UNESCO Memory of the World: Codex Egberti

Radiant jewel of medieval book art

“A central major work of the Ottonian era” - “the oldest and most extensive picture cycle on the life of Jesus” - the “Egbert Codex” is quite rightly counted among the treasures of humanity.

The ancient manuscript for Archbishop Egbert dates from a time at which the first castles were slowly being built from stone, and these castles have mostly been destroyed again in the interim. But the fragile parchment of the manuscript has survived to this day. The colours are vibrant and the gold shines almost like in the old days.

When there was no printing press, books could only be replicated and distributed by copying them out. A laborious task taken on by monks, who provided many manuscripts not only with text but also with elaborate miniature paintings. In the beauty of their art, they saw reflected an echo of divine beauty, making it a very special motivation for them.

If you closely examine the pictures in the Egbert Codex, you can see how they seem to reflect some of this divine beauty.

Reichenau monastery on Lake Constance was renowned for its book illumination, and it was there that the artistic and educated Elector of Trier, Egbert, commissioned this manuscript over 1,000 years ago. Artists from Trier were also involved.

The ‘pericopes book’ contains individual sections of the Gospels as they were read at Mass during the course of the ecclesiastical year. Interspersed in the text are 56 scenes from the life of Jesus.

Egbert was descended from distinguished Dutch nobility and was around 27 years old when he became Archbishop. He had previously benefited from a sound spiritual education and had then been appointed to the imperial court - where all the political threads of Europe came together and where the intellectual elite of the empire met. There could scarcely be a more inspiring place for an educated young person. In 976 Otto II appointed him chancellor, and only a year later, archbishop of Trier.

The Ottonian sense of art and culture left a deep impression on Egbert, and when he died in 993 at the age of around 48, he left behind a whole series of manuscripts and other cultural treasures that had been created at his behest.

Unfortunately, only a few of them are preserved today - and even fewer have remained in Trier. But after over 1000 years, it's little wonder.

The Egbert Codex is on display at the Treasury of the Scientific Library of the City of Trier. Other treasures from the archbishop's time in office include the St Andrew's Tragaltar and the gold case for the Nagel relic in the Trier Cathedral treasury. Take a look at them there!

In addition to the Egbert Codex, the Ada Gospels of the Trier Academic Library has also been a UNESCO World Document Heritage Site since 2023.

Fascinating treasures...

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