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Carolingian art, an introduction

Essay by Dr. Nancy Ross
Charlemagne, King of the Franks and later Holy Roman Emperor, instigated a cultural revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance. This revival used Constantine's Christian empire as its model, which flourished between 306 and 337. Constantine was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity and left behind an impressive legacy of military strength and artistic patronage.
Charlemagne saw himself as the new Constantine and instigated this revival by writing his Admonitio generalis (789) and Epistola de litteris colendis (c.794–797). In the Admonitio generalis, Charlemagne legislates church reform, which he believes will make his subjects more moral and in the Epistola de litteris colendis, a letter to Abbot Baugulf of Fulda, he outlines his intentions for cultural reform. Most importantly, he invited the greatest scholars from all over Europe to come to court and give advice for his renewal of politics, church, art and literature.
Odo of Metz, Palatine Chapel Interior, Aachen, 805 (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Carolingian art survives in manuscripts, sculpture, architecture and other religious artifacts produced during the period 780–900. These artists worked exclusively for the emperor, members of his court, and the bishops and abbots associated with the court. Geographically, the revival extended through present-day France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria.
Charlemagne commissioned the architect Odo of Metz to construct a palace and chapel in Aachen, Germany. The chapel was consecrated in 805 and is known as the Palatine Chapel. This space served as the seat of Charlemagne's power and still houses his throne today.
The Palatine Chapel is octagonal with a dome, recalling the shape of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy (completed in 548), but was built with barrel and groin vaults, which are distinctively late Roman methods of construction. The chapel is perhaps the best surviving example of Carolingian architecture and probably influenced the design of later European palace chapels.
Charlemagne had his own scriptorium, or center for copying and illuminating manuscripts, at Aachen. Under the direction of Alcuin of York, this scriptorium produced a new script known as Carolingian miniscule. Prior to this development, writing styles or scripts in Europe were localized and difficult to read. A book written in one part of Europe could not be easily read in another, even when the scribe and reader were both fluent in Latin. Knowledge of Carolingian miniscule spread from Aachen was universally adopted, allowing for clearer written communication within Charlemagne's empire. Carolingian miniscule was the most widely used script in Europe for about 400 years.
Figurative art from this period is easy to recognize. Unlike the flat, two-dimensional work of Early Christian and Early Byzantine artists, Carolingian artists sought to restore the third dimension. They used classical drawings as their models and tried to create more convincing illusions of space.
St. Mark from the Godescalc Gospel Lectionary, folio 1v., c. 781–83 (Bibliothèque nationale de France)
This development is evident in tracing author portraits in illuminated manuscripts. The Godescalc Gospel Lectionary, commisioned by Charlemagne and his wife Hildegard, was made circa 781–83 during his reign as King of the Franks and before the beginning of the Carolingian Renaissance. In the portrait of St. Mark, the artist employs typical Early Byzantine artistic conventions. The face is heavily modeled in brown, the drapery folds fall in stylized patterns and there is little or no shading. The seated position of the evangelist would be difficult to reproduce in real life, as there are spatial inconsistencies. The left leg is shown in profile and the other leg is show straight on. This author portrait is typical of its time.
The Ebbo Gospels were made c. 816–35 in the Benedictine Abbey of Hautvillers for Ebbo, Archbishop of Rheims. The author portrait of St. Mark is characteristic of Carolingian art and the Carolingian Renaissance. The artist used distinctive frenzied lines to create the illusion of the evangelist's body shape and position. The footstool sits at an awkward unrealistic angle, but there are numerous attempts by the artist to show the body as a three-dimensional object in space. The right leg is tucked under the chair and the artist tries to show his viewer, through the use of curved lines and shading, that the leg has form. There is shading and consistency of perspective. The evangelist sitting on the chair strikes a believable pose.
St. Mark from the Ebbo Gospels, folio 60v., c. 816–35 (Bibliothèque Nationale de France)
Charlemagne, like Constantine before him, left behind an almost mythic legacy. The Carolingian Renaissance marked the last great effort to revive classical culture before the Late Middle Ages. Charlemagne's empire was led by his successors until the late ninth century. In early tenth century, the Ottonians rose to power and espoused different artistic ideals.

