In the early part of the period, central Europe is inhabited by various tribes, either pagan or newly Christian. By 1000, the region is the heartland of the Holy Roman Empire, a loose confederation of territory ruled by a Christian dynasty aspiring to the greatness of Roman and Byzantine imperial power. The shift affects patronage of the arts. Sixth- and seventh-century patrons commission portable metal objects and personal adornments that might aggrandize them anywhere; ninth- and tenth-century emperors seek to replicate the splendors of Christian Rome. They foster the building of stone churches and monasteries, the illumination of sumptuous books, and the casting of bronze sculptures in a revival of ancient technique.
Various tribes, among them the Franks, Alemans, Thuringians, and Saxons, are active in central Europe, an area the Romans called Germania. Some, like the Franks, adopt Christianity in the fifth century; others, like the Thuringians, remain pagan even in the face of brutal efforts to convert them. These Germanic peoples operate in small bands of warriors, owe a fierce loyalty to their chieftains, and move from one settlement to the next rather than establishing urban centers. Metalwork is chief among the arts of the period. Germanic artisans make jewelry, decorated weapons, and other portable luxury objects with rich surface patterns, abstracted animal forms, and colorful inlays.
The Franks assert their dominance throughout central and western Europe, establish palaces for their kings, and win a reputation for the effectiveness of their armies. In 732, they halt the advance of Islamic forces into France and, in 754, when the pope feels threatened by his Lombard neighbors, he calls the Franks to help. The Franks come to style themselves defenders of the Christian faith and enjoy the special sanction of the pope.
Charlemagne (Charles the Great), king of the Franks, embarks on a series of military campaigns that ultimately subject the lands of modern France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and parts of Italy to his rule. He moves from castle to castle in order to govern his vast empire, but makes his new palace at Aachen the capital. In 792, he begins construction of a palace chapel at Aachen modeled on the Church of San Vitale at Ravenna (consecrated in 547), which was built during the time of Emperor Justinian (r. 527–65). Charlemagne was even said to have taken columns from San Vitale to complete his chapel.
Charlemagne goes to Rome, where Pope Leo III crowns him emperor in the Basilica of Saint Peter. The coronation establishes Charlemagne as the heir of Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, and bestows upon him a mandate both to rule a vast and powerful empire and to reinforce the Christian faith throughout.
At Aachen, Charlemagne promotes a revival of classical culture. He founds schools, brings the scholar Alcuin of York to his court, and encourages artists to reinvigorate Greco-Roman traditions. He commissions lavish manuscript books, copies of sacred and classical texts, and sets a fashion emulated by his heirs. Some Carolingian books have gem-encrusted covers, purple-dyed pages, text written in gold and silver inks, and miniature illustrations executed in a lively, confident style. Court workshops also produce cast bronze figures, ivory carvings, and treasury objects that incorporate precious metals, gemstones, and antique cameos.
Gozbert, abbot at Saint Gall (Sankt Gallen) in Switzerland, receives from another abbot an ideal plan for a monastery. Near the center of the community is a square cloister flanked by the abbey church, a rectangular structure with an apse at either end. All around are other buildings of quadrilateral plan, each one designated for its own purpose as bakery, brewery, dormitory, guesthouse, infirmary, library, and so on. The Saint Gall plan is not intended as a working design for any specific monastery, but many monastic foundations built in the ninth century seem to aspire to its ideal and resemble small towns, orderly and self-sufficient.
The Treaty of Verdun divides the Carolingian Empire among the three grandsons of Charlemagne. Charles the Bald receives Francia Occidentalis (much of western modern-day France), Lothar I receives Francia Media (central lands including parts of modern Belgium, the Netherlands, western Germany, eastern France, Switzerland, and much of Italy), and Louis II receives Francia Orientalis (land of the Rhine River).
King Lothair II, great-grandson of Charlemagne, commissions the engraving of a large rock crystal. Some four inches in diameter, the rock crystal, now in the British Museum, is carved with eight detailed scenes from the Old Testament story of Susanna.
Hrotsvitha, a nun at Gandersheim abbey in Saxony, writes secular and religious poems, plays, and epics noteworthy for their highly sophisticated Latin.
Otto I, duke of Saxony and king of the Germans, is crowned emperor by Pope John XII. This revival of the Roman empire in the West, in the tradition of the Carolingians, will come be known as the Holy Roman Empire. Until the dissolution of the empire in 1806, every candidate for election to the throne must be able to trace his ancestry back to Otto I.
Emperor Otto I completes and dedicates a new cathedral at Magdeburg in Saxony. Like other imperial churches of the period, it includes a westwork, a structure attached to the entrance wall and outfitted with galleries for royal appearances. Otto makes Magdeburg a base for missionary efforts to convert the pagan Slavs to the east. The patron saint of the city is Mauritius, who, as a military leader fighting for Christianity against pagan armies, shares affinities with Otto himself. Since Mauritius commanded African troops, he is often depicted with dark skin and African features.
Otto II marries a Byzantine princess, Theophano, thus creating an alliance between the Ottonian and Byzantine empires.
Mathilde, granddaughter of Otto I, becomes the abbess of the convent at Essen. An extraordinary patron of art, Mathilde contributes a candelabra and three bejeweled processional crosses to the foundation. The grandest expression of Mathilde’s munificence is a golden statue of the Virgin, which is one of the earliest surviving large-scale sculptures from medieval Germany.
Emperor Otto III commissions a sumptuous gospel book illustrated with miniatures notable for their linear expressiveness and debt to Byzantine models (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek). Other Ottonian commissions include magnificent altar frontals, treasury objects, and architectural sculpture. Ottonian artists expand the gestural language and narrative potential of many-figured scenes, experiment with ways to express emotion, and bring both weight and grace to depictions of the human form.
“Central Europe (including Germany), 500–1000 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=06®ion=euwc (October 2001)