The Echternach Gospels
History, Provenance.

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Echternach Gospels Illustration
Image of Lion symbol of St. Mark
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris).

The Echternach Gospels

The illuminated manuscript known as the Echternach or Willibrord Gospels is an 8th-century Hiberno-Saxon insular Gospel Book from the library of the monastery of Echternach in Luxembourg, written during the period 690-715 CE.

One of many Irish-made illuminated manuscripts, this work of religious art currently resides in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (MS Lat. 9389). A masterpiece of medieval Christian art, this early illustrated Biblical text is believed to have been written by the same monk or scribe that created the Durham Gospels - the late 7th century illuminated manuscript held by the Durham Cathedral Library (MS A.II.17).

NOTE: For the world's most ancient illuminated Biblical manuscript, please see: the Garima Gospels (390-660) from Ethiopia's Abba Garima Monastery.

Making of Illuminated Manuscripts
History of Illuminated Manuscripts
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Lichfield Gospels
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The achievements of the Christian Celtic-art style illuminators from Ireland and Northern England did not remain confined to the British Isles. Missionaries travelled across to mainland Europe, taking with them some of the manuscripts that had been produced in their own scriptoria. In turn, these were copied by monks on the Continent, thereby extending the influence of Insular artists still further.

The Echternach Gospels are a case in point. This intriguing manuscript was probably prepared for Saint Willibrord (658–739) - a Northumbrian monk who was educated at Wilfrid's Ripon, then for over 10 years at Rath Maelsigi (Clonmelsh, Co. Carlow, Ireland) - shortly before his evangelical expedition to Frisia in 690. At any rate, it contains a colophon, informing us that the text was copied from an exemplar which had been revised in 558 by Eugippius, the abbot of a monastery near Naples - confirmation that Celtic artists had access to books from the Continent. The impetus behind this particular piece of Gospel Bible art may well have come from Willibrord's mentor, Egbert, who was a keen advocate of Roman liturgical practices. More than 25 years had passed since these had been adopted officially at the Synod of Whitby, but many British and Irish priests still clung to the old ways. This could easily explain why the symbol of St Matthew wears the Roman tonsure, a rare sight indeed in Insular manuscripts. It may have been intended as a political statement.

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St Willibrord and Echternach Monastery

Willibrord's mission was remarkably successful. He was appointed archbishop of the Frisians by Pope Sergius I in 695, installing his see at Utrecht. Three years later, he founded the Benedictine monastery of Echternach in Luxembourg on land given to him by St. Irmine, Abbess of Oeren and daughter of Dagobert II.

This was to prove an important artistic centre, producing many beautiful illuminated gospel manuscripts in its own scriptorium. The abbey counted many royal figures among its benefactors, including Charlemagne, and became very famous especially during late Medieval times when it was one of the most important in Northern Europe. It continued to prosper until the French Revolution in 1789, when it was closed, and its monks dispersed. The monastery's scriptorium and library were renowned for numerous antique illuminated Biblical manuscripts some of which are now housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.


Provenance of The Echternach Gospels

The Echternach Gospels were produced during the same era as the Durham Gospels and the Lindisfarne Gospels - the first two books probably being compiled by the same scribe - and some experts even believe that all three may have been made at Rath Maelsigi in Ireland. There are also a number of close similarities between the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Durham Gospels: both may have been corrected by the same monk shortly after they were written.

Illuminations of The Echternach Gospels

As in the Book of Durrow, the Echternach Evangelists are represented by symbols rather than portraits. The symbol of Matthew offers the ultimate in stylization. His body is formed out of a series of loops, from which a pale head and tiny feet protrude. In his long, tapering hands, he displays a copy of his Gospel, the opening words of which are clearly legible. Behind him, is a rudimentary throne. The interlaced border, which owes something to the example of the Book of Durrow, extends towards the figure of the man, transforming him into the vertical shaft of a cross. St Mark's lion is the most attractive of the animal symbols. Its sinuous form is reminiscent of some Pietish carvings, but its elegant, prancing movement transcends any such sources. (For a comparison, see Christ's Monogram Page in the Book of Kells.)

Later Illuminated Biblical Texts From Echternach

The above 8th-century text should not be confused with another famous illuminated gospel manuscript produced at Echternach - the 11th century Codex Aureus of Echternach (Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Hs. 156142). (See Romanesque Illuminated Manuscripts.) This manuscript features the Vulgate versions of the four gospels plus prefatory text notably the Eusebian canon tables. One of the most lavishly illustrated Ottonian manuscripts, the book has 136 folios each measuring 446mm X 310mm, with more than 60 decorative pages including 16 full page miniature paintings, 9 full page initials, 5 evangelist portraits, and 10 decorated pages of canon tables. The book text is written out in gold ink. It was created at the Abbey under the direction of Abbot Humbert. The manuscript was owned by the government of Luxembourg before it was sold to the German government during the early 1800s. Today it is held by the German National Museum in Nuremberg.

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