Lindau Gospels, Front cover (St Gall, Switzerland)

Unknown German artist

Lindau Gospels, Front cover (St Gall, Switzerland), 880–99, 350 x 275 mm, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York; Purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913) in 1901, MS M. 1, Photo: The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

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Out of Death into Life

Commentary by
Read by Chloë Reddaway

1 John 3 builds its exhortations on the perfect obedience of Christ: ‘he is pure’ (v.3), ‘in him there is no sin’ (v.4), and ‘he is righteous’ (v.7). His obedience, 1 John 3 relates, culminated in the cross where ‘he laid down his life for us’ (v.16).

While artisans, both ancient and modern, have often struggled to depict the other-worldly glory of the triumphant Christ, we can see such tension supremely represented here in the Pierpont Morgan Library’s chief prize. The gilded and bejewelled cover of the Lindau Gospels conveys both the brutality of the cross and the resurrection power that overcame it.

On a cover that employs 327 precious gems, the central figure of Christ on the cross emerges along with ten mourning witnesses. These include the figures of the sun and moon (Joel 2:10), inscribed within the cross above the figure of Christ, along with two pairs of angels each flanking the top of the cross. Mirroring the poses of the angels above are four human figures below. In their postures, Christ’s mother, St John, and the two female mourners below them, suggest their agony as witnesses. Upon close examination, we observe etched drops of blood from the nails in Christ’s hands and feet.

The repoussé technique of the goldsmiths (whereby a relief is created by hammering the shape from the inside) makes for a smooth, naturalistic presentation. Such a technique can be read as an analogy of the resurrection power that brought the crucified Messiah back from the grave—working life from the inside out to a glorious appearance. Indeed, the sufferer appears as a celebrated victor (a Christus Triumphans), wounded but now restored and standing with great poise and self-assurance. The jewelled decorations placed centrally in the four gold rectangles surrounding the cross are raised slightly on lion’s feet, like tiny pedestals. They protect the central figure and ensure his impeccable appearance.

‘When he appears … we shall see him as he is’ (v.2). With these words, the Epistle looks to the parousia (the second coming) as a moment of apocalypse, or ‘unveiling’. There is, likewise, something apocalyptic about the Lindau Gospels’ cover. Indeed, in its ornate gems and gold-work, some admirers see an evocation of the beauty of the heavenly New Jerusalem in the final chapters of Saint John’s Revelation (21:9–21).

 

References

Lindau Gospels: The Morgan Library & Museum website https://www.themorgan.org/collection/lindau-gospels [accessed 6 October 2021]

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