Scriptorium at Echternach. From: Book of Pericopes of Henry III. Bremen. Source: Web Art Galleries

The Golden Gospels of Henry III

Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor, received a thorough education. This prompted him to be extraordinarily interested in the refined book production taking place at Echternach. His Golden Gospels witness to this royal sponsorship.

“Oh, king! This place, called Echternach, awaits your grace both day and night” [1]

Petition handed to Henry III at Echternach. Book of Pericopes, Bremen, fol 125r
Petition handed to Henry III at Echternach. Book of Pericopes, Bremen, fol 125r. Source: wikipedia

Twice in his early reign (1039 – 41), Henry III visited the monastery in Echternach in present-day Luxemburg. Here, he received a gift from abbot Humbert, a beautiful book of pericopes produced in the scriptorium. In one of the illuminations, we can see how Henry receives a written petition from the abbot. The text on the petition rendered in painting reads, “Our prosperity lies in your hand, let your mercy breathe upon us” (Salus nostra in manu tua est, respiceat super nos misericordia tua”.[2]

It is assumed that the king received the book as a gift at a time when the Abbey was trying to secure the king’s intervention in a feud playing out between the Abbey and the Duke of Luxembourg. Perhaps it is the artist of the book, who is peeping out from behind? In the preceding scene, we see two of the workers in the scriptorium, one of whom is obviously a lay artist, the painter, while the other, the scribe, is a monk. In yet another illumination we find the famous scene featuring a young and energetic king, supported by two abbots, and leading a procession of his men, with one of his soldiers carrying his golden sword. A book of pericopes (evangelistary) held the selected bits of texts (periscopes) from the Gospels, organised according to the calendar; it was thus a kind of compact New Testament. It was, however, not the same as a lectionary, which would also hold the texts of the epistles. This makes it less likely that the book was intended for use by the clerics in the king’s chapel. In all probability, he later used it as a personal religious handbook.

The tradition to read specific texts on specific days began in a small way. Gradually, though, the selection became officially codified. Such was the case c. 1040. Hence, the book of pericopes of Henry III holds 283 texts, intended to be read on Sundays and Feast Days beginning with the text for the first Sunday in Advent. The manuscript measures only 14.7 x 19.4 cm and has a format, which made it handy for carrying around on the incessant travels of a medieval king. Written in a clear script it would have been easily read by the well-educated emperor. The book, however, was obviously not meant purely for reading. With its 42 full-page illustrations with 72 Christological scenes plus numerous other beautiful illuminations (decorated tables, initials, the scenes from Echternach described above plus two carpet-pages showing the design of Byzantine silks, the manuscript presents itself as a lush and colourful piece of art.

The Golden Gospels

Codex Aureus Echternach. Nuremberg
Codex Aureus Echternach. Nuremberg, Hs 156142 fol 40-41. Source: Wikipedia

It is highly likely that Henry at this time had occasion to admire a golden Evangeliary, used in the monastery from c. 1030, and that this inspired him to commission two other famous golden Gospels for Goslar and Speyer, the main religious foundations, the king was actively supporting. This led to a fruitful blossoming of the scriptorium at Echternach as well as the creation of some of the most beautiful manuscripts preserved from the 11th century. Three of these can be directly linked to Henry III and witness to his distinctive royal ethos.

This Evangeliary, which the king possibly inspected, is now known as the Codex Aureus Epternacensis. In all likelihood, it was created in 1028 – 1031. Humbert took over in 1028 and soon after in 1031 he could consecrate the new church, which had been in the crucible since 1016. We may presume, the Evangeliary was produced for the new church. This golden codex is the largest of the three. It measures 44.6 x 31 and contains 60 decorative pages with biblical scenes, initials, decorated tables and portraits of the evangelists. Written with golden ink, it is an outstandingly beautiful manuscript.

