David Warner

title.none: Cohen, The Uta Codex (Warner)

identifier.other: baj9928.0101.005 01.01.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: David Warner, Rhode Island School of Design,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Cohen, Adam. The Uta Codex: Art, Philosophy, and Reform in Eleventh-Century Germany. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University State Press, 2000. Pp. iv, 276. $65.00. ISBN: 0-271-01959-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.01.05

Cohen, Adam. The Uta Codex: Art, Philosophy, and Reform in Eleventh-Century Germany. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University State Press, 2000. Pp. iv, 276. $65.00. ISBN: 0-271-01959-X.

Reviewed by:

David Warner
Rhode Island School of Design

The Ottonians have long been the object of scholarly interest in the German academic community. In recent years, the number of anglophone scholars producing major works on Ottonian Germany has begun to grow as well. One might cite, for example, the work of John W. Bernhardt on royal monasteries and various studies by Philippe Buc relating to Ottonian ritual and historiography. To this number, we should now add the name of Adam Cohen. The subject of Cohen's study is the so-called "Uta Codex", a book produced at the monastery of St Emmeram, Regensburg. Currently, it resides at the Bavarian State Library in Munich (Clm 13601). The book, of a type known as an evangeliary, contains a collection of Gospel readings for the celebration of the Mass. It was produced, apparently at the order of Abbess Uta, for the convent of Niedermuenster, one of three communities for women located in Regensburg. In general, what Cohen has done is to argue convincingly that the codex and its striking illuminations are not just objects of beauty and more or less standard examples of medieval iconography, but rather a forceful, coherent, and learned theological exposition encompassing the nature of God, the moral imperative of the crucifixion, and the spirituality of monastic reform. His study also represents a contribution to the intellectual history of medieval women and to the regional history of Bavaria.

To appreciate Cohen's study, we first need to say something about the historical context in which the codex itself originated and about the historiographical traditions upon which it is based. The context comprises the 'long tenth century', a period encompassing not only the tenth century itself, but also the early years of the eleventh century. For Germany this represented an era of cultural resurgence. Under the patronage of the Ottonian royal house, of great churchmen and churchwomen, and the occasional layperson, the visual arts flourished. This was, after all, the era of Bernward of Hildesheim whose bronze doors still figure among the treasures at Hildesheim, and of the anonymous sculptor of the Gero-Kreuz. In the area of manuscript illumination, however, the Ottonian achievement was so striking that one modern observer has compared the books of the Ottonian empire to a "colossus" bestriding "the whole west European world of book art". [1] Clearly, any study seeking to address this aspect of Ottonian culture should command attention. Indeed, Cohen is careful to answer the types of questions commonly asked of an illuminated manuscript. He duly notes and discusses the influence of the Codex Aureus, a Carolingian manuscript that figured among St Emmeram's treasures. The illuminations of the Uta Codex are also compared to other, contemporary pieces produced in Regensburg and elsewhere. The possibility that a specific artist (Guntbalt) can be identified is raised, and dismissed. But Cohen's study deserves attention for other reasons as well, and these relate to the sorts of problems faced by all researchers, whatever their specific focus or discipline.

The long tenth century has been characterized as "a period more lacking in sources and reliable and precise information on 'what actually happened' than any other period of post-Roman European history." [2] To this undoubtedly true assessment, we might add another. In reconstructing the history of this era, a thin pool of evidence represents both a bane and a blessing. On the negative side, it may frustrate researchers with questions that can never be answered, or worse, tempt them to construct a thesis on the most insubstantial of foundations. On the positive side, it can provide a strong incentive to ignore traditional disciplinary and sub-disciplinary boundaries, and exploit any and all evidence that comes to hand. Anyone attempting to reconstruct the history of Ottonian Germany will have more than a passing familiarity with this dilemma. While it has meant almost excruciating debates about questions that probably can never be resolved (did the duke of Poland receive a royal crown at Gniezno in 1000?), the dearth of evidence has also had a positive impact in that it has provided an impetus for interdisciplinary methodologies. More specifically, it has meant that historians who are not, strictly speaking, historians of art, employ the evidence of art in their analyses. It has also meant that art historians write books and articles with implications for historians whose interests essentially lie elsewhere. Finally, it has meant that those books and articles may be reviewed by reviewers who are not art historians (e.g., the author of this review).

