Magnificent Manuscripts

Treasures of Book Illumination

19 October 2012 – 13 January 2013

With 72 extraordinary manuscripts from the collection of the Bavarian State Library, as well as three exceptional works from the Bamberg State Library, the Kunsthalle Munich presented a wide overview of the earliest and most precious examples of German book illumination. These 75 magnificent volumes represented some of the greatest cultural and artistic achievements of the Carolingian, Ottonian and Romanesque eras. Within this library’s extensive collection, the Ottonian manuscripts in particular form a unique nucleus that is unsurpassed worldwide. Owing to their extraordinary fragility, these highly valuable works can hardly ever leave the library’s vault. This exhibition of original manuscripts therefore offered a unique opportunity to discover thousand-year-old testimonies to our cultural heritage.

The beginning of the german illumination

The oldest manuscript on display dates from the era of the last Bavarian Agilolfing duke. The Carolingian codices from the illumination centres of Salzburg, Tegernsee and Freising bore witness to the high quality of artistry in the 9th century. German illumination under the Saxon emperors from Otto the Great (912–973) to Henry II (973–1024), was one of the most glorious epochs of early occidental illumination, which played a prominent role in the arts at that time. Among the greatest achievements of this Ottonian period were the magnificent depictions of sovereigns. These established a connection between the secular and the sacred, and underline the sanctity of imperial power.

Rich decoration

Secular and ecclesiastical rulers commissioned liturgical manuscripts from the best writing schools and illumination centres: these gospels, pericopes and sacramentaries were richly decorated with luminous colours and gold. Their ingeniously tooled luxurious bindings were encrusted with numerous precious stones, cameos and ivory reliefs, including spolia dating from the classical, Byzantine and Carolingian periods. Four world-famous sumptuous codices from the island of Reichenau, whose monastery became the imperial scriptorium under Otto III and Henry II, were on show, including the gospels of Otto III and the pericopes of Henry II. Together with the evangeliary from Bamberg cathedral and the Bamberg Apocalypse, these books have been listed on UNESCO’s “Memory of the World” World Documentary Heritage register since 2003.

historical development

The importance of Regensburg as a centre for the creation of sumptuous codices was demonstrated by two magnificent liturgical manuscripts, the Codex commissioned by the Abbess Uta and the Sacramentary of Henry II. The art of Ottonian illumination outlasted the Saxon rulers until well into the Salian period. Selected manuscripts from the Bavarian State Library illustrated this continuity into the 11th century right up to the threshold of the Romanesque, at the same time following the development of Romanesque book illumination and its flourishing in the following century up to Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1122–1190).

Many of the manuscripts on display can be viewed entirely on-line under:

This exhibition was held under the patronage of Federal President Joachim Gauck.