The Treasury Gospel Book, Aix-la Chapelle, 9th century, fol. 14v

This picture is a striking example of the resurgence of late antique traditions of the Imperial Court of Charlemagne. For his Palatine Chapel at Aix-la Chapelle the codex had been destined from the very beginning. The splendor of the manuscript is reflected in the ornate gold frame with painted semi-precious stones of blue and green colors. Its blue border line awakes the connection with the dominating color of the picture. Under a pale violet sky with tree silhouettes there rises up a picturesque landscape of mountains in evocative shades of blue. The Evangelists sitting in the four corners, reading and writing are separated by the cloud-like mountains as well as by their deep absorption.

This representation of a solemn Christian subject reveals the ancient Greek model of author’s portraits. The way in which the figures are placed in a traditional rectangular frame alludes to a geometrical structure of the design. But this is softened by a rather realistic representation of momentary events, obvious in the arrangement of the desks or the picturesque red cushions or by the different attitudes of the figures. Each Evangelist is characterized by his symbol holding the scroll of the Gospel text: Matthew with the angel, next to him John with the eagle, underneath Mark with the winged lion whose face has assumed human features, and in the left corner Luke with the winged bull. This connection of the four Evangelists with the four apocalyptic figures from the visions of Ezekiel (1, 7-14) had been introduced in the second century by the Church father Irenaeus. It became one of the major subjects in Christian art, only the way of presenting the subject characterizes the illustrators of different schools and periods. In antique portraits authors had been shown with their Muse as the source of inspiration, and similarly the four Evangelists in our picture are receiving their vision which they record in writing. Each Evangelist symbolizes in his own way one moment which is part of an action of lasting validity: Matthew reading, John thinking, Mark dips his quill into the ink-pot, Luke writing. Thus, the holy message is preserved for generations to come.