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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Ornament in the service of God : the precious covers of the Lindau gospels Plant, Jocelyn


The Lindau Gospels are something of an historical anomaly: a medieval manuscript with not one, but two luxurious treasure covers. The same basic elements are present in each cover – the cross, a portrait of Christ, precious materiality – as befitting the early medieval tradition of Gospel covers, yet their appearances are strikingly different. One is remarkable for its visual complexity: colourful enamel plants and animals contrast with the teeming silver interlace set into quadrants. The other is arresting for its sheer three-dimensional materiality and richness of materials, the elevated gems that contrast with the smooth gold at the cover’s centre. In fact, it is what is usually described as ornament that makes both these works so powerful. However, the nature of this ornament on each book cover is different. Art historians have long noted that they are from different eras and stylistic traditions, one Insular c. 760-790, the other Carolingian, c. 870-880. Yet what is interesting is that these book covers now form the front and back cover of the Lindau Gospel Book, a decorated manuscript made in the abbey of St. Gall in the late ninth century. The book with its covers currently resides in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. In this paper, I will argue that the ornamental designs of each cover calls for a different engagement with the viewer. My analysis moves back and forth between the two covers to examine the different ways that medieval ornament functions. In the earlier, lower cover, complex visual intricacy and a profusion of diverse forms appeals to the creative impulse of the viewer able to apply their visual literacy to the cover’s forms. In the later, upper cover, the emphasis placed on precious materials requires the viewer to apply the medieval understanding of these materials to their interpretations. In both covers, it is the ornamental nature of each style that dictates interpretation both visually and with regard to various types of meaning. In studying the two diverse medieval styles of the Lindau covers, ornament provides a methodological framework through which to comparatively study the covers as cohesive wholes.

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