Codex Aureus Escurialenses. Facsimile
Codex Aureus Escurialenses. Facsimile. Source:

The first gospel, the king commissioned was for Speyer Cathedral. Here a new impressive Romanesque Cathedral was under construction. Intended as the mausoleum or burial church of the Salian dynasty, construction had begun in 1030; and even though the building would continue until 1103, the choir with the high altar had been consecrated in time for the burial of Conrad II (Henry’s father). It is believed that the Codex Aureus Spirensis (later called Escuraliensis) was donated to the church around 1045 – 46. This manuscript measures 50 x 35 cm and was thus larger than the model from Echternach. Also, it was even more luxuriously outfitted with numerous illuminations and a gaudy use of gold and bright colours. No longer embellished by a lavish cover, we must imagine it as it once was: protected by a golden cover as that which was made for the Evangeliary of Theophanu (now in the treasure of the Essen Cathedral). Such a cover can be documented for the gospel from Goslar, which wooden cover is intact, although the golden plates and the jewels are long gone.


Codex Caesarius Upsaliensis (former Goslariensis), fol 10– 11. Photo: University of Uppsala.
Codex Caesarius Upsaliensis (former Goslariensis), fol 10– 11. Photo: University of Uppsala.

Finally, there is the Codex Caesareus Upsaliensis, originally called the Codex Caesareus Goslariensis (c. 1050). Now kept in the University Library in Uppsala, some collector scooped it up during the 30th year war in the 17th century. This codex was commissioned by Henry III as a gift to his new prestigious foundation of a College Church in Goslar, SS Simon and Jude, and gifted to the church at the consecration in 1050. Henry III had founded the prestigious religious centre at Goslar as part of his plan to create a magnificent royal complex at the foot of the mountain, from which his wealth in the form of silver poured out. This manuscript is slightly smaller than its two sisters, 38 x 28 cm; also the programme of illustrations is slightly less lush, while the colours tend to be on the gaudy side. Also, the figures tend to be somewhat more abstract, and less lively than for instance those in the Book of Pericopes. The Codex Caesareus Upsaliensis simply seem less fresh and more aware of its artistic pretences. However, the full page opening scenes, the decorated tables, and the many initials worked in gold serve to emphasise the links to the other manuscripts in this family.

Other works, ten in all, witness to the artistic qualities of the work, which was carried out at Echternach from c. 1030 – 60. The books gifted linked to Henry III, however, belong to special category and witness to the Emperor’s bibliophilic interests. The Manuscripts currently held in Nuremberg and Uppsala have been digitised and can be enjoyed there.


The Book of Pericopes of Henry III – Das Evangelistar (Perikopenbuch) Kaiser Heinrich III c. 1041
Universitätsbibliothek Bremen: Codex Ms.b.21 c. 1040

Codex Aureus of Echternach – Codex Aureus Epternacensi. c. 1031
German National Museum, , Nuremberg, Hs. 156142

Codex Aureus Escuraliensis (Spirensis). C. 1045 – 46.
Escorial Madrid, cod. Vitrinas 17, um 1045/46

Codex Caesareus Upsaliensis (1051 – 56)
University Library, Uppsala, Cod. C. 93


[1] Das Evangelistar (Perikopenbuch) Kaiser Heinrich III c. 1041, fol 125v

[1]  1077. Canossa. Katalog. Pp. 253 – 55


Das Bremer Evangelistar.
Series: Quellen Und Forschungen Zur Sprach- Und Kulturgeschichte der germanischen Völker. Neue Folge, Vol 110.
Walter de Gruyter 1996

Canossa 1077. Erschütterung der Welt. Geschichte, Kunst und Kultur am Aufgang der Romanik. Bd. II Katalog. Ed. by Christoph Stiegemann and Matthias Wemhoff. Hirmer Verlag München 2006.


The scriptorium at Echternach. Das Evangelistar (Perikopenbuch) Kaiser Heinrich III c. 1041, fol 125r. Detail.







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