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Lindau Gospels cover

Jeweled upper cover of the Lindau Gospels, c. 880, Court School of Charles the Bald, 350 x 275 mm, cover may have been made in the Royal Abbey of St. Denis (Morgan Library and Museum, New York) Speakers: Dr. Nancy Ross and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazz music) Male: We're in the Morgan Library in New York. We're looking at one of its real treasures. This is the Lindau Gospel cover. Female: This is old. Male: It is. It's really old. This is from the 9th century. That is from the 800s. This was a moment when there was an attempt to reestablish the kind of empire that the Romans had once known under Charlemagne. Female: Charlemagne was looking to Constatine as his model and was trying to recreate the empire of Constantine, and also to try and recreate the artistic styles that were present in that early Christian period. Male: It's interesting that Constantine, a great Roman emperor, but also the first emperor to have legalized, or had decriminalized Christianity. It's a really interesting choice by Charlemagne to focus on that particular emperor, because he's so much a bridge between the power of the older pagan Roman empire and the new Christian world. Female: That's correct. Male: We don't usually think of the cover as the work of art itself. Female: That's right. Really, there are so very few Medieval book covers that survive, so when we get a good one like this it is really something that is very special. What we're looking at is the cover of the Lindau Gospels. A Gospel book contains Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, together with some extra material. It might have a calendar or a litany on the inside. Clearly all of the emphasis here is on the outside. We see an image of the crucifixion. It's a very Carolingian representation that follows the Triumphant Christ. Male: Later representations of Christ on the cross see his body responding to gravity. We might see a real sense of pain. But here, we don't. Female: No, not at all. We see an emphasis of the divine nature of Christ; the Christ who is God who doesn't suffer. The only sense of suffering that we can see is a little bit of blood dripping from the hands. Other than that, he is tall and proud and in no way responding to the pain he is suffering. Male: We call this Carolingian. It comes from the workshop of Charlemagne, actually. This was probably made for Charlemagne's grandson, Charles the Bold. Especially in the representation in gold of the cloth, you can really get a sense of the way that these artists were looking back to the Classical tradition. Female: That's correct. They're looking back to the Classical tradition and, of course, Classical art is really concerned with drapery and drapery folds and artists are trying at this time, in the Carolingian period, to revive that style and they're trying to look at Classical models, at earlier Classical models, and emulate that in their art. I think we can especially see that in these bottom two figures that are mourning Christ. Male: This idea of reviving the Classical tradition is not just the system of representation. It has to do with reforming language, setting down a set of common laws. Female: That's correct. There's political reform that's going on at this time. There is education reform and there is also church reform that's happening to try and standardize and modernize the church and society at this time. Male: This is an unbelievably glorious object. Look at the amount of gold, the amount of jewels. It is almost architectural. Female: Scooting down, we can see all of the arches that help to make up the shape of the cross as thought the cross itself is like a building. If we think to later church plans, this is the kind of shape of a church building that we would expect to see. Male: Ah, so the kind of basilica structure? Female: Absolutely. With a long nave and a transept. Male: It's not only a representation, then, of Christ on the cross, but it actually has a deeper symbolic meaning. Female: Absolutely. The jewels are very sumptuous and there are pearls and other sparkly things that make this appear very attractive. Male: I see emeralds and I see rubies. Female: All in this wonderful gold setting. What we want to see is that those have particular reference to the heavenly Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation. In chapters 21, 22, there is a lot of description of the gates in the city and of the heavenly Jerusalem. A lot of Medieval authors wrote commentaries to try and explain these in more human terms. If we see all these pearls, the pearls are often described as referring to the Apostles in the heavenly city. Male: I find this fascinating because one generally thinks of the Gospel books themselves as containing all of the meaning, all of the message. But here we're seeing on the very cover iconography that foretells the contents of the book within. Female: That's right. And effectively how to get to Heaven, how to arrive in the heavenly Jerusalem. This book takes you there. This book leads you to salavation. Male: This is a very precious object, obviously. It's just a tour de force of the jeweler's art. It's using a technique which is called repousse, which is to say that the sculptural figures, Christ and the other mourning figures that surround Christ, are actually hammered from the inside to create that positive image. Female: If we look at the figure of Christ, artists have really tried to bring out that Classicism; that we don't have strange muscles appearing and that the artist has tried to smooth over the body of Christ in a way that is very un-Medieval. Male: So, this is a stepping back from the abstraction of the human body that had been so pervasive in the years before the Carolingian revival. This is an attempt, then, to look back. It's interesting to think what kinds of sources would these artisans have had available to them from ancient Rome, from ancient Greece. Female: Well, they would have had books and drawings hidden away in monastic libraries. They would have had drawings from earlier versions of illustrated Gospel books. So they're looking back in their libraries to these earlier Christian books which retain more of a flavor of pagan drawing and pagan illustration from the Classical world. Male: It's just such a marvelous illustration of the complex relationship which the Medieval Christians had with the Classical tradition that had come before them. (jazz music)