Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Stockholm Codex Aureus

It's been a long while since I posted anything here, but I'm back, at least for the moment.

This is the Stockholm Codex Aureus (Stockholm, Royal Library, MS A. 135), also known as the Codex Aureus of Canterbury. "Codex Aureus" can be translated as "Golden Book" and refers to the liberal use gold leaf used in the decoration of this manuscript. There are several other manuscripts known as the Codex Aureus as well, so you have to specify which one you are dealing with. Stockholm refers to its current location, while Canterbury refers to where it was probably made.

This is a Gospel Book and contains the Latin text of the four gospels. (I'm not sure what version, but I would bet that it is the mix of Vulgate and Vetus Latina found in other insular gospels). I also don't know what texts, other than the Gospels it contains, although I do know that it has Canon Tables. I would assume that some of the prefatory matter found in other Insular Gospels is present. There are 193 extant folios. Alternating folios have been dyed purple. The text is written in an uncial script in black, white, red, gold and silver inks. There are two surviving evangelist portraits, six decorated canon tables and seven decorated initials.

The portrait of Matthew shown here, is quite different from the highly stylized and abstracted portraits in other Insular manuscripts. Matthew is seated on throne within an arcade with pillars. Curtains hanging from above are wrapped around the pillars. In the tympanum above is his symbol, the winged man. There is little in the way decoration and the composition lacks the elaborate decorated borders found in some of the other insular manuscripts. Although the elements, including Matthew himself, are stylized and flattened the entire composition has a serene monumental quality. In many ways, this can be seen as a precursor to later Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian styles.

The facing text page, however, would be comfortably at home in any of the great Insular manuscripts like Kells or Durrow. The text block and each line of text is contained within a frame. The text lines alternate between a gilded background and golden letters, creating a dazzling effect. The opening initial is an elaborate monogram decorated with interlaced patterns and laid on a background of spiral motifs. As can be seen by the detail below, the draftsmanship is quite high.

That the evangelist portrait faces this page is quite interesting. The initial monogram is of the Greek letters Chi and Rho (XP). This monogram was often used as in place of the word for "Christ". The interesting thing is that, although evangelist portraits were usually placed at the beginning of a gospel, this is not the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. This is the text which begins at Matthew 1:18. The preceding 17 verses contain a genealogy of Christ, and the actual narrative of Christ's life starts here. In insular manuscripts, the genealogy was often treated almost as a separate work and this "second beginning" was often given its own frontispiece, although this is the only manuscript that I am aware of that moves the evangelist portrait here. The enlarged, decorated Chi Rho monogram at this point in the text is a motif that is limited to insular gospel books.

This manuscript was at Christ Church, Oxford in the 9th century. It was looted by the Vikings, ransomed by Earl Alfred (later King Alfred). At some time in the middle ages it was lost again. It was found by a Swede in 1690 in Spain and purchased for the Swedish Royal Library