Karolingian und Ottonian
The Carolingian and Ottonian Periods

Carolingian architecture and art are commonly considered to have been the earliest manifestations of discernibly Germanic art.  As the center of Charlemagneís empire, the Rhineland was the home of the massive palace chapel at Aachen (c.800), decorated with mosaics and of contemporary churches such as the one at Fulda.  Many of these show the revival of early Christian plans.  Carolingian ivory book covers and diptychs were also notable.  The first outstanding examples of German painting and sculpture were created (c.960 to c.1060) during the Ottonian dynasty.  Splendid manuscripts, enriched by illuminations remarkable for their force of linear expression, issued from the school of Reichenau (e.g., the Gospels of Otto III, State Library, Munich), while in Cologne miniature painting exhibited a brilliant use of color.  Fine craftsmanship is apparent in the metalwork of this period, from the small objects produced by the goldsmiths of Mainz to more massive achievements, such as the bronze doors (1015) for the Church of St. Michael at Hildesheim.  The architecture of St. Michaelís exemplifies a tendency in Ottonian buildings toward the development of a complex ground plan.  A highly rational system was devised of dividing the church into a series of separate units, a method that was to be of consequence in Romanesque design.

Aachener Dom Octagon
Fig 1.  The Aachen cathedral treasury displays sacral masterpieces of the late Classical, Carolingian, Ottonian and Staufian period - among them there are some unique exhibits like the »Cross of Lothair« the »Bust of Charlemagne« and the »Persephone sarcophagus«. The Cathedral Treasury in Aachen is regarded as one of the most important ecclesiastical treasuries in northern Europe.
During the late 8th and early 9th centuries a major renaissance took place in Western art, due in large part to the efforts of CHARLEMAGNE.  Crowned emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day, 800, Charlemagne, after whom this stylistic epoch is named, was determined to restore the Roman Empire in the West.  The revival of classical learning and culture played an important role in his attempt to establish himself as the heir to the great rulers of the past.  In architecture, manuscript painting, and the crafts there was a conscious attempt to emulate the artistic achievements of Early Christian Rome and the Byzantine Empire.  Charlemagne's own palace chapel at AACHEN (Aix-la-Chapelle), constructed between 792 and 805 by the architect Odo of Metz, is an example of the way in which he used older models. Its design, though northern in its massiveness, is based on octagonal Byzantine churches such as the 6th-century church of SAN VITALE in Ravenna.  Charlemagne thus symbolically linked his empire to that of Justinian.

Fig. 2  Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

Many Carolingian monuments were modeled after Roman buildings. For example, the exterior of the late 8th-century gatehouse of the imperial monastery at Lorsch, though basically a medieval structure, has classical engaged columns, pilasters, and three archways that give it the appearance of a Roman triumphal arch. The designs of many monastic churches were based on Early Christian precedents. The 9th-century monastery church (now destroyed) at Fulda, a copy of the 4th-century SAINT PETER'S BASILICA in Rome, was one of the most ambitious examples of an attempt to imitate the art of the Roman Empire.

Carolingian architects created much that was new and innovative. For example, Early Christian churches like St. Peter's had very plain exteriors, but entrances and towers became important in the Carolingian period. Many churches, Charlemagne's palace chapel at Aachen among them, had westworks, two-story entrance complexes flanked by towers. Westworks were the forerunners of the elaborate facades of later Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals.

The now-destroyed abbey church of Centula (Saint-Riquier), built in the late 8th century, embodied much that was forward-looking in Carolingian architecture.  Like Fulda, it was built on a basilican plan, but because it had multiple towers and an imposing westwork, the outside of the building was complex and visually exciting, with an emphasis on verticality.  Carolingian monasteries were important centers for the revival of learning, for it was in their scriptoria that ancient manuscripts were copied.  One of the most significant contributions of the period, Carolingian minuscule, which reformed handwriting was accomplished under ALCUIN of York at the scriptorium of the Abbey of Saint Martin at Tours.  The lowercase letters used today are based on the script developed there in the late 8th-early 9th centuries.  Carolingian painting is brilliantly represented by the manuscripts produced at these scriptoria. Scholars have been able to group these manuscripts together stylistically according to the particular monastic centers in which they were produced.

