This lesson covers the art of the Carolingian Renaissance. We’ll explore the causes of the Carolingian Renaissance, then see how the art of illumination was adapted for new uses. Then we’ll discuss treasure bindings and finish with a quick survey of the few other surviving forms of Carolingian art.
The Carolingian Renaissance
After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Western Europe saw a sharp decline in literacy, art, architecture, urban populations, and pretty much every aspect of civilization.
Traditionally, historians have referred to this period as the Dark Ages, and indeed, compared to the glory of Classical civilization, conditions in Europe must have seemed very dark indeed. Imagine leaving a palatial mansion to camp in the wilderness for a few centuries, and you’ve got some notion of the transition Western Europe endured.
Yet, amid all this darkness, there were a few pockets of light. An ambitious Frankish king tried to recapture the former glory of the Roman Empire and build a civilized empire of his own.
Charles the Great, aka Charlemagne, forged the Frankish Empire, which covered most of Western Europe, including modern day France, Germany, Switzerland, much of Austria, and Northern Italy. In 800 CE, he was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III. His attempts to regain the glory of Classical civilization gave rise to an explosion of culture known today as the Carolingian Renaissance.
Church Schools: Centers of the Carolingian Renaissance
Now, empires are notoriously tricky things to administer in the best of times, and Europe in the 9th century was hardly the best of times. Charlemagne needed literate scribes to facilitate communication across the empire. Yet, literacy was all but nonexistent in Western Europe at the time.
Charlemagne needed to find a way to teach his subjects how to read and write. For help in this quest, Charlemagne turned to the few literate people left in the West: the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church. He received the aid he required from some princes of the Church: Archbishop Egbert of Trier, Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim and Abbot Odo, who founded the Monastic order of Cluny. Yet, perhaps Charlemagne’s greatest ally in the Church was Alcuin of York.With the help of the Church, Charlemagne established schools of literacy across his empire.
And, it was at these church schools that students encountered the most popular form of Carolingian art: the illuminated, or illustrated, manuscript.
The art of illumination had been around for a few centuries and had reached new heights of complexity and beauty in Ireland, where Irish monks created intricate works like the Book of Kells.
Since they were made later, we might expect the illuminations of the Carolingian Renaissance to be even more impressive. If so, we would be disappointed by early Carolingian illuminations like the Utrecht Psalter. Instead of beautiful-but-confusing interlacing patterns like we see in the Book of Kells, the Utrecht Psalter offers us some very primitive drawings interspersed between a few sentences.
This is because Carolingian illumination was meant more for instruction than for aesthetics. The illustrations aren’t there to inspire, but rather to help young scribes in training make sense of written Latin. In this sense, this Psalter has less in common with the Book of Kells and more in common with the Dick and Jane books.
Of course, not all Carolingian illuminations were meant to be purely educational. The people of the mainland seemed impressed by the illuminated Bibles produced during the Irish Golden Age. Though they never attempted anything as ambitious as the overlapping bands of Irish illuminations, they did start making some prettier illuminations:
- Godescalc Evangelistary ca. 783
- Gospel Book of Charlemagne ca. 800
- Gospel of Ebbo of Reims ca. 816
- Lorsch Gospels ca. 820
- Drogo Sacramentary ca.
- Lindau Gospels ca. 880
A century later, the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire renewed this practice:
- Gospel of Otto III ca. 1000
- Echternach Codex ca.
A Beautiful Cover for a Beautiful Book
If you’re going to put so much effort on the inside of a book, it makes sense to decorate the outside as well. These fancy book covers, or treasure bindings, got their start in early Christian art and had been used to protect the more precious illuminated bibles of Ireland.
They became even more popular during the Carolingian Renaissance. Most of these books have gold treasure bindings encrusted with jewels:
- Echternach Codex
- Lindau Gospels
Other books were protected with covers of intricately carved ivory:
- Lorsch Gospels
Still others had both ivory and gold:
- Mondsee Gospels
Other Carolingian Art
Of course, illuminations and treasure bindings weren’t the only works of art created during the Carolingian Renaissance. Yet, all art of this period has an undeniably Christian bent.
It might be Christian in function, like the Golden Altar and the Arnulf Ciborium. Or, it might be religious in message, like the Mosaic of the Arc of the Covenant (c. 806) and the Lothair Crystal (c. 850) depicting the story of Susannah and the Elders.We do have written accounts of more secular works of art, though none have survived to this day. Charlemagne supposedly decorated his palace at Aachen with frescoes following classical themes, like the four seasons, as well as medieval themes, like the seven liberal arts. These scenes would find their way into the art of future periods as well.
The Carolingian Renaissance gave rise to an explosion of art across Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire. This artistic rebirth did not happen on its own. Instead, it was part of a centralized program, sponsored by Charlemagne, to produce culture and increase literacy. Charlemagne was helped in this pursuit by the aid of the Roman Catholic Church.
His most famous aide was Alcuin of York.With the Church’s help, Charlemagne established church schools for the teaching of literacy. These church schools produced a great deal of illuminations. The impetus for these illuminations seems to have been more educational than inspirational, at least at first.
Later illuminations were more artistic, though they never reached the mastery achieved in the Insular art of the Irish Golden Age. Many of these beautiful books were protected by equally beautiful covers of gold, ivory or both.Besides illuminated Bibles, the Carolingian Renaissance produced a variety of other artistic creations. These were usually religious in function or theme, but supposedly some were of a more secular nature, though these have not survived.
Following this lesson, you will be able to:
- Explain the relationship between Charlemagne’s church schools and the beginning of the illumination of Carolingian art
- Describe what Carolingian illuminations looked like and their purpose
- Differentiate between Carolingian art and that of the Irish Golden Age
- Summarize other works created during the Carolingian Renaissance