THE HORROR OF HOLINESS:
DIVINE INSPIRATION AND THE MONSTROUS IN THE OTTONIAN
GOSPELS PORTRAITS OF THE EVANGELISTS
Emily M. Smith
Medieval Art History
Emily M. Smith
THE HORROR OF HOLINESS:
DIVINE INSPIRATION AND THE MONSTROUS IN THE OTTONIAN
GOSPELS PORTRAITS OF THE EVANGELISTS
In his article, Communion With God in the Bible, scholar John E. McFadyen notes
The prophets who present so earnestly the claims of God upon society and the individual have
apprehended God for themselves, or rather, been apprehended of him: it is in the constraint of a
divine possession that they come before their audiences and deliver their sublime appeal.1 This
concept of apprehension by God, of being held hostage by the overpowering, even terrifying,
presence of a being far beyond human understanding, comes from a long-standing Biblical
tradition. Artists through the centuries were intimately acquainted with it, as the work of
medieval illuminators demonstrated; images of divinely-inspired terror appear in numerous
manuscripts. But arguably none are more effective and awe-inspiring than the portraits of the
1 John E. McFayden, Communion With God in the Bible, The Biblical World, 33:2 (1909), 86.
Evangelists in the Gospel Book of the Otto III (Figs. 1-4). The New Testament iconography in
those Gospels focuses heavily on the relationship between God and the men he uses as his voice
on earth. It depicts divine inspiration as a visceral, tangible experience, which is illustrated as
vividly as any event occurring in the physical world. However, despite--or indeed, as a result of--
their origins, the portrayals of visions contain a distinct element of the monstrous as well, one
which has a rich history in accounts of divine inspiration in the Torah, and the books of the
major prophets contained in the Old Testament. Through these lenses, the otherness of God
becomes an alternate term for the monstrous, and the role of monstrosity a powerful force in
visual renderings of the divine in the Ottonian Gospels.
Ottonian art was a vital area of study for nineteenth century art historians: an interest in
book illumination developed upon the publication of several books and monographs by Stephan
Beissel, Wilhelm Voge, and Arthur Haseloff at the turn of the century.2 Their work formed a
foundation for the further study of Ottonian art, but that interest waned after World War I, when
the English-speaking world concluded that the attention paid by Germans to Ottonian art was
part of a wider, nationalist interest. Indeed, in the years following the second World War, even
German scholars eased off the subject, due in part to to the study of the period having been
implicated in Nazi ideology. 3 Academic neglect continued throughout the twentieth century, and
though Ottonian art and history remained central to a wider understanding of the Middle Ages,
scholarship on specific works remains in relatively short supply. Absence of previous study make
it even more necessary to briefly examine the history behind these Gospels, and to place them in
2 Kathryn Brush, The Shaping of Art History: Wilhelm Vogue, Adolph Goldschmidt, and the Study of Medieval Art (Cambridge 1996).
3 Rough Draft Note: Adam S. Cohen cites an unfinished work in reference to this point in his article, Vigentennial Views on Ottonian Art. I was unable to track down the source he mentioned, but I would still like to use this information.
their proper context. Following the disintegration of the Carolingian empire in late seventh
century, patronage and the creation of imperial art halted, and remained suspended until the
resurgence of the court under the Ottonian dynasty. Spanning a little more than a century, the
dynasty formed under Otto I, as he consolidated the previously disunited German lands into a
empire which sought to rival the glory of Constantinople, and carry on the traditions of the
Carolingians. This entailed a revitalization and an expansion of Carolingian artistic traditions in
the Ottonian Gospel books. Robert G. Caulkins, in his Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages,
acknowledged the result. The new Ottonian style reveals a simplification and hardening of form
in comparison to Carolingian miniatures: landscape details congeal into colored bands, and the
small, lively figures of the Carolingian paintings become monumental in scale, gesturing with
powerful movements. The volumes of the figures themselves and the space of settings are
reduced to luminously colored patterns, lending the illustrations a significance and a symbolism
that earlier art lacked. 4 Narrative emphasis in Carolingian art distilled, under the Ottonian kings,
into essence; instead of focusing on the goings-on in a scene, the artists were more concerned
with what those scenes meant . The portraits of the Evangelists in Otto IIIs lavish Gospel book
exemplify this stylistic shift. Divine inspiration of the apostles was depicted matter-of-factly in
previous decades, as displayed in the Aachen Gospels, an eighth century masterpiece of the
Carolingian renaissance (Fig. 7). It depicts the Evangelists all engrossed in their writing, with
their symbols hovering benignly in the air above them. Nothing indicates that they might be
aware of the magnitude of what takes place. In contrast, the Ottonian Gospels portray an
experience of a moment; a true glimpse of the presence of God and the work he had in store for
