Offering the sacred word: Alcuin, Charlemagne, and the Gospels of Sta. Maria ad Martyres (Trier, Stadtbibliothek, Cod. 23, 122a/b)

Lachat, Isabelle
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
University of Delaware
The Gospels of Sta. Maria ad Martyres (Trier, Stadtbibliothek, Cod. 23, 122a/b), a Carolingian manuscript of ca. 800, contains a dedication poem mentioning Albinus, the Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin, as its author and donor of a two-part gift to a king, traditionally identified as Charlemagne, ruler of the Franks and Alcuin's friend and benefactor. The manuscript's luxurious, albeit decidedly non-classicizing, appearance disrupts the dominant interpretative paradigm, long associating the period of Charlemagne with the longing to revive a lost roman imperial tradition and its distinctive classical mode of visual expression. As such, the Trier manuscript has been relegated to a realm of secondary relevance in the scholarly discourse on Carolingian book production, and presumed to be a copy of the now lost original gift, regardless of the lack of known precedent for this practice. This dissertation problematizes this marginalization through a systematic investigation of the manuscript's textual and pictorial components, and proposes a likely place and context for its production. The closing years of the eighth century witnessed the Carolingian elite's engagement with complex issues pertaining to Frankish tradition, orthodoxy, and conversion, which unfolded against a rapidly changing political landscape involving the papacy, the declining Roman Empire based in Constantinople, and the rising Caliphate. It is against this multi-layered backdrop that Alcuin's own anxieties and projected aspirations of Frankish leadership of the Imperium Christianum begin to emerge, and necessitate Charlemagne's embracing Christ as the sole acceptable model of rulership. Alcuin's promotion of christomimesis allowed for the simultaneous exaltation and admonition of the Carolingian ruler, and provides a compelling filter through which other prominent aspects of Charlemagne's reign can be reassessed, including the design of the Aachen chapel, the imperial coronation of Christmas Day 800, and the Trier codex. This dissertation makes a strong case for the recognition of the Gospels of Sta. Maria ad Martyres as the gift mentioned in the dedication poem, and not as a later, and lesser copy of this offering. In the process, this study directly engages with, and disrupts interpretative paradigms that have long dominated the scholarship on Carolingian art and thought, highlighting the need for an overdue revision of distorting and anachronistic projections, which fail to account for the totality of the remaining evidence and its undeniable diversity. The approach presented in this dissertation can therefore be productively applied to other works from this period whose appearance, format or contents have long been unsatisfactorily sidelined by modern scholarship, and therefore help paint a truer, more reliable picture of artistic production and patronage at the time of Charlemagne.