St. Matthew from the Gospel Book of Archbishop Ebbo of Reims, 816-835, ink and colors on vellum, 10¼” x 8¾”, Municipal Library, Épernay, France, Pulbic Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Ebbo Gospel: Inspiring and Inspired

The ninth-century French emperor, Charlemagne the Great, promoted learning and culture by supporting several monasteries throughout his empire that collected and produced manuscripts.  These monks in their scriptoria became the cultural army for the emperor.

One of the most unique images produced during this era is of St. Matthew from the Gospel Book of Archbishop Ebbo of Reims.  The image shows St. Matthew seated outdoors in front of an open book.  A tiny angel in the upper right corner reads from a scroll and St. Matthew receives the words through the horn in his left hand as he writes them down in the book with his right hand.

The original style of painting is strong and dynamic.  The robe that St. Matthew wears as well as the landscape are inspired by those in the many manuscripts from Classical antiquity that Charlemagne had in his collection; yet, the style is far from a tranquil classicism.  This style is agitated, active, and animated.  The drapery has a linear pattern that vibrates, showing us a kind of frenzied inspiration.

Even the colors are unusual. They include some greens and pinks that were new in the ninth century. The gold lines that run through the drapery remind us that this manuscript – like most manuscripts – was an expensive item meant for the wealthiest of patrons.