It is against the background of thin sources and the tradition of interdisciplinary methodologies that we should view the accomplishment of Cohen's book on the Uta codex which, like his recent article in Speculum , seeks to examine the interrelationship between artists and the larger world in which they lived and worked In regard to the Uta Codex, Cohen pursues three basic themes. He establishes the intellectual foundations of the images, places them specifically within a monastic context, finally relates them to the religious and intellectual history of women. We need to consider each of these areas in further detail. Cohen approaches the intellectual background of the codex through careful and detailed examinations of each of its major images. These images, so he argues, should not be considered in isolation, but rather as elements of a unified and coherent program employing both images and texts. They reflect a surprising depth of learning and sophistication of thought. The frontispiece, an image of the Hand of God, represents a commentary on the cosmic nature of God, apparently based on a broad familiarity with the liberal arts and the major authors of the Christian intellectual tradition. A second frontispiece presents an image of Abess Uta herself presenting the codex to the Virgin Mary. In effect, however, it constitutes a more specific commentary on the multi-layered relationship between the two women. Because Mary is the patron of Niedermuenster, the initial impression of Uta's subordination to her, and the emphasis on the separate spheres the two women inhabit (viz earthly and heavenly) is both appropriate and expected. Nevertheless, by basing his imagery on the Adoration of the Magi, so Cohen notes, the act of donation has been equated with the prototypical act of presentation and hence elevated. Apparently, the artist has also drawn an analogy between Mary as mistress of the world and Uta as abess, each representing a model of piety appropriate for holy women. Other internal references support Cohen's contention that this image represents a programmatic statement relative to the virtues of the monastic life. Another image, the symbolic crucifixion, comes in for an equally detailed analysis. Here, expanding on existing scholarship relating to this much-studied image, Cohen argues that the artist has composed a complex theological commentary on the nature of Christ, encompassing his triumph over death, victory over evil, promise of eternal life, and harmonizing or unifying function. The image functions not just as an exposition but also as an injunction to the viewer. An image of St. Erhard celebrating the mass provides a commentary, informed by references to Pseudo Dionysus, on the salutary effect of Christ's sacrifice and the promise of eternal life.

The image of St. Erhard permits Cohen to expand beyond the intellectual background of the images and suggest how they might reflect contemporary conditions in Regensburg and specifically the introduction of monastic reform. Under the leadership of Bishop Wolfgang, and with support from the Bavarian ducal house, the new monastic spirituality had made a strong impression on the city's religious communities. Not all of them seem to have appreciated it. The community of Niedermuenster represents a case in point. Under the leadership of Abbess Uta, its residents had made the transition from the more lax lifestyle of canonesses to the stricter one of nuns. In addition to its commentary on the theology of the eucharist, Cohen argues that the image of St. Erhard presents a polemic specifically aimed at supporting a new, and not entirely popular status quo. Although his relics rested in the community's church, St. Erhard apparently had not played a particularly important role at Niedermuenster. Through Wolfgang's influence, however, he had acquired an association with monastic reform. In a vision, so the hagiographic record attests, Erhard had appeared to the bishop and expressed profound dissatisfaction with the community's then-unreformed condition. In effect, so Cohen argues, the image of St. Erhard in the Uta Codex reflected an effort to reconstruct the community's memory in such a way as to support its transformation into a stricter, reformed community of nuns.

The reader comes away from Cohen's exposition of the illuminations of the Uta Codex with a heightened sense of the intellectual sophistication of the artist who produced them and an impression that the ateliers of Ottonian Germany must have been populated with others of his ilk. One may well agree with Cohen's conclusion, moreover, that the message of the Uta Codex is that Ottonian churchmen did, in fact, produce theological exegesis of a high intellectual level, but the medium was art and architecture. Even more, one comes away from this book with a sense of the intellectual sophistication of the community for which the Uta Codex was intended. Clearly, such a complex visual and theological statement assumes the existence of an audience capable of appreciating it. That this was a community of women, and one about which we know very little, adds to the value of this observation. Finally, the polemical element, represented in the images of Uta and the Virgin Mary, and by the image of St. Erhard, suggests something more about the progress of reform among such communities. In treatments of monastic reform, discussion has hitherto focused chiefly on the contributions and accomplishments of reforming abbots. As one of its more striking accomplishments, Cohen's study of the Uta Codex invites the reader to consider that we should also consider the contribution of reforming abbesses.


[1] H. Mayr-Harting, "Artists and Patrons," in The New Cambridge Medieval History vol. 3 (Cambridge, 1999) pp.212- 3, at 223.

[2] T. Reuter, "Reading the Tenth Century," ibid., pp.1-24, at 1.