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22.12.03 Hamburger/O’Driscoll (eds.), Imperial Splendor

22.12.03 Hamburger/O’Driscoll (eds.), Imperial Splendor

Imperial Splendor: The Art of the Book in the Holy Roman Empire, ca. 800-1500 is inspired by the exhibition of the same name held at the Morgan Library (New York, New York) from October 15, 2021, through January 23, 2022. As is true for many, I did not do a lot of travelling in 2021 and was never able to see this exhibition in person. I am, therefore, even more grateful to have the opportunity to review and recommend this book (and the accompanying exhibition website: to scholars and especially teachers who work with medieval manuscripts. Note that I have not called the book a catalog. Although the information and examples are grounded in the exhibition held at the Morgan Library, the book is not organized like an exhibition catalog with introductory essays followed by a list of objects described in individual catalog entries. Rather, the book is organized chronologically and thematically, covering the span of the Holy Roman Empire from its origins under Charlemagne to the advent of the printing press in the sixteenth century.

The authors begin, as appropriate for the various audiences who might read this book, with a discussion of the problems associated with the phrase “Holy Roman Empire,” including the debate around whether one should make use of the title for periods before the thirteenth century or whether the successive empires that have been associated with or used the title themselves represented a harmonized endeavor. In fact, Hamburger and O’Driscoll take as their organizing principle that the most significant continuity to be found across the Holy Roman Empire is how those in power negotiated difference. As the authors note, “the Empire represented a constantly shifting network of overlapping territories, jurisdictions, and alliances. Over all these territories, however, the emperor exercised at least nominal authority, understood as being granted by the grace of God...” (15). Furthermore, Hamburger and O’Driscoll argue that the manufacture and reception of manuscripts should be seen as an important throughline for negotiating territorial, jurisdictional, and political differences, suggesting that the success of the Holy Roman Empire was inextricably linked to the magnificent manuscript production that defined it. It is also telling then that Imperial Splendor does not close with one of the “ends” of the Holy Roman Empire, but instead with the advent of the printing press, or the end, so to speak, of the primacy of manuscripts. As the book’s subtitle suggests, this is a book about books and the ways that the medium--or these objects of multimedia as the authors call them (23)--characterizes and is characterized by the production, consumption, and exchange of manuscripts.

Because this exhibition featured and focused on works of art in North American collections (and even more specifically, collections in the United States), it offers an expanded view on what many of us were trained to know about the history of books in the Holy Roman Empire. While some of the most famous examples associated with Empire, such as the so-called Liuthar Gospels (Aachen, Domschatzkammer G25) are mentioned and illustrated in the text, many of the examples discussed are less well known, such as the Saint-Remi Gospels (The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.728). The less-frequently cited examples demonstrate the same themes, styles, or iconography as their more famous counterparts; for example, the author pages from Gospel Books in The Morgan Library & Museum (MS M.640) and the Walters Art Museum (MS W.4) bear striking similarities with the author portraits found in the canonical examples of the Ebbo Gospels (Épernay, Bibliothèque Municipale, Ms. 1) or the always-cited energetic style of the Utrecht Psalter (Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS Bibl. Rhenotraiectinae I Nr 32).

Other examples focus attention on additional (or as I said above, expanded) stories of the role of manuscripts in the Holy Roman Empire. So, while the themes introduced and explained across a chronological trajectory will be familiar to those who study the Holy Roman Empire (i.e., the legacy of the antique, concepts of renevatio, aspects of spolia, the influence of Byzantine style in the early period and of International Gothic or Renaissance styles in the latter period, and the roles of imperial, episcopal, and monastic patrons), the characters, monuments, and materials used to illuminate these themes are less so. See for example a discussion of a dynamic dedication miniature in a Gospel Book commissioned by Abbot Henry (Heinricus) and an unknown noblewoman associated with the Benedictine monastery of Seitenstetten (The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.855, figs. 85-86, 123), or the discussion of a giant bible from the court in Prague attributed to the hand of Andreas of Austria (The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.833). While only one of the scribes of the manuscript, Andreas names himself in the colophon of its opening pages. The giant bible was illuminated by a team of artists that include the Morgan Master and the Samson Master, who “also participated in one of the greatest manuscript commissions of the time: the so-called Wenceslas Bible...” (Vienna, Austrian National Library, Cod. 2759-64). Both discussions offer an opportunity to expand what we know about medieval patterns of patronage as well as what we should ask about modern and contemporary collectors and collections. I argue that these expansions make Imperial Splendor a more useful tool, not just as a U.S.-based European medievalist, but also because it nudges familiar players out of the center of our discussions, allowing this reader, at least, to see the issues that shaped the Holy Roman Empire from a unique angle, using unique evidence and shifting my focus toward the tension between commonalities and particularities of a manuscript’s commission or contexts.

As someone who teaches undergraduate students in courses designed to serve a liberal arts curriculum, I found myself eager to assign chapters from Imperial Splendor in my classes, or to replace works of art that have served as my examples for years with objects illustrated here. Not only is the Golden Gospels(The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.23) something my students might see more readily than they ever will the Coronation Gospels (Kaiserliche Schatzkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), knowing these objects are in New York, Cleveland, Malibu, or Baltimore might just make them seem more approachable, reminding us all that medieval material culture has a history here too. As the introduction to the book attests, this endeavor broadens opportunities to talk about why these books are here, who brought them to our attention, and what we might learn from them next. The objects included inImperial Splendor and their organization serve as tent poles for a history of the Holy Roman Empire that might seem to point to somewhere else--to St. Gall, Corvey, or Quedlinburg; to Vienna, Mainz, or Nuremburg--but they can also point here and towards the long, important, and political legacies of US collections of Medieval Art.