As in the other arts, the illuminations in Carolingian manuscripts include many references to classical art. Charlemagne's Gospel Book (c.795-810; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) contains Evangelist portraits that appear to have been copied directly from Roman manuscripts.  In other manuscripts, such as the famous vellum Gospel Book of Archbishop Ebbo of Reims (early 9th century; Bibliotheque Municipale, Epernay), the miniatures, while having classical elements, are characterized by a restless energy.  This expressive quality is found in much figurative art of the period. The most famous of all Carolingian books, the Utrecht Psalter (c.820-832; Bibliothek der Rijksuniversiteit, Utrecht), contains pen-and-ink drawings so full of emotional excitement they seem about to leap from the pages.

Although there was probably no monumental stone sculpture in the period, the arts of IVORY CARVING and metalwork were highly developed.  The gold- and jewel-encrusted cover of the Lindau Gospels (c.870; Pierpont Morgan Library, New York) is a sumptuous example.  The same expressive qualities are found in ivory carvings such as those on the covers of the Lorsch Gospels (early 9th century; Biblioteca Apostolica, Vatican City, and Victoria and Albert Museum, London).  Far from being merely imitative, Carolingian art was imbued with a lively, imaginative spirit.  The artists of this period created much that influenced later medieval art.

Fig 3.  Palatine Chapel Interior (Aachen Cathedral), Aachen, Germany.

Palatine Chapel
German: PFALZKAPELLE, also called PALACE CHAPEL, COLLEGIATE CHURCH, or OCTAGON, imperial chapel of Charlemagne, now forming the central component of the cathedral in Aachen, Germany. Considered a masterpiece of Carolingian architecture because of its intricately designed core, Aachen Cathedral also exhibits notable elements of the Gothic style.  The cathedral was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.

Constructed on the site of an earlier, smaller house of worship dating from the 780s and 790s, the Palatine Chapel was consecrated in 805 to serve as the imperial church.  It was designed by Odo of Metz, who modeled it after the Byzantine-style church of San Vitale (consecrated 547) in Ravenna, Italy.  The most important surviving examples of Carolingian architecture are exhibited in the chapel.  Its octagonal, domed central area (the Octagon) is surrounded by a tall (two-story), 16-sided ambulatory.  Adjacent to the Octagon is the West Hall, with its formerly open-air atrium. Also notable are the imperial box on the upper floor and the winding staircases that lead up to the twin towers. The cupola crowning the chapel's dome rises to a height of 101.5 feet (30.9 metres).  For centuries the chapel had the highest vaulted interior in northern Europe.

Charlemagne's Throne
Fig. 4  Marble throne believed to have been used by Charlemagne (reigned 768-814), in the Palatine Chapel, Aachen, Germany.

In 814 the Palatine Chapel became Charlemagne's final resting place, and the Charlemagne Shrine (incorporating his remains) now stands in the choir.  A marble-slab throne, which was used for the coronations of 32 Holy Roman emperors in the period from 936 to 1531, is thought to be Carolingian. From the mid-14th century to 1414, the choir of the chapel was reconstructed in the Gothic style, with walls incorporating thousands of panes of glass.  Also during the 15th century, several subsidiary chapels and a vestibule were added to the main structure, and the enlarged building was designated Aachen Cathedral.

A large-scale restoration program for the nearly 600-year-old "glass house" choir began in 1995 in anticipation of the 1,200th anniversary of the consecration of Charlemagne's chapel.

Aachener Dom
Fig 5.  Palatine Chapel Exterior (Aachen Cathedral), Aachen, Germany.

Boussard, Jacques, The Civilization of Charlemagne (1968);
Conant, Kenneth J., Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture,
800-1200, new ed. (1974);
Hinks, Roger, Carolingian Art (1962);
Hubert, Jean, et al., The Carolingian Renaissance (1970);
Munz, Peter, Life in the Age of Charlemagne (1971);
Mutherich, Florentine, and Gaehde, J. E., Carolingian Painting (1977).

Related Links:
Germany - World Heritage Architecture

Germany - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Sixteen: Plainsong - Nesciens Mater


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