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  • mr pants teal style avatar for user lauren l
    It is quite obvious that the perspectives are incongruous in the St. Mark from the Godescalc Gospel Lectionary. Were artists from this time unaware, did they not care that it did not "make sense" visually, or did they not know how to fix the problem? I'm always intrigued that these artists, who were likely quite well-regarded since they worked for the ruler, could make such glaring errors of perspective.
    (12 votes)
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    • leafers seed style avatar for user kitty06mom
      I think a little of both. Perspective had certainly fallen out of favor and was slowly being reintroduced. I also think that it was the main subject that was more important than what was "correct". In other words St Mark and his gospel is more important than portraying a person in the proper perspective. Hope this helps a little.
      (8 votes)
  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    Previously within this Khan Academy Art History module we have learned mostly that the Byzantine artists and other artists of this early Medieval period CHOSE to make their art flat and "abstract" as an artistic CHOICE. I have always felt that that is wrong though and here is proof..."Figurative art from this period is easy to recognize. Unlike the flat, two-dimensional work of Early Christian and Early Byzantine artists, Carolingian artists SOUGHT to restore the third dimension. They used classical drawings as their models and TRIED to create more convincing illusions of space."

    That last line shows that the Christians artists had in fact LOST talents and skills over the centuries that had been accrued over time from the Greeks and Romans and it wouldn't be until the Renaissance that these skills were relearned! It was no conscious decision to make "abstract" and "flat" mosaics and icons, but rather a lack of skill due to perhaps the iconoclastic period and a severing of the direct line of knowledge from the ancients....
    (3 votes)
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    • duskpin tree style avatar for user Hannah
      I'm not sure I understand your reasoning. Another way of reading that passage might be to say that 'unlike Carolingian artists, Byzantine artists did not seek to restore the third dimension, and they did not try to create more convincing illusions in space.' Which is to say that that was their choice.
      Furthermore, comparing "Christian" artists of different media in the Middle Ages is still like comparing apples and oranges. Just because they had the same religion and lived in what we now consider to be Europe does not mean that they all had the same interests and skill sets. If you compare the Early Christian/Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, for example, you can see a definite style shift over only 100 years. The mosaics in Sant'Apollinare in Classe (550) are much more abstract and flat than those in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia or the Orthodox Baptistery (450), and since they were made by the same groups of people (essentially the same workshops a few generations removed) it's not likely that they lost the skills. They simply chose to depict the world more abstractly, for several reasons. Just as Picasso knew how to paint people realistically and chose not to. It may be true, however, that Carolingian artists had a different skill set than the Greeks or Romans, as they weren't Greek or Roman - they were Franks.
      (8 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Elena
    At the first picture Odo of Mets is this Catholic Chapel? Seems to me that arches are decorated in a way muslims did in their mosks.
    (3 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Stuart W
      I see a bit what you mean, and it makes sense considering that both architectural styles borrow from the Byzantine Empire. Under the Byzantine Empire's Syrian Dynasty, the capital was under siege by Muslim/Arab invaders as early as 717 (before the first iconoclasm). Very early on, Islam is going to start borrowing from Byzantine Culture. But with the first iconoclast campaign, Islamic art backs away from iconography a bit, and Carolingian architects and scholars who look to the Byzantine's for inspiration, see the Empire after they have already purged a bit of their grandeur. But by wiping out the "pitch of decadence", they were able to lay the groundwork for Western Europe's Christianity and Carolingian Empire to became a center for high art.

      I realize that gets a little off topic from the similarities of Islamic architecture with Carolingian architecture, but I hope it gives context to the connecting thread. I would suggest reading a bit about the Syrian/Isaurian Dynasty if you want an even better perspective. Great question by the way, it really encouraged me to think!
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Janet
    In both paintings one chair leg extends into three feet. In the Godescale Gospel Lectionary it is the left front chair leg, and in the Ebbo Gospel it is the right front chair leg. Does this have any religious, or other, significance?
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user SusanTrice
    In the St Mark of Godescalc the author references the left and right leg as they are seen in the work, but they are actually reversed as to which leg of St. Mark is in profile and which is straight on. I found that this may be confusing to my students.
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user CraiggoryT
    Why is all the information in this story so good?
    (1 vote)
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  • starky seed style avatar for user declandavies64
    I think this a good essay (this comment is just to check if this works :) )
    (1 vote)
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