15.02.14, Kingsley, The Bernward Gospels

Main Article Content

Diane J. Reilly

The Medieval Review 15.02.14

Kingsley, Jennifer P.. The Bernward Gospels: Art, Memory, and the Episcopate in Medieval Germany. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014. Pp. xii, 196. ISBN: 9780271060798 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Diane J. Reilly
Indiana University, Bloomington

Jennifer Kingsley's The Bernward Gospels, as the title suggests, inserts this--the best known manuscript commissioned by the prolific patron Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim--into its intellectual and theological context, linking its iconographic program with themes she hypothesizes were chosen to express Bernward's vision of his own office: the episcopacy. Divided into four sections, "Memory," "Service," "Sight," and "Touch," the text explicates how in overlapping sets of illuminations the artists employed innovative compositions, subtle iconographic details, and unusual narrative vignettes to tweak the biblical story so that its protagonists were remade into types of the perfect bishop. An introduction provides a précis of the codex's structure and origins, while a conclusion briefly embeds the manuscript in its historical context. A cursory description of the manuscript closes this handsome and well-argued book.

In the first section, "Memory," Kingsley explains the dedication miniature and its pendant, which shows the coronation of the Virgin seated in a Throne of Wisdom composition, as an essay in Eucharistic theology, connecting it to a Throne of Wisdom statue with gold revetment also commissioned by Bishop Bernward for the cathedral. Kingsley convincingly argues that the liturgical implements arrayed before Bernward on the altar and details of the Virgin's setting combine to mediate between the mundane and divine planes and to commemorate within the foundations he patronized Bernward's gifts, which were employed in the church's salvific work, a commemorative role for manuscript imagery that is attested in other Ottonian artworks.

In the second section, "Service," Kingsley groups together images depicting the lives of the Evangelists Matthew and Mark, as well as John the Baptist, including four at that time very rare scenes from John's infancy and ministry. In the John the Baptist scenes especially motifs such as anachronistic liturgical vestments, atypical compositional elements, and gestures link the Baptist typologically with both Christ and the bishop, embodied in Bernward himself as referenced in the dedication miniature. By framing the miniatures with Patristic and Carolingian exegesis on the sacraments and church offices, Kingsley demonstrates that the miniatures justify the bishop's "active" administrative expression of a pastoral vocation in contrast to the works of monastic authors who prioritized the contemplative life.

Parts three and four, "Sight" and "Touch," turn to the theology of the experience of the divine as it is expressed in the miniature cycle. Deploying a virtual encyclopedia of theological references, Kingsley decodes the discrete compositional details that signal the concept that the true vision of the Godhead or imago, encountered only tangentially on the earthly plane, was reserved to those who have received their eternal rewards, an experience Bernward anticipated as expressed both in the manuscript and in an inscription on his tomb. Likewise in "Touch" unusual motifs such as Mary Magdalene grasping Jesus's foot in the manuscript's Noli me Tangere miniature and John the Baptist clamping Jesus's shoulder firmly between both hands in the Baptism depiction show, as Kingsley says, "how to see and grasp Christ with the present senses in anticipation of a more perfect union" (87). Likely inspired by texts verifiably available to Bernward such as Calcidius's translation of Plato's Timeus, this visual preoccupation with the tangibility of Christ was mirrored in contemporary arguments made by Adhemar of Chabannes and Gerard of Cambrai against heretical assertions that sacrality and materiality were incompatible. Thus the Gospelbook's images show that the imago of the resurrected Christ would be both seen and touched. As Kingsley points out, this series of what she calls "haptic paintings" (93) was an original contribution by the Hildesheim artists, or their director, who through these images affirmed the sacramental role of the bishop, to whose office was restricted several ministries that were delivered through the mechanism of touch.

Kingsley successfully explains the complex theological program inserted by the manuscript's programmer, whoever that was, on behalf of the bishop and probably intended to be perceived by the highly educated community of monks at St. Michael's, recently founded by Bernward himself. This study will be welcomed by scholars of Ottonian art, who can now set the Bernward Gospels alongside other recently studied, equally complex illuminated manuscripts such as the Uta Codex and the Ivrea Sacramentary. This must be the anticipated audience because the book launches its very dense discussion of the iconography with little preamble, neglecting to situate the manuscript in its historical and artistic context. Bernward's life and jurisdiction are introduced in two short paragraphs (3). The very distinctive style of the manuscript is described in half a sentence, as a "peculiar combination of visual sophistication and naiveté, full of dramatically gesturing figures and covered in the saturated colors of densely ornamented surfaces..." (5). Only one other manuscript made in the scriptorium is illustrated, and the scriptorium itself is described as "Hildesheim" (4, 6, 7, etc.) with no explanation. Was this the cathedral or St. Michael's? No defense of the localization is offered. Indeed, one gets the sense that an original introductory chapter that contextualized the manuscript has been excised. What does the manuscript have in common, stylistically and iconographically, with other manuscripts from this era? Only eleven other artworks are illustrated as comparanda, all but one of them Ottonian, perpetuating the unfortunate impression that Ottonian art existed in an Imperial bubble, rather than in dialogue with art of the surrounding regions, even while the non-Ottonian textual record can be plumbed for information. Gerard of Cambrai and Adhemar of Chabannes, for instance, were both affiliated with manuscript workshops, the products of which might be relevant here. In addition, all discussion of previous literature on the Bernward Gospels, with the single exception of a reference in the body of the text to the work of Hans Heinz Josten and Rainer Kahsnitz (6), has been relegated to the footnotes, which are located, following the current very inconvenient fashion, at the end of the book, making it laborious to discern Kingsley's own, substantial, original contribution and how it builds on or conflicts with those of her predecessors. For instance, the Prague Gospels are offered as a model for the Bernward Gospels with no explanation of whether members of the workshop could have been exposed to the manuscript save a non-discursive footnote to Rainer Kahsnitz (41). This may be a case in which the transformation from thesis to book was a bit too radical.

Two points of confusion should be noted: on p. 61 the "manger" in which the infant Christ is placed is described as the entire architectural surround that mimics the stable. A manger (according to the OED, from the Old French mangeoire) is a feeding trough, although in the Vulgate the event is described as reclinavit eum in praesaepio, with praesaepio potentially referring to either a stable, or a manger, or a crib. On p. 103 the text asserts that the manuscript was "offered in conjunction with the consecration of St. Michael's crypt altar," but on p. 9 it says, "the Bernward Gospels may have been presented to the monks on the occasion of one of these consecrations [the consecration of the crypt altar in 1015 or that of the unfinished building in 1022]."

The book is beautifully produced, with large black and white figures and a color plate of each miniature, as well as the extravagantly ornamented front and back covers. It should become essential reading for scholars of Carolingian, Ottonian and Romanesque art.

Article Details

Author Biography

Diane J. Reilly

Indiana University, Bloomington