Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 8, 2017
Jennifer P. Kingsley The Bernward Gospels: Art, Memory, and the Episcopate in Medieval Germany University Park: Penn State University Press, 2014. 228 pp.; 18 color ills.; 34 b/w ills. Cloth $79.95 (9780271060798)

With The Bernward Gospels: Art, Memory, and the Episcopate in Medieval Germany, Jennifer P. Kingsley has made a valuable contribution to English-language scholarship on Ottonian art history. Her immediate focus is an illuminated Gospel book made at the beginning of the eleventh century for the eminent bishop Bernward of Hildesheim (r. 993–1022). The manuscript (Hildesheim, Dom- und Diözesanmuseum, Domschatz 18 [Bernward Gospels]) is illustrated with twenty-four miniatures featuring New Testament content in addition to evangelist portraits. It presents a substantial visual program whose scope conforms with the expansion of Gospel imagery at several German scriptoria around the turn of the millennium. Many of the Bernward Gospels’s miniatures are iconographically unusual, however; and the manner in which they cohere as a cycle has never been satisfactorily demonstrated. It is to Kingsley’s credit that she has teased out the many disparate elements that combine to create each miniature and through this painstaking process has developed a theory that adequately explains the significance of the cycle as a whole. In this way, too, she vastly expands the range of her study, revealing the erudition both of Bishop Bernward and Kingsley herself, for the theological, philosophical, and iconographical intricacies of this pictorial program are breathtaking. By following Kingsley’s extensively annotated explications of the Gospel book’s miniatures, the reader receives quite an education in a plethora of byways of medieval thought.

The Bernward Gospels begins with an introduction to the manuscript and its patron. Thereafter, in four chapters Kingsley assembles the foundational elements of her holistic thesis. Ultimately, Kingsley argues that the Bernward Gospels’s pictorial program was conceived by its patron as a vehicle for the construction of the bishop’s memory at the monastery of St. Michael’s at Hildesheim, the community to which he presented the book. The manuscript was a gift pro anima: it was intended to ensure the salvation of the bishop’s soul by virtue of the prayers and liturgical rituals offered on Bernward’s behalf by the monks in return for the gift of the book. Donations to monastic communities of this type for this purpose were normal practice in the early Middle Ages; what is striking about the Bernward Gospels is the extraordinary sophistication of the visual cycle, which was, Kingsley asserts, structured so as to ensure that Bishop Bernward was remembered in very specific ways that established his salvific merit within the context of his episcopal identity.

The commemorative function of the manuscript’s pictorial cycle is set forth in chapter 1, “Memory,” which principally addresses the bifolium 16v–17r. On fol. 16v, Bishop Bernward, garbed in Mass vestments, is represented in the church of St. Michael’s, proffering the Gospel book to the enthroned Virgin and Child on the facing folio. Perhaps uniquely, in this donor portrait a large altar set with the Eucharistic implements separates the patron from the recipient. Having described the fundamental elements of the miniature, as is her practice throughout the book, Kingsley submits them to minute analysis, often expanded upon in copious annotation. Of great significance here are the multiple references to objects in the Hildesheim cathedral treasury that were likewise the result of Bernward’s beneficence. The figures of Mary and Christ in the miniature, for instance, are painted entirely in gold and silver, thus relating to the metallic vasa sacra on the facing folio, but also specifically recalling the sculpture of the enthroned Madonna and Child, sheathed in gold, that Bernward presented to Hildesheim and that survives to this day in the treasury. Kingsley demonstrates that other elements within the paired miniatures likewise relate to Bernwardian patronage, and she suggests that these illustrations serve a commemorative purpose in a fashion similar to a treasury list. “Medieval records of the treasury and its donors . . . employ a cognitive structure that, because it is reused, continuously performed, and linked to sacred objects has the potential to fix communal memory” (34), writes Kingsley, asserting that the miniatures on ff. 16v–17r, with their multifarious references to Bernward’s past and present patronage activity, constructed the bishop’s memory for the monks of St. Michael’s, thus “prompt[ing] a commemorative response . . . which might stabilize that memory” (ibid.).

