AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ART II: The Carolingian Renovatio


THE CAROLINGIAN RENOVATIO

On Christmas Day of the year A.D. 800, in the basilica of St Peter’s, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne and invested him with the title Roman Emperor. There had not been an emperor in the west for nearly 300 years, the waves of migrations led left western Europe divided into scores of petty kingdoms of shifting loyalties. However, over the course of the eighth century, the Franks, who mainly occupied what had been Roman Gaul in a series of annual military campaigns, had defeated the weak and vascillating barbarian chieftans and staged a palace coup overthrowing the last of the decadent, long-haired Merovingian kings. By the time Charlemagne was crowned emperor, much of western Europe was reunited under one uniform Frankish administration, making Charlemagne the de facto emperor and the pope’s ceremony was a tactical recognition of a fait accompli. Charlemagne, however, took the job very seriously, and he made self-conscious use of images and art forms to define his role as a Christian, or Holy, Roman Emperor.

Charlemagne created an administrative capital for his empire, not in Rome, but in the northern German thermal city of Aachen, where he built a palace, of which the royal chapel survives. The chapel is essentially a private church where the king, seated on an elevated throne in the gallery (the central space was reserved for the clergy, and the peripheral areas for the laity), would observe the performance of the liturgy. As there was no vernacular tradition of building in stone in the north, Charlemagne’s architects looked south for models, as is clearly seen in the chapel’s central plan, ashlared masonry walls articulated by arches, columns and marble revetment all being derived from classical Roman monuments such as the Pantheon. More specifically, the palace chapel at Aachen was modeled on the sixth-century church San Vitale in Ravenna, built by the eastern emperor, Justinian. By means of this self-conscious architectural quotation of a Byzantine imperial foundation, Charlemagne sought to align his rule with the continuum of Christian emperors in the east, whose unbroken line of succession and direct ties to classical antiquity endowed them with enormous prestige and legitimacy. The palace chapel is not an isolated example For architectural models Another direct quotation of a specific Roman monument is he Torhalle at the monastery of Lorsch. The gatehouse to the monastic properties is modeled on he Arch of Constantine in the Roman Forum, so merely by passing through a gate,Charlemagne re-enacted a Roman triumph, while the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius which stood before Old St Peter’s in the 8thc Charlemagne is recapitulated in miniature the Charlemagne’s version.

The ambitious renovatio, undertaken by the Carolingians included a sweeping reform of the monasteries, the traditional centers of learning and book production, which had seen during the Dark Ages disregard for the monastic rule and a steep decline in latinity and scribal skills. Strict adherence to the Benedictine Rule and the continuous performance of the divine office carried with them special spatial, structural and logistical requirements,which were not easy to impose of pre-existing buildings. The only structure that completely fulfills those requirements is the complex represented by the Plan of St Gall, a plan for a ground-up building of an entire monastery drawn up by church reformers in the early ninth-century. The project was never realized, and the plan may have served as a statement of an ideal, a meditation on monasticism itself.

The reform of the liturgy depended on service books with uncorrupted texts copied from authoritative sources. These texts had to be written in a clearly-legible, uniform in turn necessitated the development of an easily-legible, uniform, book hand using standardized spelling in which those texts were to be written. In response to this need, a new script was developed, the so-called Caroline minuscule, which was derived from late antique sources. Caroline minuscule was quickly and widely adopted throughout the empire and it remains today basis of western letter forms.

Illuminated liturgical manuscripts also were produced at court under by professional scribes and painters, such as the Godescalc Gospels (c. 793), named after the scribe whose name appears in a colophon. The iconography of the youthful, beardless Christ, wearing classicizing robes and wears purple robes shows that the court artists were copying directly from late antique sources, probability brought in from Rome. Several of these books belonged to Charlemagne himself, including the Vienna Coronation Gospels (c. 800 – 810), which was placed in Charlemagne’s tomb (Otto III removed the manuscript from the tomb in the year 1000 and it was used in the imperial coronation ceremony until World War I). The full page portraits of the four evangelists, in the act of writing their gospels, show them dressed in in antique philosophers’s togas and seated in illusionistic landscape and architectural settings. Formally and iconographically these books derived from late antique exemplars. The fluid classicism of the full-page miniatures is too sophisticated to have been produced by a western artist; the painters were probably trained in Constantinople. Like the Godescalc Gospels, the pages of the Coronation Gospels are painted entirely in purple and blue and the letters laid on in gold and silver leaf. Color has symbolic value as well, purple being reserved for imperial use only both in classical antiquity and in Byzantium. Precious materials were lavished not only the texts, but on the exteriors of liturgical books, as seen here in the cover of the Lindau Gospels. Executed in gold encrusted with jewels, the book appearance was meant to symbolize the glories of heaven and the richness of the gospels.

Charlemagne’s unified empire not long-lived. It was passed in its entirety to his son, Louis the Pious, but when Louis died in 840, his three sons warred with each other for control of the vast domains. The Treaty of Verdun (843) broke the empire into thirds, one son receiving what is today (roughly) France, another Germany, the third, Lotharingia, corresponding to the Low Countries, Alsace-Lorraine, and Provence, thereby re-fragmenting the north. The title of emperor and the custom of papal investiture were continued by the Ottonian and Salian kings but the effort to re-establish the forms and institutions of the Roman empire and the desire to imitate antiquity died with Charlemagne.

AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIÆVAL ART:

I: Saint Denis and Gothic Art
II: The Carolingian Renovatio
III: Romanesque Manuscripts
IV: Grisaille, or The Abstention from Color
V: The Social and Material Contexts of Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna
VI: Beauvais Cathedral and the Limits of Gothic Verticality
VII: The Harrowing of Hell
VIII: The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial
IX: The Art of the Dark Ages
X:  Simone Martini’s Saints
XI: Sainte-Foy de Conques

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