Miniatures in Detail
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Mainz Gospels

A Codex Aureus in Zackenstil

The Codex Aureus from Mainz: completely written in gold and adorned with over 70 miniatures

The Mainz Gospels is considered one of the most important testimonies of the German book art of the 13th century. The masterful manuscript is so richly and artistically hand decorated with gold and silver that only one tiny group of people could make it. So the assumption can be made that the arch-bishop of the prosperous and influential diocese of Mainz at the time must have been either the commissioner or the receiver of this gold codex. The treasured book was until his completion in 1250 a part of the Mainz Treasury and was attained during the secularisation of 1803 in the Aschaffenburg library in Lower Franconia. The book is still guarded as a treasure there today. The gold codex is considered a treasure because it is one of the most magnificent works of the so-called Zackenstil. As the name suggests, the powerful serrated edged alignment characterises the transition from Romanesque to Gothic in Germany. Also the bright colours make the Mainz Gospels one of the most special books of the illumination.

The Mainz Gospels – Fol. 17: The Gospel Harmony

Mainz Gospels – Folio 17r: The Harmony of the Gospels

The miniature pictured above from the Mainz Gospels shows an entire page composition in three different parts, surrounded by a wide frame. The frame is from the outside black-red-blue and is closed on the inside with a green and red leaf frieze. Mounted in the corners are four medallions, which symbolise the Evangelists, encompassed by sheet gold. The actual miniature is on a gold background. Two concentric red wheels are depicted in the middle, in which the centre of them stands a small angel with blue wings. Left and right and above and below these wheels are four men visible, in colourful garbs and with flowing curls and headdresses. They are each sitting on a rock and are pouring water from a yellow amphora. The four corners of the rest of the picture are held by four men – two old and two young – who are each sitting on a wide throne at a writing desk. They all have a book open before them and have a quill in their hand.

The Holy Winged Cart

The first entire page miniature of the famous Codex Aureus of the Mainz Gospels (around 1250) shows the so-named Gospel Harmony. As such – as an introduction to the four gospels – the representation of the four evangelists with their symbols and the divine source of the gospels are indicated. Normally God would also be portrayed as a Maiestas Domini on the throne. However, this image in the Mainz Gospels is replaced with a new image invention that creates new exciting references. As a reference to God as a source for the gospels the two red wheels with the angel are employed, so to say as a proxy of God. This image comes from the Vision of Ezekiel. It is in this story that the so-called holy cart with the six-winged cherub is described. The red wheels are littered over and over again with eyes and wings.

Symbolic Connection with the Diocese of Mainz

This portrayal makes connections with the arch-bishop of Mainz, for whom the diocese of the codex was created. His emblem, the emblem of the diocese of Mainz is the double wheel. Therefore the red wheels in the miniature represent not only God but also the bishop as the driver of God’s holy wagon – respectfully the diocese of Mainz. The arch-bishop of Mainz is therefore through this new image invention in the place where God or Christ would usually be in the picture. This seems from a present day point-of-view exaggerated. However, it emphasises the sacred as well as the worldly power the arch-bishop of Mainz had at the time. During the coronation of the two anti-kings of the Stauf Emperor Frederick II, he intervened in the highest political events.

The Four as a Composition Scheme

The four young men with the amphorae are the symbolic representation of the four rivers of paradise. Their names are written on the blue frame: Gion and Tigris, Pison an Evfrates. The number four is incorporated again in the four Evangelists at the writing desks. Clockwise from the top left they are: Matthew, Luke, Mark and John, each matched with their corresponding symbol in the four medallions in the corner, human, lion, bull and eagle. The Evangelists are depicted in the moment of writing the gospels. The text in John’s picture is legible. He shows the famous beginning of his gospel with the words “In principio erat verbum” (In the beginning was the word). They serve as proclaimers of the word of God, that it would be widespread in all four directions, in the four corners of the earth (symbolised through the four streams of paradise).

Impressive Summary of the Four Gospels

This miniature page, as the frontispiece of the four gospels, makes the impending content of the manuscript comprehensible. The word of God, which through the gospels of the four Evangelists was brought to the people, was proclaimed by the arch-bishop of Mainz in the form of wheels. He serves therefore as the driver of the holy wagon. The entire composition highlights in an impressive but above all magnificent way the power of the word of God.