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Carolingian Art in a Nutshell

Updated on June 9, 2008

A Synopsis

Charlemagne's rise to power in the years leading up to his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800 gave birth to a renaissance of classical forms in art. Charlemagne was very interested in culture, and in his quest to centralize the authority of his kingdom he sought to bring back literature and culture. He did this in part by creating a great library that held copies of many great works, both Christian and pagan. His intentions were to revive the concept of a Holy Roman Empire, and he did this by reconnecting to the classical forms of the previous empire ruled by the Christian emperors after Constantine's conversion. Carolingian art, therefore, began to draw away from the popular art of the migration and Early Christians and instead re-embraced the old classical forms.

The Equestrian Portrait of a Carolingian Emperor, assumed to be Charlemagne, from the 9th century AD, illustrates the slow reemergence of classical styles. The figure of Charlemagne appears important, his dress seeming to be that of royalty and privilege, while the straight posture is symbolic of stability and control in affairs both political and equestrian. The horse moves forward in a stately and dignified manner. The key elements that show it to be a conscious attempt at a revival of classicism are the rounded, three-dimensional, organic body, fully fleshed out - a technique not present in Early Christian art. The facial features are individualized enough so as to be more than just a generic face. Even the subject of the statue, a general on a horse, draws onto the equestrian motif found in classical statues. However, this statue does not represent a complete return to classicism, as elements from Early Christian art still remain. Though the face is individualized to some extent, it is still idealized. The proportions are not entirely realistic; Charlemagne appears larger than the horse, going back to the importance of symbolism within Early Christian art. That the Emperor is bigger than the horse because he is the far more important subject. This statue therefore creates an intermix of both styles of art.

Charlemagne created more ties between his empire and the Holy Roman Empire in the design and construction of the Palace Chapel of Charlemagne at Aachen in the 8th century. Harkening back to the construction of Roman Catholic churches, it features a circular plan with an apse and a dome. It in this way combines both Roman architecture and Early Christian architecture. It is three stories tall, echoing the three floors of the Byzantine Haggia Sophia. Roman columns topped with Byzantine-style arches create another link to the Eastern Roman Empire, of which there was an attempt to link to as well. The bands on the arches are another element of Byzantine architecture. During Charlemagne's reign, there was the ghost of an idea to rejoin the Eastern and Western Empires and return to one whole, Christian empire. Although Charlemagne had no real plans to do so, creating such symbolic links between the East and West through the architecture of the palace also made for his authority to be connected to that of the old Holy Roman Empire. That the chapel was used both for religious purposes and for civic activities - hearings, and whatnot - lent more weight to the connection between the Holy Roman Empire and the empire that Charlemagne was building.

The library at Aachen was also a center for the illumination of manuscripts, and the illustration of Saint Matthew in the Coronation Gospels of the early 9th century show a drastic shift away from the earlier styles of manuscript illumination. No longer is the primary figure floating on a background of flat color. The background is articulated and even contains a ground line. The figure itself is highly individualized, resembling classical portraits rather than contemporary idealized figures. The body and the drapery of the clothing are presented in a more realistic fashion, and for the first time shadows and highlights are used to create depth and form - something which had not been seen since antiquity. The highly symbolic decorative motifs of the interlace style are nowhere to be found; the style has been completely purged by this time and replaced with the realism-based classical style.

The Carolingian plans for the ideal monastic community found in the of the monastery of Saint Gall in Switzerland were considered to be for the most ideal way to set up and run a Benedictine monastery, as decided in Charlemagne's capital at Aachen during the synods of 816 and 817. The monastery was to serve as an independent self-supporting unit within the layer of yet independent of the surrounding towns. It was available to give lodging to pilgrims and special guests such as royalty, to give to the poor as well as it was able to, but primarily its purpose was to support monks, whose sacred duty and main job was prayer. Everything that went into supporting the monks was present in the monastery - self-sufficiency was a built-in aspect. There were gardens for food and medicinal herbs, farmland and orchards, places for domesticated animals, along with every type of building including guest rooms, storage buildings, barns, a kitchen, and an infirmary. There was also a library, which would be where the monks spent their time in the steady and ongoing copying of manuscripts.

Carolingian art was remarkable for its time as it formed a resurgence of classical styles applied to Christian subjects. It adopted the architecture of Roman and Byzantine styles, including the use of columns and arches. In painting and illustration, both concentrated on realism and realistic representations if forms in space. Some aspects of Early Christian art could still be seen in earlier Carolingian works such as the Equestrian Portrait, but an increase in the classical style eventually erased the majority of references to that more abstracted style of art, although the Christian subjects remained the same. Carolingian art thus began to differ greatly from Migration art as well; as the similarities to the realistic classicism increased, those to the abstracted and interlace styles predominant in the other styles of art decreased. While Carolingian illumination shares some ties with illumination of Hiberno-Saxon manuscripts, it too began to break away from that style. Backgrounds and perspective were introduced, and shaded forms began to become more important than flat, abstracted, decorative designs. With these changes and differences in mind, Charlemagne's goal of returning to the classical art styles of the Christian Holy Roman Empire seems to have been fulfilled.

Equestrian Portrait of a Carolingian Emperor

Palace Chapel of Charlemagne at Aachen

Saint Matthew in the Coronation Gospels


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      Aaron 8 years ago

      This is very useful. Thank you.

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      ashley  6 years ago

      gorgeuos art! where can i purchase it?

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      Michelle 5 years ago

      Amazing writing and analysis! Very clear, insightful, and sophisticated.

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