Back cover of the Lindau Gospels. Salzburg (ca. 780–800) (New York, the Morgan Library & Museum, photo by Graham S. Haber)

The French writer and historian Voltaire famously quipped that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor even an empire. Names aside, a new book shows that this wide-ranging confederation of central European territories was indeed unified in one regard: it was obsessed with making and consuming books. 

Imperial Splendor: The Art of the Book in the Holy Roman Empire, 800-1500 (D Giles Limited) by Jeffrey F. Hamburger and Joshua O’Driscoll joins the authors’ meticulous historical analysis with more than 150 lush, full-color illustrations of these magnificent books and their elaborate bindings. Imperial Splendor is the first English-language study of its geographical and chronological scope to draw primarily from North American manuscript collections, especially those of the Morgan Library & Museum, where a concurrent exhibition is on display through January of next year. Together, Hamburger and O’Driscoll argue that the Empire — holy, Roman, or not — played a crucial role in patronizing and advancing the art of the book in the medieval era.

Jakob Elsner, “Introit to the feast of the Ascension,” Geese Book, Nuremberg (ca. 1507–10) (New York, the Morgan Library & Museum, vol. 1, fol. 186r.  (photo by Graham S. Haber, all images courtesy D Giles Limited and the Morgan Library & Museum)

Books were lavish, coveted objects in the Middle Ages. Christianity’s pivotal place in the Empire meant that many of the most exquisite books were devoted to religious themes and produced by the clergy. These often required countless hours of specialized labor and utilized prohibitively expensive materials. Manuscript interiors frequently featured dyed parchment, costly pigments, and brass, silver, and gold inks, and were created by scriptoria, organized teams of expert scribes in prestigious monasteries. Rulers and aristocrats of the Empire relied on these skilled monks to create books that could be used not only to transmit knowledge, preserve traditions, and appear in rituals, but that also could serve as impressive gifts for high profile marriages and political relationships. “In a period in which the power of literacy itself cannot be understated, and in which the beauty of the written word itself served to manifest its authority, a well-known scriptorium represented a potent instrument of political power,” Hamburger and O’Driscoll write.

While a book’s pages reflected the style of the scriptorium that produced it, its covers were often composites of various decorative styles collected through time. Adorned with jewels, ivory, precious metals, and spolia — parts of older objects that are purposefully refurbished for use in a new setting — these bindings often reflected the wide reach and power of the Empire. For example, the intricate back cover of the Lindau Gospels (ca 780-800) was composed using eight distinct metal techniques, from inlaid glass to enameling. A relic of the Empire’s cosmopolitan culture, the cover contains elements of Frankish and Mediterranean craft, as well as motifs influenced by the English and Irish missionaries who traveled between the Empire’s most renowned monasteries at the time. 

The visual variety found in the book covers reflects the vastness of the Empire, which at various points encompassed modern-day Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and the Czech Republic, along with parts of Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and northern Italy. Hamburger and O’Driscoll propose that the Empire’s decentralized nature helped its book arts evolve, and pushed the eventual development of the printing press in its lands. Before that happened, though, it fostered a rich book culture that’s worth revisiting today.

Initial M for the feast of the Annunciation (Lauds), Antiphonary from a Carmelite monastery, Mainz (ca. 1450) (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, detail)
Circle of the Housebook Master, Crucifixion, canon page from the Missal of Duke Friedrich and Margarethe von Simmern, Middle Rhine (ca. 1481–82)
(New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975)
Albrecht Dürer (print) and Hieronymus Oertel (script and coloring), “Resurrection,” prayer book, Nuremberg (1507–13) and c(a. 1580–1600) (New York, the Morgan Library & Museum, photo by Janny Chiu)
Master of the Munich Marian Panels, “The Fifth Elder,” leaf from Otto von Passau, Die 24 Alten, Munich (ca. 1450) (Philadelphia, Free Library, courtesy the Free Library of Philadelphia, Rare Book Department)

Imperial Splendor: The Art of the Book in the Holy Roman Empire, 800-1500 by Jeffrey F. Hamburger and Joshua O’Driscoll, published by D Giles Limited, is available online. An exhibition of the same name continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Ave, Midtown East, Manhattan)through January 23, 2022.

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Lauren Moya Ford

Lauren Moya Ford is a writer and artist. Her writing has appeared in Apollo, Artsy, Atlas Obscura, Flash Art, Frieze, Glasstire, Mousse Magazine, and other publications.