The Emperor's Bible

Manuscript on parchment. 159 leaves, 38 x 28 cm. Echternach, Luxemburg, ca 1050. Bequethed by Ulrik Celsing (1731–1805) in his last will and testament dated 1805.
The manuscript has shelfmark: C 93

View a digital copy of the Emperor's Bible

The Evangelist Matthew (detail)

The Echternach School

The Emperor's Bible is also known as Codex Caesareus. Echternach, a picturesque little town in Luxemburg, was a centre of culture in the early Middle Ages. It was there that the Anglo-Saxon missionary St Willibrord founded a monastery around 700 AD and introduced the British Benedictine tradition of making artistically beautiful manuscripts, particularly of the Gospels. Despite the various struggles between the secular and the ecclesiatic worlds, the monastery managed to preserve a tradition of writing, which was enriched by influences from other parts of Charlemagne's kingdom.

The production of books at the Echternach School peaked during the 11th century with a number of large size books of gospels that still exist, all inspired by the comprehensive Trier manuscript from the decade following 980 AD. The rich illustration with Christ and his followers which takes up a whole page, has broken the contact with its Byzantine precursors. There are many decorated initial letters with plant motifs at the beginning of the gospels and other parts of the texts used for reading aloud. At the front of the book, before the gospels themselves, there are magnificent canon tables, where cross references to parallel texts are framed by a portal. The architectural decoration has ancient predecessors and can for example be found in the 500 year older Codex argenteus and its system of cross referencing. The fact that in the 11th century there were cross references in the margins, did not inhibit the desire for a striking decoration at the beginning.

An order from an Emperor 

Codex Caesareus or "The Emperor's Bible" is one of the splendid books of gospels from 11th century Echternach. It was made on the order of the Holy Roman Emperor of Germany Henry III for the cathedral he built near the Imperial Palace i the city of Goslar in present day Lower Saxony. It can be dated by its initial illustrations. On one of the pages the Emperor is shown presenting the book of gospels to his patron saints and those of the new church, the apostles Simon and Judas. The opposite page shows Maiestas Domini - Christ the saviour of the world - blessing and crowning the Emperor and his consort Agnes of Poitou. This means that at some point between the consecration of the church in 1051 and Henry's death in 1056, the Emperor's Bible must have been handed over to the cathedral in Goslar.

Holy Roman Emperor Henry III handing over the book of gospels to the patron saints of Goslar Cathedral, Simon and Judas


Purple and gold

The first pictures rest on a purple background with a textile pattern that recurs in various forms in several pictures. They are followed by a short introduction that includes the preface by Hieronymus, the author of the Vulgate Gospels. The following twelve pages are covered with magnificent canon tables in gold ink with multicoloured columns and their fantastic capitals bearing the vaulted arch which in turn is decorated with the figures of the apostles in medallions. 

The canon tables are followed by the four gospels, each of which is preceded by a short preface and list of chapters. Immediately before the Biblical text there is an exquisite full page picture of the Evangelist. He is sitting with his pen and ink in a room under an arch that frames the symbol of the Evangelist.

Mark the Evangelist


Luke the Evangelist


John the Evangelist

The text has been written by a single scribe using the Carolingian minuscule script with initial letters in gold. The chapter headings and certain other headings are written in either gold or green, a colour that together with purple and gold occurs in the big initial letters and other decorative devices at the beginning of portions of the text. The book of gospels ends with pericopes, i.e. Biblical passages used for particular Christian festivals. Even this list is somewhat ornamented since it derives from ancient tradition, but it is not however always consistent with the festivals practised in Goslar.  

From the Palace in Goslar to Uppsala University Library

Despite the city of Goslar becoming one of the earliest strongholds of Protestantism, the Cathedral priests managed to continue practising Catholicism for many years. When eventually the Cathedral chapter became Lutheran, the city fathers began to make claims on the splendid cultural artefacts. The Emperor's Bible finally disappeared from the city during its occupation by Swedish troops in 1632–34. What happened to the manuscript during the following hundred years is uncertain. There is nothing to suggest that the Emperor's Bible was taken to Sweden as war booty, particularly since Goslar was allied with the Swedes. 

The Emperor's Bible is last known to have belonged to the Swedish civil servant Gustaf Celsing in 1740. How, when and where he acquired this valuable item is unknown. Celsing had fought in King Charles XII's Russian campaign and was part of the King's staff in Bender. During this time he learnt Turkish and later in the Swedish Age of Freedom, he became the foreign administration's expert on Turkey.  Celsing was a great book collector, but his debt burdened estate was forced to sell his library at auction. The valuable manuscript was however not among the books that came under the club. One of his sons, either young Gustaf or Ulrik kept it. Both of them followed in their father's footsteps in their interest for all things Turkish and first one, then the other, became Sweden's ambassador in Constantinople. Whilst there they collected valuable Oriental manuscripts. On the death of the younger brother in 1805 the University Library received the legacy of his Oriental literary collection together with the Emperor's Bible, which, in the context of the collection, was an odd but magnificent item.

Nürnberg, Escorial, Paris och London

Four large format gospel books from Echternach have been preserved for posterity. The oldest, Codex aureus Epternacensis – the golden book from Echternach – was produced between 1030 and 1040 AD. It remained in the original monastery until the monks had to flee head over heels from the advancing French revolutionary army in 1794 and they took the manuscript all the way to Erfurt. Between the time of its sale and 1945 it was one of the old treasures in the ducal collection in Gotha. It was hidden from the Russian troops and is now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nürnberg. A book of the gospels produced for the Cathedral in Speyer was for many years in the monastery at Escorial. That too had been ordered by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III in the 1040s to honour the church in which his parents were buried. Parts of another book of gospels that was made for the monastery in Luxeuil is now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. After the Uppsala manuscript, which is the youngest of the large format books, three other extant Echternach books of gospels were made smaller but in the same style - one for the cathedral in Metz, which is now in Paris, and two in the British Library with unknown provenance.

The denuded book cover

The cover of the Emperor's Bible was originally as grand as the book itself. The front cover was mounted with precious metal - probably silver overlaid with gold - and had an indented centrepiece decorated with a cross. Judging by other preserved books of similar magnificence from the same time, there would have been semi-precious stones inlaid into the metal cover. The Emperor's Bible probably retained its ornate cover even after the Reformation. However some time after the manuscript disappeared from Goslar, its wooden cover of oak was stripped and covered instead with blue Italian velvet, decorated with five silver rosettes, undoubtedly from the 17th century but of unknown origin. They give the impression mass production for a general decorative purpose. Two buckles were attached in Sweden the the 18th century.

Further reading

Nordenfalk, Carl, Codex Caesareus Upsaliensis : an Echternach gospel-book of the eleventh century, Stockholm : Almqvist & Wiksell, 1971

Last modified: 2022-03-02