Treasure, Treasure, Treasure

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend. But in the Middle Ages, gems were only for the wealthy, and the well-read.

While physical copies of books are being replaced by digital ones today, about 500 years ago, some books were so venerated that diamonds, pearls, sapphires and emeralds were secured onto their covers. Now, the Morgan Library & Museum holds a collection of twelve treasure bindings from the Middle Ages, as well as illustrations that display the treasure bindings as they looked all those centuries ago.

The practice of treasure binding was not much different than the way regular books were bound. The written parchment was flattened and stitched to wooden boards, and leather was sown into the margins and onto the board itself. Only after that were the jewels fixed to the top. The texts that received this honor were no ordinary manuscripts. Typically, they were religious documents owned by the very wealthy. Those who commissioned the texts were quite noble as well, and the treasure bindings were used in glorious clerical ceremonies. Byzantine emperors would often have these hallowed pieces carried on display in their processionals. But it was not just wealth that the jewels implied— they were said to hold great powers, and so the nobles who had commissioned their texts kept them well-protected.

The collection of twelve currently held at the Morgan Library & Museum is impressive, as most treasure bindings from medieval times did not survive. While the practice was once rather common, many were looted over the years and destroyed for the jewels encrusted into the leather. The gems were ripped off the bindings, leaving the texts to waste away to the demon of time. While treasure binding can be traced back to the late antiquity period, the Morgan Library’s collection dates to the ninth century. The treasures suffered a large loss under the English Reformation, as all jeweled bindings relating to the Catholic church in England were destroyed or stripped of their gems.

One of the most incredible pieces in the Morgan’s display is the Lindau Gospel from 880 A.D. It was created at the order of Charlemagne’s grandson, Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Bald, over 1100 years ago. The cover of the piece depicts Jesus Christ on the crucifix, with grieving disciples curled asleep on all corners. The Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleopas and John are carved into the gold as well. It is considered one of the finest Carolingian treasure bindings ever found.

Also on display is the Berthold Sacramentary, which was bound for Abbot Berthold of Hanover between the years 1217 and 1219. Called “the most luxurious German manuscript of its time” by the Morgan, it shows the Virgin Mary holding Baby Jesus, watched over by the archangels Michael and Gabriel, and at the bottom is Abbot Berthold himself.

Judith, Countess of Flanders, had a large collection of treasure bindings due to her and her husband, Tostig, the brother of King Harold’s many donations to the different clergies. When King Harold exiled Tostig and his wife from England, Judith kept her treasure bindings. She kept these bindings until the day she died, and her collection was scattered, until finally coming to the possession of J. P. Morgan Jr.

Magnificent Gems: Medieval Treasure Bindings can now be viewed at the Morgan Library & Museum until early 2018. While most people have traded their hard copies for those that they can find on their laptops, the Morgan holds on to those manuscripts that, over five centuries ago and more, were so deeply cherished, only diamonds could convey their grandeur.


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