The Sacramentary of Henry II

A sumptuous gem of Ottonian book art


The Sacramentary of Henry II is one of the last highlights of Ottonian illumination. A great-grandson of the founder of the dynasty of Saxon emperors, Henry II ordered this book in Regensburg for the ceremonial celebration of the masses, while he still occupied the throne.

The son of Henry the Wrangler, as the quarrelsome Duke of Bavaria was also called, was the last of the Ottonian kings to refer back to the tradition of Charles the Great. Henry II considered himself as “ruler in the house of God” and he drew his legitimation exclusively from God, an attitude that is not only reflected in the two majestic ruler portraits in his Sacramentary: “All our visible belongings, now or in the future, have come from Him who has created us through His power from nothingness and has guided us in mercy to our present condition.” These words are said to stem from Henry II himself since they so entirely expressed the attitude of the Emperor who considered himself the executive power of God on earth.

The volume was once among the most beautiful gems ever kept at the Cathedral of Bamberg, a bishopric that Henry II had founded in 1007 and magnificently endowed with the finest treasures, among them his Sacramentary. The founding of the See of Bamberg was one of Emperor Henry’s major achievements. Through rich endowments, he turned it into a centre of spiritual and cultural development in Germany. Emperor Henry II was finally sanctified in 1146. In the course of secularisation, his Sacramentary was transferred to the Court Library of Munich where it now features among the most valuable holdings of this indeed far from modest collection.



Shortly after his coronation in Mainz Cathedral through Archbishop Willigis to whom we also owe the Prayer Book of Otto III, the successor of the early-deceased emperor ordered one of the most significant painted manuscripts of the Middle Ages. For this book, the former Henry IV, Duke of Bavaria, meanwhile King Henry II of East Francia, relied on the artists of the Benedictine Abbey St. Emmeram in Regensburg, the most significant illuminators of the day.

It was intended to be a particularly lavish volume which impressively underlined the claim to power of the emperor to be. The skins of around 100 sheep and calves were necessary in order to produce the parchment for the 179 bifolios of the splendid manuscript – accounting for 718 pages in the finished book. How much gold and silver was used for the execution of its painted and decorated miniature pages, the calendar pages, the pages containing the High Offices written in gold script, and the gold and silver initials is hard to tell – not to mention the splendid goldsmith’s binding which was added to underline the material value of this missal that was expressly made for the ruler himself.

This luxury binding made of gilded silver sheet metal and a precious ivory plate protects a work of art whose text was embellished by the Regensburg scribes with 343 initials up to 15 cm high, 21 luminously imaginative marginal frames, and 14 illustrated pages that even today constitute a true highlight of German art.

Richly decorated with gold and silver initials

Like all manuscripts of its kind, the Sacramentary of Henry II contains the prayers said by the priest or bishop when celebrating mass. Richly decorated with gold and silver initials in the Ottonian style, these texts are inserted after an extensive picture cycle, full-page ornamental texts, and a calendar in chrysographic script.

The illuminated manuscript opens like fireworks introducing a big celebration: the plates of the months are followed by a coronation picture and a picture of Henry II on the throne, expressing the very essence of how the last Saxon emperor saw an ideal rulership. In addition to other luxury pages, Gregory the Great is honoured with an imposing author’s picture. After a concluding page with the Lamb of God, the Sacramentary begins – no longer written and painted on vellum but on fine sheep’s parchment.

The luxury binding

A work of art

As was the case with many other medieval manuscripts made for important rulers of the time, the fine parchment leaves, lavishly painted with miniatures and initials alike, and the binding were intended to form a cohesive artwork. Although the volume was probably rebound a number of times, we may still assume that the individual elements of its cover were associated with the Sacramentary right from its original production, a book that – both in terms of style and function – was always linked to the codex aureus, the Golden Book of St. Emmeram from the Palace School of Charles the Bald. The front cover of the volume shows a magnificent ivory plate framed with golden sheet metal, illustrating the same biblical events that are also pictured in the manuscript: the Crucifixion and below it the events of the Easter morning with the Three Marys at the Tomb.

No less impressive is the back cover of the book, which on a silver plate shows Pope Gregory the Great writing his text. He is inspired by the Holy Spirit who in the form of a dove seems to whisper in his right ear. Much like the author’s picture inside the painted book, this partly gilded silverwork expresses great harmony.

The unique and complete facsimile edition of the Sacramentary of Henry II is published in only 333 hand-numbered copies. The facsimile volume comprises a total of 718 pages in the original format of 29.5 x 24.2 cm. The leaves have been trimmed in accordance with the original book and sewn by hand.

In a number of inspiring and easily understandable essays, reputed experts provide a wealth of information on the provenance, the function, and the artistic contents of the Sacramentary of Henry II. The commentary volume includes articles by Brigitte Gullath, Munich, Martina Pippal, Vienna, Stefan Weinfurter, Mainz, and Erich Renhart, Graz.