Londres, British Library, IX Century, Egerton Ms. 768, fol. 63

The fascinating art of initial pages in luxurious liturgical manuscripts of the Middle Ages was an invention of Scottish-Irish origin. During the Carolingian period, an unparalleled coalescence took the place of elements from this art and those of Merovingian and late antique art.

In Northern Gaul, once occupied by the Romans, the late antique influence still developed in fertile ways when integrated with insular ornament; that was transmitted by the monasteries of Irish origin together with zoomorphic Merovingian patterns. It was after Charlemagne’s death (in 814), and long into the 9th century, that is an extremely rich art of initial-decoration flourished in the Benedictine monasteries of the Western Frankish Empire; they had already been fostered by Charlemagne himself. Our initial page from St John’s Gospel (in principio erat verbum…) is an outstanding example of this art.

The actual initial letter is framed like a picture of a strictly tectonic golden frame with ornamental interlace ending in small floral motifs – typical of the Carolingian art and especially late Carolingian Court-Schools. Each corner of the frame is decorated with a heart-shaped silver ornament (now oxidized) filled with yellow and alternatively luscious green or pale blue. The silver ornament ends up on top in a zoomorphic motif – a craving beard, head bowed towards the inside of the picture. The bird is symmetrically opposed. The arrangement particularly recalls contemporary initial pages in Franco-Saxon book illumination, like that in the famous Bible of Charles the Bold, executed after 871 in St. Amand (Now National Library, Paris, Ms lat. 2). The broad frame is broken, right and left by silver-framed medallions; their varying motifs of interface point to the asymmetrical element which is also apparent on the inside of the picture. Here, the pale pink ground strikingly reminds us of the initial page in the Ebo -Gospels (before 835, given by Abbot Ebo, Archbishop of Reims, to his monastery in Hautville, France – see our “Masterpieces”, N° 1135). The delicate pink background corresponds to that of the Incipit-page opposite our initial.