Kingsley’s fundamental thesis regarding Bernward’s visual commemoration is further supported in chapter 2, “Service,” by extensive formal and iconographical analyses of the portraits of Sts. Matthew and Mark and scenes from their lives that appear on facing folia. Kingsley demonstrates that the scenes chosen—the Calling of Matthew, Christ and Matthew in the house of Levi, and Peter charging Mark to write his Gospel—all relate to the evangelists’ entry into Christ’s service and therefore into “a privileged relationship with him,” a service and a relationship analogous to Bernward’s own priesthood. She then addresses the six biographical miniatures that illustrate episodes from the life of John the Baptist, whom Bernward revered. Some of these narratives rarely occur in Western Gospel illustration, and Kingsley demonstrates that their appearance here is dictated by Bernward’s understanding of John not only as a type of Christ, but also as an episcopal exemplar. Kingsley provides substantial textual and visual evidence for this typology, reflected most obviously in the “paradigmatic priestly act” represented with Christ’s Baptism by John on fol. 174v. According to her interpretation of hagiographical sources in conjunction with the Bernward Gospels’s John the Baptist cycle, the Baptist was a paradigm through which an Ottonian bishop such as Bernward could reconcile the competing demands of the contemplative and the active life, a contemporary concern.

Chapter 3, entitled “Sight,” and chapter 4, “Touch,” relate closely to one another and collectively support Kingsley’s interpretation of the episcopal commemorative themes introduced in “Memory” and “Service.” In the miniatures that Kingsley addresses in “Sight,” an ornamental barrier separates the earthly world from the heavenly realm, which, she demonstrates, may be perceived solely by means of the spiritual sight that alone can penetrate from the terrestrial into the celestial sphere. In each of these four miniatures, earthly viewers—the Magi, personifications of the terrestrial world, and the evangelists Luke and John—appear against a densely patterned background that affirms materiality. With the exception of Luke, they gaze upward, where, in heaven, Christ appears as a baby in the manger; in majesty; on the cross; and at the moment of his ascension. Kingsley concludes that these “images of seeing” represent another way in which the manuscript’s patron is brought closer to Christ, that is, “by exercising spiritual sight.” The miniatures addressed in chapter 4 perform a similar function, but in these cases, it is the tactile experience of the divine that is explored. Kingsley addresses in this respect the images of Christ’s appearance to Mary Magdalene after his Resurrection (Noli me tangere), the Last Supper, and Christ’s Baptism; and her analysis, based on minutely detailed observation of the paintings, reveals three different haptic experiences. Judas’s touch of Christ as he receives the bread from his hand is limited to the purely corporeal, whereas Mary Magdalene pushes through Christ’s divinity to touch his humanity; John the Baptist, conversely, through the haptic experience of Christ’s earthly body is made aware of his divine nature. Kingsley links this set of illustrations with tactility in medieval devotional practice and with the bishop’s touch, a particularly potent sacramental component. In this way, another aspect of Bishop Bernward’s episcopal merit is visualized.

Kingsley’s study ends with a conclusion that reiterates the main points that the individual chapters have revealed: the pictorial program of this manuscript was meticulously and idiosyncratically conceived so as to configure the posthumous reception of its patron and in this way to elicit from the monks of St. Michael’s commemorative activities that would ensure the salvation of Bishop Bernward’s soul. The conclusion is followed by a detailed codicological description of the manuscript; color plates of all the miniatures; and a lengthy, topically wide-ranging bibliography that conscientiously takes into account older studies at the same time that it scrupulously incorporates the most current scholarship.

My criticisms of this excellent book are few. With regard to content, I have only to quibble that some of the contextualizing information about Bernward and the Ottonian episcopate that appears in the conclusion might more usefully for many readers have been incorporated into the introduction. I wish as well that the (magnificent) color plates were not gathered at the end of the book, but included as close as possible to the description and analysis of each image in the text. Although small black-and-white figures of the miniatures accompany the relevant text, Kingsley frequently discusses color, light, and pattern as formal components that contribute to the significance of these miniatures, and it is a bit wearisome to have to leaf back and forth from her description to the plate that allows one to appreciate her point in each case. But these small issues detract in no significant way from the quality of this scholarly study that, in focusing minutely on a single patron and the visual program of one commission, brilliantly addresses a multitude of issues in Ottonian theology, history, and art.

Karen Blough
Professor, Department of Art, State University of New York College at Plattsburgh