Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Carolingian Art

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On Christmas day in the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charles, king of the Franks, and raised him to the rank of emperor. The significance of this gesture must have been clear to all involved: it identified Charles as a new kind of Christian Caesar who should rule a Holy Roman Empire renewed and sanctioned by the Church. This act benefited the pope, for he was eager to gain the emperor's protection and support for the Church, but it also fulfilled one of Charles's most cherished aims: according to the scholar Einhard, who knew him well, "Throughout his whole reign, the wish that he had nearest to heart was to re-establish the ancient authority of the city of Rome under his care and by his influence" (Life of Charlemagne 27). This was no mean ambition, for when Charles became king of the Franks in 768, Rome had lost its imperial grandeur, and the vast domain it once had ruled was fragmented both politically and culturally. In the lands that now are Germany and France, a host of Germanic tribes competed for land and influence, observing various forms of Christianity and paganism. In Britain, powerful monasteries maintained the traditions of classical scholarship in the service of Christianity. In Italy, the pope faced continual threats to his safety, and everywhere vestiges of Roman greatness inspired veneration for the past and pointed a sad contrast with the present. The reign of Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, for a time reversed this situation. He enlarged his empire until it extended from Italy to the North Sea and from the English Channel to the Elbe River, and he worked to unify his people under the Church; he also emphasized the unity of church and state and fostered a cultural revival that raised educational standards, reformed the liturgy, and restored Latin to currency among men of letters. Historians use the word Carolingian, which comes from Carolus, the Latin version of the name Charles, to designate the distinctive imperial culture of Charlemagne's age, which is sometimes called the Carolingian Renaissance.


"Throughout his whole reign, the wish that he had nearest to heart was to re-establish the ancient authority of the city of Rome under his care and by his influence" (Life of Charlemagne 27).

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A major element of this cultural revival was a dramatic change in the visual arts and new sustenance through imperial patronage. In the centuries before Charlemagne, the Germanic peoples had reserved the highest esteem for fine metalwork, such as jewelry (17.193.83) and splendid weapons, which were often adorned with abstract ornament and brightly colored gems. It was customary for Germanic leaders to display their own glory by dispensing such luxurious gifts, and Charlemagne continued this tradition but also modified it. Among the recipients of his largesse were monasteries, and these he lavished with jewel-studded reliquaries, gold and silver liturgical objects, and lavishly illustrated books. Carolingian examples of these forms display the Germanic love of costly brilliance but also a new reliance on antique models and a new emphasis on the human figure. In manuscripts and ivory carvings, portraits of rulers and authors appear in a style that reflects their mixed heritage. In a panel depicting Saint John the Evangelist (1977.421), for instance, the figure sits between two classical-looking columns bearing an arch; his pose and proportions follow an Early Christian standard, but the linear patterning of the drapery reflects a local taste for abstract design. In a lively representation of the story of Christ's supper at Emmaus (1970.324.1), the acanthus pattern inside the outer border comes directly from the classical heritage, while the heightened animation of the figures, gesturing with disproportionately large hands, is distinctively Carolingian. Such ivories were often set in the bindings of elaborately decorated books along with gems and pearls. In composition, many ivories resemble manuscript illustrations and were probably carved in the same monasteries where books were made. An example with scenes from Christ's mission (2000.486), for instance, follows a format common in book illustration, with the narrative arranged in two registers enclosed in a decorative frame.


There are many other ages in which artists sought to emulate Greco-Roman models, but the Carolingian revival has a uniquely political character and a unique dependence on the agenda of Charlemagne. Although he learned to read late and never mastered the ability to write, Charlemagne felt deep respect for the achievements of antiquity and recognized the prestige that classical learning conferred on his court. In his entourage, he gathered scholars of international renown, like the great English scholar Alcuin, his pupil the poet Angilbert, the Spanish theologian Theodulf, and the Italian historian Paul the Lombard. The emperor treated these men as friends and trusted them to make his court a cultural power. They helped organize an ambitious system of imperial patronage, and they worked to secure models for Carolingian artists to emulate, including antique cameos, ivories, and illustrated books. A new desire for accurate and legible texts led to a reform of handwriting, and this produced the so-called Carolingian minuscule, a clear and elegant script based on Roman letter forms. Finally, Charlemagne's ambitions prompted a flourishing of architecture without precedent in northern Europe. In addition to monastic buildings and churches constructed with his sponsorship, he commissioned a palace and chapel worthy of an imperial capital at Aachen, also called Aix-la-Chapelle. The Palatine Chapel, which still stands, is a mighty stone structure with an octagonal plan, mosaic decoration, and a two-story interior framed by massive arches. Plainly intended to rival ancient Roman and Byzantine architecture, it includes marbles deliberately brought from Rome and Ravenna. Some competition with Byzantium may also be implicit in Charlemagne's promotion of figural painting and carving, for he embraced and encouraged representational art at precisely the time when Byzantine rulers were renouncing images in favor of iconoclasm.


The distinctive character of Carolingian art was forged in the age of Charlemagne, but it lasted for a century after he died and his empire was split among his sons. In later Carolingian work, an energized, agitated line appears in book painting, for example, in the famous Utrecht Psalter, now in the University Library at Utrecht. In ivories, narrative images with Early Christian antecedents become more common. For instance, the miniature scenes from Christ's life on an ivory situla (17.190.45) perpetuate iconography established in late antiquity. An enameled roundel with an image of the moon (17.190.688) displays the Germanic taste for brilliant color but also conforms to a late antique formula for depicting events of cosmic significance; the moon appears with the sun in Carolingian depictions of the Crucifixion, as on the splendid cover of the Lindau Gospels, now in the Morgan Library. Fortified with continuing patronage as well as the rich and varied traditions on which they drew, ninth-century Carolingian artists elaborated new forms and invented new imagery. For instance, an ivory plaque depicts the Virgin Mary as a personification of the Church (17.190.49), frontally presented and martial in her aspect, but also with a spindle in her hand, something she often carries in scenes of the Annunciation. The image adapts existing conventions to show two aspects of the Virgin, the maternal and the metaphorical, in a thoroughly legible and subtly original way.

Jean Sorabella
Independent Scholar