4 Robert G. Calkins, Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages (Cornell University Press, 1983).
them. The figures themselves possess the gravity and impact of Byzantine icons5, but they
appear shaken to their cores by their encounter with the divine.
Known as the Visionary Evangelists, a single look into their staring eyes reveals the
reasoning behind the title. Each man sits beneath a structure enclosing him with his vision and
the glory of God, in a space that is entirely too small to contain it. Gods presence reveals itself
in the rolling masses of clouds, and the golden rays radiating from within them, forming a
backdrop to the faces of the prophets (Figs. 1-4). Luminous halos and hybrid beasts appear
constantly on the verge of bursting beyond the architecture, and bringing the ceiling tumbling
down. The visions weigh down the greater part of each frame, and Matthew, Mark, and Luke
have difficulty remaining upright beneath them. Though they sit upright, rigidity sinks into the
lines of their shoulders and their necks, as if the artist captured them in the last, defiant moments
before their muscles fail and force them prostrate before the magnitude of the divine. John fares
slightly better than the other three, perhaps because as the disciple whom Jesus loved 6 he was
elevated from the start: he braces the divine storm above his head with one hand to Lukes two,
and gestures with his other to the earth, his very body forming a crossroads between the
corporeal and the divine (Fig. 4).
Unlike the Evangelists reactions, the visions themselves remain unvaried; each consists
of several angels and bearded men, the prophets of the Old Testament. The presence of the latter
figures, despite their small scale, serves to remind the viewer of the visionary tradition behind
the singular portraits. Singular means exactly that; the images of the Evangelists are striking in
their dissimilarity to their contemporaries. Several depictions appear in the Pericopes of Henry
5 Robert G. Calkins, Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages (Cornell University Press, 1983).
6 (John 13:23), King James Version.
II, created just a decade after the creation of Ottos Gospels in 998. (Fig. do not have yet) Each
presents another portrait of an Evangelist. These Evangelists, however, might as well be taking
dictation, writing industriously in their scrolls, pausing periodically to peacefully contemplate
the divine mystery and refresh the ink on their pen tips. They lack the terror of the Visionary
Evangelists, and show no sign of internalizing that God speaks to them.
Otto IIIs Gospels stood apart from many analogous texts of their century, however,
despite their unconventional iconography, their depictions of the Evangelists religious fervor
were not entirely unprecedented. The Carolingian Ebbo Gospels predated Otto IIIs by nearly a
century, but contain even more striking images of the Evangelists (Figs. 5 and 6). They reside in
wastelands dotted with a few scraggly trees. Wrapped in robes blowing and flattening against
their bodies in a fierce wind, they either scribble madly, presumably before their God-breathed
insight fades, or simply sit, vibrating with nervous energy, gazing heavenward in awful
anticipation. It is only them and the Word of God in a barren landscape. Even their symbols, the
lion, the bull, the man, and the eagle, are nudged off to the side, small, and in some cases,
scarcely noticeable. Dr. Christopher de Hamel, in A History of Illuminated Manuscripts, noted an
unaccountable force seizing the Evangelist Matthew (Fig. 6), one neither sanctified by any halo
around his head, or inspired by his symbol, the small, winged man sketched hastily into the
upper right corner. Even the landscape thrills with the exaltation of the Evangelist, and the
billowing brushstrokes create hills the ripple under a divine tremor.7 In the Ebbo Gospels, similar
to the Ottonian Gospels, the hand of God plucks the Evangelists from their tranquility and thrusts
them into a state of helpless exaltation. In both cases, there is emphasis placed on the otherness
7 Christopher de Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts (Phaidon Press Ltd, 1997). 186.
of divine inspiration, and the awe and terror it inspires in those who receive it; the fearfulness of
Otherness is not the sole term for this phenomena, however. After all, otherness marks all
divine experience, as God is vastly removed from man, ineffable, and incomprehensible.
