitute one of the most important ornamental elements of sacred scripture during the Middle Ages, their close association has never been systematically analyzed. As three-dimensional material entities mounted on the outer surfaces of codices, stones contribute to a transformation of the layers of written parchment into an object with sculptural qualities. With their vivid colors and translucent effects, they substantially shape the sensual appearance of the books that is crucial to their use in ritual performance. Going beyond a mere allegorical interpretation, this project takes into consideration the very material character and valence of stones, as well as their close – material and functional – relation to the book object they adorn, and its role in liturgy. Considering their intimate relationship with books also implies examining the stones in the context of the multi-layered ornamentation outside as well as inside the codices. It is especially important to examine the meanings that result from their careful placement and in particular from their interactions with the other ornamental components within the multi-material surface texture of treasure bindings, figurative images included. Special attention will be given to the use of colored glass “imitations”, which are less rare than has long been assumed, as well as to the integration of spolia in the form of intaglios, often from antiquity, and more rarely from other cultural contexts like Islamic cultures.

To gain a more comprehensive understanding, this study will also consider the economic, social and aesthetic spheres of activity linked to the production of these variegated compositions – ranging from the collection and donation of the stones to their arrangement. As the stone ornamentations were particularly prone to later changes, attention will be paid to evidence of repair and change in codices with complex object biographies. Indeed, the precise analysis and documentation of the state of preservation and any such changes are of utmost importance. In this regard, the project has an important partner in the Swiss National Museum and its Conservation Research Laboratory. In addition to existing material-scientific analyses, and in collaboration with the responsible institutions, analyses will be carried out on select objects from the 9th to the 11th century – the time period of special focus in this study – in order to examine their state of preservation and determine types of stone and glass. 

The picture above shows the golden front cover of the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 14000), a Gospel codex produced at the court of Charles the Bald around 870. It is distinguished by an exceptional set of regularly arranged, high-quality sapphires and emeralds. Particular attention was given to the golden settings that work to semantically charge the gemstone adornment in a multi-layered way. Ubiquitous vegetal forms give the suggestion of sprouting and vitality, corresponding to contemporaneous ideas of animate forces or “virtutes” inherent in the precious stones. Moreover, the settings surrounding the representation of Christ in the center of the cover are reminiscent of chalices, which refer to the blood of Christ and thus to his presence in the Gospel Book. Arcade-like structures supporting the stones in turn allude to the apocalyptic vision of Heavenly Jerusalem, the paradisiac city decorated with gemstones; closely related to the codex they adorn, these arcades evoke the metaphor of the book as building, the actual codex containing the four Gospels thus being presented as sacred, “life-giving” space.

Researcher: Katharina Theil

Image Credit: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 14000, front cover of the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram