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Codex Argenteus and political ideology in the Ostrogothic kingdom

Codex Argenteus and political ideology in the Ostrogothic kingdom

By Marta Bigus

Lychnos (2011)

Introduction: In 313, Emperor Constantine the Great passed an edict of toleration of all worship, including Christianity. Around that time, he also ordered biblical books of an imposing nature, perhaps even written in gold and silver on purple vellum, from Eusebius, then based in Caesarea. During the early Christian period, such luxurious execution of the Scriptures emphasized the high status of the newly acknowledged religion. Likewise, the juxtaposition of purple, gold and silver with the Divine Word, accentuated the ruler’s special position within the new political and religious constellation. As mentioned by Bishop Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History, Constantine’s action made a lasting impression on his successors who continued to commission splendid biblical manuscripts. Indeed, throughout late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, monarchs and noblemen frequently used opulent bibles to show their status and express the relation between political power and Christianity. For instance, several biblical books associated with Charlemagne, the first post-Roman ruler who entirely fulfilled his imperial ambitions, purposely integrate elements rooted in the Roman tradition, such as purple-stained parchment and golden letters. These objects reflected the ruler’s political ideology and served as a means of promoting it.

One of the most intriguing manuscripts of late Antiquity, the early-6th – century Codex Argenteus, combines elements typical of lavish Greek and Latin bibles with yet another significant aspect. It contains Gospels in Gothic, the language of a Germanic tribe. Its form and contents are embedded in the Christian civilization. At the same time, this book represents the culture of “barbarians”. Does this combination of cultural signifiers in one manuscript also reflect a specific ideology? Scholars have linked the Codex Argenteus to Theoderic, the Romanophile ruler of Ostrogothic Italy (473–526). However, the essential question as to why Theoderic would have wished to posses or donate such a book has not been extensively explored. In this paper, I will attempt to establish how, if at all, the Codex Argenteus fits in with Theoderic’s art patronage, and whether it relates to his governmental strategy.

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