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The 9th-century Lindau Gospels, named for its former home at the Lindau Abbey on Lake Constance in Germany, wasn’t the first book J. Pierpont Morgan purchased for his library, but in the collections of the Morgan Library & Museum, it’s labeled “MS M. 1.” That acquisition number reflects the high regard Morgan had for this beautiful book adorned with metalwork and jewels, a precious example of early treasure binding. Currently the Lindau Gospels is on view in the East Room of the Morgan Library, with newly installed brighter lighting enhancing its dimensional cover.
“Books with covers like this are a rare survival, because of the inherent worth of the materials used: gold, jewels, precious textiles,” Roger S. Wieck, curator and department head of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts at the Morgan, told Hyperallergic. “The architectural elements are in themselves part of the medieval vocabulary for constructing three-dimensional elements in metalwork, especially metalwork that was used. Use could mean processions, presentation to figures who might swear an oath on the object, reading at a lectern, and ceremonial exhibition on an altar.”
Jennifer Schuessler reported at the New York Times that the current display is “in brighter light than the standard 50 lux,” as the metal doesn’t have the same deterioration concerns as other manuscripts, and it’s also part of “a broader upgrade of the lighting in the Morgan’s landmark 1906 Charles McKim building.”
After the Lindau Gospels is removed from public display on May 1, a thorough conservation project will focus on assessing its condition, including assuring that its jewels, metal, leather, and textiles are all stable. Following this, there are plans for it to be a part of an exhibition in September of 2017.
The manuscript is something of a collage of materials, with different techniques from across several centuries. The gilt silver and jewel back cover is the oldest component, created between 760 and 790 CE, and silks from Byzantium and the Middle East were later attached to the inside covers.
“The ancient textiles — glued to the insides of both front and back covers — in particular are in fragile condition, especially those areas that are exposed to air and light,” Wieck explained. “Areas of the textiles are brittle and fraying due to past overexposure. Both covers will be carefully cleaned.”
Not many of these early treasure bindings survive as they were later scavenged for their materials. The famed Book of Kells, for example, was the victim of a medieval thief who stripped its gold. The Lindau Gospels is completely digitized and available to explore online, so in addition to its time on public view, you can gaze at its beauty inside and out, from precious stones to illuminated vellum, with double-page spreads highlighting the four gospels.