Codex Eyckensis

dinsdag 7 maart 2017

Localizing the church treasure: wanderings of the Codex Eyckensis

Localizing the church treasure: wanderings of the Codex Eyckensis

by Annelore Vriens, Line Raiff ( Masters in Art History, KU Leuven),
 Rik Nulens and Pierre Thijssen

One of the outstanding specificities of the Codex Eyckensis is its geographical consistency; besides a few displacements for exceptional circumstances, its original main location almost didn’t change for twelve centuries. Shortly after their creation in the 8th century, the manuscripts ended up in Aldeneik, where they stayed until the sixteenth century; and from 1571 to nowadays, they were stored in Maaseik, less than a mile away.
In this short essay, we’ll take an inventory of the few journeys of the Codex Eyckensis and explain the historical background.

The Codex Eyckensis is part of the church treasure from which a part first belonged to the Abbey of Aldeneik. The Codex is one of the core artifacts, along with the relics of Saint Harlindis and Relindis and the Anglo-Saxon textiles.

After its manufacture, probably in the abbey of Echternach, the Codex was handed over by Saint Willibrord to Harlindis and Relindis in the mid-8th-century. From then, the Codex stayed at the abbey of Aldeneik for eight centuries.
At the end of the 16th century, the area underwent growing insecurity: groups of Calvinists had been plundering and burning down churches in the regions now known as France, England, the Netherlands and Belgium. The increasing threat of religious war drove the canons to abandon the abbey of Aldeneik: in 1571, they packed their belongings, including the treasures, and took refuge in the walled town of Maaseik, considered to be safer because of its ramparts. This relocation was encouraged by Gerard van Groesbeek, Bishop of Liège.
Other artifacts were added to the treasure afterwards, including a reliquary with two candles bearing an inscription. The inscription tells that those candles were being extinguished while the sisters were illuminating their gospels, but suddenly lit up back and harder by miracle.
From 1596, feasts were organized to commemorate the transfer of 1571. On this occasion, the core artifacts of the church treasure (the Codex Eyckensis, the Anglo-Saxon textiles and the relics), were brought back to Aldeneik in a procession. They were then displayed for 8 days in the church of Aldeneik, before they returned to Maaseik.
That first procession in 1596 coincided in time with other holy feasts in surrounding cities, including Aachen. That’s significant, because Aachen had become a very important pilgrimage center since the middle of the 14th century. The Aachen pilgrimage has taken place every seven years ever since 1391, during which the four Holy Relics collected by Charlemagne were on view in the cathedral for seven days. Following its popularity, some sort of “city station pilgrimage system” was developed around Aachen: over time, other cities joined this event, setting their own relics on view on the same days every seven years. The system was designed in such a way that enabled the pilgrims to combine several places of worship by foot within the seven days of the feast. Fourteen cities took part in this system showing their relics, seven of them functioning as mandatory halts and seven as optional stopovers. Saint Anna’s Church of Aldeneik became one of the non-mandatory halts since 1596, the year of the first procession of the relics of Harlindis and Relindis back from Maaseik to Aldeneik.
After the French Revolution, the pilgrimage feasts were interrupted for a while. In the decade following 1789, the French invaded the diocese of Liège and abolished the chapters, including Maaseik’s in 1797. That same year, the French occupiers claimed for the church treasure of Maaseik.
However, a lot of inhabitants refused to accept the authority of the French occupiers. The church treasures were divided among local clergy. They were asked to return the objects in better times. So did the “de Borman” family, which were very committed to the church community. Leonard de Borman gave his objects back in 1802, except the two manuscripts. Other clergy also returned objects, but unfortunaly a few sold part of the treasures. A family member of Leonard de Borman returned the two manuscripts in 1841.
Following their recovery of the treasure, the church restored the processions in  1871, but at a lower frequency of one every 25 year. The context of the mid-19th-century was the Romantic Movement, which revalued local traditions. The last procession occurred in 1997, and the next one is scheduled for 2022.
After 1880, the Codex Eyckensis moved again on some occasions, mostly to be displayed in exhibitions. It has been on view in Belgium, in Brussels and Liège in 1880, 1881 and 1951 or in Ghent one century later, but also abroad,  in Maastricht and Valenciennes in 1937, in Utrecht in 1939, in Paris and Rotterdam in 1953 and in Essen and Leeuwarden in 1956. Another frequent reason for its travels was the scientific research dedicated to it, since the early 20th century. The Codex was photographed during World War I in Maaseik.
After the war, the very bad state of the Codex Eyckensis began to preoccupy priest Willem Sangers. In 1957, he assigned the bookbinder Karl Sievers to restore the manuscript. Dean Cielen transported the manuscript to Düsseldorf. Sievers then restored the manuscripts using a new but quite destructive technique of lamination of the folios with plastic foil (PVC -polyvinyl chloride).
Thirty years later, Hubert Heymans, conservator of the Museums of Maaseik, believed the time had come for a new assessment. The Codex stayed from 1988 to 1993 in the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels. During this time, not only was the Codex studied, but it also fostered a brainstorming around different projects for a new display of the Codex and the core treasure. For instance, a potential return of the treasures to their original location in Saint Anna’s church in Aldeneik was discussed; but that option was eventually cancelled to favor the crypt of Saint Katherine’s church. In the meantime, the damaging restoration of Karl Sievers was carefully removed by a team of scientists and conservators (Royal Institute of Cultural Heritage, Brussels and Duodecimo cv. Gent, Belgium) .
Lately, the Codex has been travelling again. The discussion of relocation and highlighting of the church treasure, resumed since 2009, is at its peak. A lot of institutions are involved in this project, among which the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage and Illuminare – Centre for the Study of Medieval Art of the KU Leuven for the scientific side, which requires the temporary transfer of the Codex to Brussels and to Leuven. At the end of the four-year development plan, the Codex will return to Maaseik again to find a brand-new permanent exhibition space.