The present bookcover was published by the doyenne of Limoges studies, Marie-Madeleine Gauthier, with an attribution to Master G. Alpais (Gautier 1972, loc. cit.). Master Alpais was responsible for one of the supreme masterpieces of Limoges enamel, the ciborium in the Louvre dating from around 1200 which he signed with his name (Paris, op. cit., pp. 246-249, no. 70), to which the present piece is indeed intimately related in style.
About two hundred Limoges bookcovers are known, but they vary considerably in quality, and indeed in their state of preservation. The present example is unusually complete, since it is still mounted on its original wooden board, whose pastedown preserves an offset manuscript fragment from the Gospel according to St. Mark (Chapter VIII, verse 24, Chapter IX, verse 2). It also retains its original outer border, which in many examples has been lost. It would appear that they may have developed from the Mosan tradition of adding enamel surrounds to earlier ivory bookcovers, as exemplified by the Gospels of Bishop Notger of Liège (Lasko, loc. cit.), and the earliest known examples date from around the third quarter of the twelfth century (Paris, op. cit., pp. 94-95, no. 12). It was customary to pair a Crucifixion on the front cover with a representation of Christ in Majesty surrounded by the beasts of the four evangelists on the back cover. In the present instance, the plaque that originally adorned the back cover was in the possession of Grand Duke Karl Alexander of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach at the Wartburg in Thuringia earlier this century, but has since disappeared (Gauthier 1972, loc. cit., fig. 64). As Madame Gauthier has argued in her two general considerations of the subject (Gauthier 1967 and Gauthier 1968), the fact that Crucifixion plaques heavily outnumber those with Christ in Majesty is not merely an accident of survival, but rather a consequence of the fact that some of the books only ever had decorated front covers.
By the late twelfth century, the iconography of the Crucifixion on these plaques had become fairly uniform. The same general arrangement is found in a number of related bookcovers, including examples in the Hermitage (Lapkovskaya, loc. cit.), Pavia (Rupin, loc. cit.) and especially the Keir Collection (Gauthier and François, loc. cit). None of these examples has the body of Christ in the round, a feature which may indicate an exceptional opulence, and is also found in a very rubbed bookcover, which was formerly in the Thomas F. Flannery, Jr. collection (Sotheby's, 1 December 1983, lot 36). As here, the scene is stripped down to its bare essentials, with the emaciated figure of Christ on the cross flanked by the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist. They both surmount multi-coloured stylised mountains, which presumably allude to Calvary. Up above are two angels - another possiblility, found in a plaque in the Musée des Beaux-Arts at Lyon (Paris, op. cit., pp. 112-113, no. 18), was to show the sun and moon - who are larger versions of the six who adorn the plaque's outer frame. At the top in the middle is the hand of God, blessing His son, while below is the diminutive figure of Adam rising from the tomb, his original sin redeemed by Christ's sacrifice. By a simple but ingenious expedient, four of the nails used to attach the cover to its support double as the nails that attach Christ to the cross.