This opulent gospelbook was made in Anglo-Saxon Kent during the mid-eighth century. Its text is of the mixed Old Latin / Vulgate variety and its script is a stately uncial based upon that of the Rome of Gregory the Great. Its two surviving evangelist portraits of Saint Matthew and Saint John, with their classicizing, modeled figure style, prominent tonsure, and architectural settings, recall author portraits from Early Christian Rome. They are identified by half-length evangelist symbols, perhaps based upon those in a late sixth-century Italian gospelbook thought to have accompanied Saint Augustine on his mission to the pagan kingdom of King Aethelberht of Kent in 597—the Saint Augustine Gospels (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 286).
The usual white leaves alternate with purple-stained pages carrying text written in gold, white, silver, and red, with crosses and other designs overlaid. These recall picture poems (carmina figurata) in which superimposed images isolated the letters underlying them to form a poem within a poem; a genre popularized by Porphyry, court poet to Constantine. Archbishop Cuthbert of Canterbury is known to have borrowed a copy of Porphyry’s works from the Archbishop of Mainz, who requested its return around the time this gospelbook was made. Such cultural allusions to the imperial dignity of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, fused with motifs from earlier Celtic and Germanic art, eloquently reflect the political aspirations of the expansionist rulers of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, which dominated central and parts of southern England: they engaged in international relations and would shortly claim kinship with Charlemagne.
The display lettering marking major text divisions, such as the Chi-rho (f. 11r), is covered with gold leaf and populated by tiny beasts. This ostentation ensured the book’s survival, for an Old English inscription added in the margins of the Chi-rho page in the mid-ninth century records that it was ransomed from a Viking army, for bullion, by Ealdorman Alfred of Kent and his wife, Werburgh, and presented to the high altar of Christ Church Canterbury. The Vikings evidently considered it worth taking hostage for its gold, unlike so many other books that perished at their hands. (The will of Ealdorman Alfred [dating to ca. 871-89] bequeathed much of his wealth to Werburgh, providing that she went on pilgrimage to Rome and spent the remainder of her life there praying for the repose of his soul. We do not know if she complied, but this was an age when many people traveled on pilgrimage. In the 730s the Anglo-Saxon “Apostle to the Germans,” Saint Boniface, wrote to the archbishop of Canterbury from the Germanic mission-fields asking that he restrain the hordes of unattached Englishwomen who journeyed throughout Europe, at great risk to life and honor.)
The style of the volume and the access probably enjoyed by its makers to the Saint Augustine Gospels, or something very similar, points to Kent as its birthplace. Its grandeur implies display at an important center—perhaps Canterbury Cathedral itself. It may have been copied there, but there is also an intriguing possibility that it was made by women. In Merovingian Gaul nuns supplied books for some important churches. Correspondence during the 730s between Saint Boniface and Eadburh, abbess of Minster-in-Thanet, includes requests that she have books made at her abbey for his mission. He even sent gold to be used in their illumination, in the hope of dazzling potential converts. The Codex Aureus was certainly a book that proclaimed the power and status of the new religion.
The volume came to Scandinavia not as Viking loot, but purchased for the Swedish Royal Library by Johan Gabriel Sparwenfeldt in Madrid in 1690. It had reached Spain during the sixteenth century, when it was owned by the scholar Jeronimo Zurita (1512–1580), and may have been taken there by a Catholic during the upheavals of the Reformation.
MPB (author bios)
Lowe, 1934-72, vol. 11, no. 1642; McGurk, 1961, no. 111; Whitelock, 1970, no. 35; Alexander, 1978, no. 30; Henderson, 1987; Webster and Backhouse, 1991, no. 154; Brown, 2001; Brown, 2001a; Gameson, 2003; Brown, 2006.