Karlsruhe, Badische Landesbibliothek, Bruchsal 1
A Magnificent Manuscript for the Speyer Cathedral, Replete with Ceremonial Stateliness and Fine Gold
The Speyer Pericopes are known today as the most precious manuscript at the Badische Landesbibliothek in Karlsruhe. With its splendid cover of gilded silver, set with ornamental jewels and gems from the late antique period; its gilded, three-dimensional figure of Christ, and richly ornamented miniatures and initials, the manuscript is one of the most outstanding works of late German Romanesque book art.
Around 1220 Konrad IV von Tann, the cathedral curator and later Bishop of Speyer, commissioned a book of pericopes for feast days at the Speyer Cathedral. The 77 pages of the Speyer Pericopes measure 33.2 x 25.3 cm and are illuminated with seventeen full-page miniatures. The miniatures contain a total of 21 individual images illustrating themes from the New Testament. The sixteen most important stations from the life of Jesus unfold in front of intensely luminous colour and golden backgrounds; in addition, there are four full-page portraits of the Evangelists, and a portrait of Christ in a mandorla, signaling a blessing.
Precious pigments, brilliant gold, and a great deal of artistic imagination make the 70 richly ornamented and historicized initials in this manuscript a feast for the eyes. Many of the initials are even designed and illustrated like miniatures, and feature selected Bible readings. Special passages of text are highlighted in gold, blue, and alternating red and black script, evidence of the high degree of skill of the artists. It is possible to distinguish the work of three illuminators from Speyer or Trier, along with five scribes.
Inseparable Unity: the Manuscript and its Splendid Cover
The Pericopes repeat the readings from the four gospels over the course of the church year. In Romanesque times, the sacred book was considered a carrier of divine revelation and thus was highly revered; consequently, the entire book design was very lavish. Therefore, the sculpted portrait of Christ on the front cover of the Speyer Pericopes is not merely decorative, but also part of a theological program within the context of the message of the gospels. Only a few Romanesque manuscripts still have their original covers. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that the magnificent cover of the Speyer Pericopes has survived almost entirely intact over the centuries, and still has the thirteenth-century gems and silver niello plates.
A Gilded Figure of Christ, Ten Silver Niello Plates, and Fifty-four Decorative Stones and Gems
The cover of the Speyer Pericopes is made up of more than 150 individual pieces. On the cover, the gilded silver figure of Christ enthroned has a monumental aura. Its cross nimbus overlaps the surrounding sloping edge, which is decorated with gilded silver waves of grapevines and acanthus. On the outer edge, ten silver niello plates alternate with figures or floral patterns in gilded rectangles, each one containing five semi-precious stones, glass pebbles, and gems from the late antique period, in serrated settings.
Still surviving from the period in which the manuscript was written, the niello plates and the ornamental stones are thirteenth-century originals. Niello is an old goldsmithing technique, invented in the eastern Mediterranean area, in which black niello (a combination of copper, silver, and sulfides) is melted into engraved silver plates. The stones were gathered from all over the known world at the time: agate, amethyst, lapis lazuli, moonstone, crystallized quartz, carnelian, and other types of stones were used. In addition, late antique gems, meaning, engraved (semi) precious stones, ornament the cover.
In the fifteenth century, the central figure, which was either worn from overuse or else damaged in some other way, was replaced by the gilded figure of Christ that now decorates the cover; the stones were re-set and a gilded frame added to the cover. At the same time, the back and the spine were covered in Italian red velvet with a patterned gold weave.
Byzantine and Late Antique Sources – Creative Impulse for the Master of the Speyer Pericopes
Three illuminators from Speyer or Trier painted the magnificent illuminations in this manuscript. The design of the figures in the miniatures and new visual themes reveal obvious influences from the Mediterranean sphere, as well as Byzantine culture. This is no surprise, since the crusades and the seat of the House of Hohenstaufen in Italy caused an intense influx of Byzantine and (late) antique art in the early twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These new ideas found fertile ground, especially in the area around the Rhine/Moselle/Meuse, and resulted in obvious stylistic, perceptual, and aesthetic changes in Western art.
The illuminators of the Speyer Pericopes carefully individualized the faces of the various figures: boys, men, and women. They valued lively compositions, creating relationships in which two or more figures communicate with each other. Also, they made progress in correctly rendering physical anatomy, and found new ways to depict the flowing folds of robes covering the limbs of the figures. Additionally, the artists expanded their iconographic repertoire in new visual compositions. For instance, the Speyer Pericopes do not show the birth of Christ in a stable, but in a cave; one initial employs the motif of the washing of the Christ child, which was very popular in Byzantium, and there are four pictures of the Three Magi, giving them an unusual amount of space.
Interplay of a Strong Colour Palette and Luminous Gold
The new, vibrating intensity of the painting is underscored by the strong colour palette. Mainly, the masters of the Speyer Pericopes chose an intense blue colour, whose effective interplay with highly polished gold recalls the charisma of enamelled art. Thus, some of the miniatures in the Speyer Pericopes remind one of Nicolas of Verdun, an outstanding goldsmith and enamel expert who worked for a while in the Rhineland.
The Bishop’s Patronage
This fine art facsimile edition is under the patronage of His Excellency, Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann, Bishop of the Diocese of Speyer.
Copyright © 2011 Quaternio Verlag Luzern. All rights reserved.
Karlsruhe, Badische Landesbibliothek,
|In:||Speyer or Trier
|Format:||ca. 33.2 × 25.3 cm
|Extent:||154 pages (77 leaves)|
|Artists:||Three masters from Speyer or Trier
Patron: Konrad IV von Tann, cathedral curator and Bishop of Speyer (1233–36)
Provenance: As part of the treasure belonging to the Speyer Cathedral, the Pericopes were removed to Bremen via Mainz, Bonn, and Amsterdam in 1792, in order to protect it from French revolutionary troops. It did not return to the Speyer region until 1797, where it was kept at the prince-bishop’s residence in Bruchsal. With secularization, the manuscript was taken to Karlsruhe on May 26, 1803, where it was housed in the Margrave of Baden’s court library, which later became the Baden State Library (Badische Landesbibliothek).
The fine art facsimile edition of the Speyer Pericopes will be published in spring 2012 by Quaternio Verlag Luzern.