Another word for other is monster, and for otherness, monstrous. But here, monstrous has its
etymological associations intact, the Latin monstrums ties to the verb monstrare, meaning to
show, or to instruct. The Ottonian depictions of the Evangelists crawl with implied monstrosity,
if not overt illustration. The visions the Evangelists experience in the illuminations are highly
visceral: apparitions above them have weight, the sheep and the men in the portraits of Luke and
Matthew bend to drink from the stream of an actual landscape, and each Evangelists eyes are
opened wide in the overpowering light. The monstrous reaches the human on an equally visceral
level, and appeals to the senses in the same manner; it is the most unsettling, the most horrifying,
when meeting the everyday, and seeping into reality. Here, divinity, God, meets the Evangelists
almost violently. The clouds rolling at the top of the illustrations emit rays of light, which
possess no clear iconographic precedents outside contemporary depictions of the Pentecost.9 But
their function remains the same in the Evangelists portraits. Just as the tongues of fire touched
the disciples in the Book of Acts, causing them to preach in languages they had never heard10, so
these rays of light find voice in the gospels themselves, using the Evangelists as mouthpieces.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, despite their status as giants of the early church, retain little
8 Charles Tolnay. The Visionary Evangelists of the Reichenau School, The Burlington Magazine For Connoisseurs, 69:405 (1936), 263. While dated, this source nevertheless provides a singular perspective on relationship between the Evangelists and the space they inhabit in the four portraits.
9 Hubert Schrade, Zu den Evangelistenbildern des Mnchener Otto-Evangeliars, in Betrge zur schwbischen Kunstgeschichte: Festschrift zum 60. Geburtstag von Werner Fleischhauer (Konstanz: Thorbecke, 1964), 9-34.
10 (Acts 2:1-6), King James Version.
agency here, and instead submit to the will of God, terrified by the vision he has thrust upon
Scenes of angels, creatures and boiling, geometric clouds are all the more powerful for
the addition of the Old Testament prophets, hidden in the chaos. Their presence serves as a
reminder of the Evangelists full internalization of Old Testament prophecy and their
completion of it, and recall where those prophecies originated. Each stems from an encounter
with a God so awesome, so incomprehensible, that he could only be described as monstrous.11
Moses recieved the dubious privilege of being the only Old Testament prophet to ever see God
face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend, and left the meeting altered. Encounters with
the monstrous frequently change the human involved, even if that change is only that of
perspective.12 But Moses meeting with God left him physically altered. The exact nature of this
transformation is obfuscated by linguistic inconsistencies, but certainly he was marked, either
with horns, a radiance, or a weathering of his face that resembled horn.13 Regardless, the sight of
him terrified the Israelites and he went about veiled, as though hiding a disfigurement. Moses
saw God at the most personal level a man could, without losing his life but God appeared to the
prophets in many guises. If Moses was the man who met intimately with the divine, the prophet
Ezekiel beheld the majesty of God enthroned. The heavens were opened, and [he] saw visions,
each more strange and terrifying than the last. 14
11 Garrison, 128.
12 (Exodus 33:11) King James Version.
13 Seth L. Sanders, Old Light on Moses Shining Face, Vetus Testamentum, 52:3 (2002), 402.
14 (Ezekiel 1:1) King James Version.
And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire
infolding itself, and a brightness was about it...Also out of the midst thereof came the
likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a
man. Every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.15
This description strikingly resembles the heavenly wonders bearing down upon the visionary
Evangelists in their portraits (Figs. 1-4). The creatures are not mere apparitions, but a retinue of
sorts. The prophet soon discovers who they escort. The clouds part, the likeness of the glory of
the Lord shines around him (note that, unlike Moses, he only beholds a likeness), and God
delivers to him a prophecy. Ezekiel remains behind, shaken and hiding his face.16 What both
prophets see come easily under the heading of the monstrous, but even more telling are the
effects of the visions on the two men. They attempt to stand through their fear, but they know,
like the Visionary Evangelists do, that divine inspiration carries with it inherent risk. Moses
brushed with death when he encountered God; likewise, the Evangelists occupy a strictly
terrestrial space in their portra...