The Art and Architecture of Early Medieval Europe



Torhalle Lorsch / Photo by Immanuel Giel, Wikimedia Commons


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 04.29.2018
Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief



1 – The Early Middle Ages

1.1 – Introduction

The Early Middle Ages began with the fall of the Roman Empire and ended in the early 11th century; its art encompasses vast and divergent forms of media.

The Middle Ages of the European world covers approximately 1,000 years of art history in Europe, and at times extended into the Middle East and North Africa. The Early Middle Ages is generally dated from the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476 CE) to approximately 1000, which marks the beginning of the Romanesque period. It includes major art movements and periods, national and regional art, genres , and revivals. Art historians attempt to classify medieval art into major periods and styles with some difficulty, as medieval regions frequently featured distinct artistic styles such as Anglo-Saxon or Norse . However, a generally accepted scheme includes Early Christian art, Migration Period art, Byzantine art, Insular art , Carolingian art, Ottonian art, Romanesque art , and Gothic art, as well as many other periods within these central aesthetic styles.

Population decline, relocations to the countryside, invasion, and migration began in Late Antiquity and continued in the Early Middle Ages. The large-scale movements of the Migration Period, including various Germanic peoples, formed new kingdoms in what remained of the Western Roman Empire. In the West, most kingdoms incorporated the few extant Roman institutions. Monasteries were founded as campaigns to Christianize pagan Europe continued. The Franks, under the Carolingian dynasty , briefly established the Carolingian Empire during the later eighth and early ninth century. It covered much of Western Europe but later succumbed to the pressures of internal civil wars combined with external invasions—Vikings from the north, Hungarians from the east, and Saracens from the south.

As literacy declined and printed material became available only to monks and nuns who copied illuminated manuscripts, art became the primary method of communicating narratives (usually of a Biblical nature) to the masses . Conveying complex stories took precedence over producing naturalistic imagery , leading to a shift toward stylized and abstracted figures for most of the Early Middle Ages. Abstraction and stylization also appeared in imagery accessible only to select communities, such as monks in remote monasteries like the complex at Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumberland, England.

John the Evangelist page from the Lindisfarne Gospels (c. 635 CE): As is common in early medieval art, the figures in this page appear flat and stylized. The bench on which John sits does not recede realistically into the space behind him. Modeling is kept to a minimum, and the clothing that John wears does not acknowledge the body beneath.

Early medieval art exists in many media. The works that remain in large numbers include sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork, and mosaics, all of which have had a higher survival rate than fresco wall-paintings and works in precious metals or textiles such as tapestries. In the early medieval period, the decorative arts, including metalwork, ivory carving, and embroidery using precious metals, were probably more highly valued than paintings or sculptures. Metal and inlaid objects, such as armor and royal regalia (crowns, scepters, and the like) rank among the best-known early medieval works that survive to this day.

Visigoth votive crown (before 672 CE).: Detail of a votive crown from Visigothic Spain. Gold and precious stones. Part of the Treasure of Guarrazar.

Early medieval art in Europe grew out of the artistic heritage of the Roman Empire and the iconographic traditions of the early Christian church. These sources were mixed with the vigorous “Barbarian” artistic culture of Northern Europe to produce a remarkable artistic legacy. The history of medieval art can be seen as an ongoing interplay between the elements of classical, early Christian, and “barbarian” art. Apart from the formal aspects of classicism, there was a continuous tradition of realistic depiction that survived in Byzantine art of Eastern Europe throughout the period. In the West realistic presentation appears intermittently, combining and sometimes competing with new expressionist possibilities. These expressionistic styles developed both in Western Europe and in the Northern aesthetic of energetic decorative elements.

Cover of the Codex Aureus: Gold and gem-encrusted cover of the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram, 870. Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 14000.

Monks and monasteries had a deep effect on the religious and political life of the Early Middle Ages, in various cases acting as land trusts for powerful families, centers of propaganda and royal support in newly conquered regions, and bases for missions and proselytizing. They were the main and sometimes only regional outposts of education and literacy. Many of the surviving manuscripts of the Latin classics were copied in monasteries in the Early Middle Ages. Monks were also the authors of new works, including history, theology, and other subjects written by authors such as Bede (died 735), a native of northern England who wrote in the late seventh and early eighth centuries.

The use of valuable materials is a constant in medieval art. Most illuminated manuscripts of the Early Middle Ages had lavish book covers decked with precious metal, ivory, and jewels. One of the best examples of precious metalwork in medieval art is the jeweled cover of the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram (c. 870). The Codex, whose origin is unknown, is decorated with gems and gold relief . Gold was also used to create sacred objects for churches and palaces, as a solid background for mosaics, and applied as gold leaf to miniatures in manuscripts and panel paintings. Named after Emmeram of Regensburg and lavishly illuminated, the Codex is an important example of Carolingian art, as well of one of very few surviving treasure bindings of the late ninth century.

Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel at Aachen (consecrated 805 CE).: The Palatine Chapel is an example of Charlemegne’s attempt to revive the values of the Roman Empire under the banner of Christianity. While the plan predates the cruciform basilica, it revives the classical round arch and heavy stone masonry as well as the east-facing apse of Late Antiquity.

Few large stone buildings were constructed between the Constantinian basilicas of the fourth and eighth centuries, although many smaller ones were built during the sixth and seventh centuries. By the early eighth century, the Merovingian dynasty revived the basilica form of architecture. One feature of the basilica is the use of a transept , the “arms” of a cross-shaped building that are perpendicular to the long nave . Other new features of religious architecture include the crossing tower and a monumental entrance to the church, usually at the west end of the building.

1.2 – Architecture under the Merovingians

Merovingian architecture developed under the Merovingian dynasty, a Frankish family who ruled parts of present-day France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and parts of Germany from the mid-fifth century to the mid-eighth century. The advent of the Merovingian dynasty in Gaul led to important changes in architecture.

The unification of the Frankish kingdom under Clovis I (465–511) and his successors corresponded with the need for new churches. Merovingian architecture often continued the Roman basilica tradition, but also adopted influences from as far away as Syria and Armenia. In the East, most structures were in timber , but stone was more common for significant buildings in the West and in the southern areas that later fell under Merovingian rule.

Many Merovingian churches no longer exist. One famous example is the basilica of Saint Martin at Tours, at the beginning of Merovingian rule and at the time on the edge of Frankish territory. According to scholars, the church had 120 marble columns , towers at the east end, and several mosaics . A feature of the basilica of Saint-Martin that became a hallmark of Frankish church architecture was the sarcophagus or reliquary of the saint, raised to be visible and sited axially behind the altar, sometimes in the apse. There are no Roman precedents for this Frankish innovation. A number of other buildings now lost, including the Merovingian foundations of Saint-Denis, St. Gereonin Cologne, and the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, are described as similarly ornate.

One surviving church is Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains at Metz. The building was originally built in 380 CE as a gymnasium (a European type of school) for a Roman spa complex. In the seventh century, the structure was converted into a church, becoming the chapel of a Benedictine convent. The structure bears common hallmarks of a Roman basilica, including the round arches and tripartite division into nave (center) and aisles (left and right of the nave), a division visible from the exterior of the building. Apparently missing, however, is the apse.

Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains: This church in Metz, France bears common hallmarks of a Roman basilica, including the round arches and tripartite division into nave (center) and aisles (left and right of the nave), a division visible from the exterior of the building.

Other major churches have been rebuilt, usually more than once. However, some small Merovingian structures remain, especially baptisteries, which were spared rebuilding in later centuries. For instance, the Baptistery at Saint-Leonce of Fréjus, highlights the influence of Syrian technique on Merovingian architecture, evidenced by its octagonal shape and covered cupola on pillars.

Baptistery at Saint-Léonce of Fréjus: The Baptistery at the cathedral at Saint-Léonce of Fréjus reflects the Syrian and Armenian influences on early Merovingian architecture (demonstrated by the cupola on pillars).

By contrast , St. Jean at Poitiers has the form of a rectangle flanked by three apses. The original building has probably had a number of alterations but preserves traces of Merovingian influence in its marble capitals.

Baptistry of Saint-Jean of Poitiers: The Baptistry of St. Jean at Poitiers (sixth century) has the form of a rectangle flanked by three apses. The original building has probably undergone a number of alterations but preserves in its decoration (marble capitals) a strong Merovingian character.

The baptistery of Saint-Sauveur at Aix-en-Provence was built at the beginning of the sixth century, at about the same time as similar baptisteries in Fréjus Cathedral and Riez Cathedral in Provence, in Albenga, Liguria, and in Djémila, Algeria. Only the octagonal baptismal pool and the lower part of the walls remain from that period. The other walls, Corinthian columns, arcade , and dome were rebuilt in the Renaissance . A viewing hole in the floor reveals the bases of the porticoes of the Roman forum under the baptistery.

Baptistery of Saint-Sauveur : Although mostly reconstructed, the interior of the baptistery reveals the influence of Roman architecture on Merovingian architects.

By the seventh century, Merovingian craftsmen were brought to England for their glass-making skills, and Merovingian stonemasons were used to build English churches, suggesting that the culture’s ornamental arts were highly regarded by neighboring peoples.

1.3 – Anglo-Saxon and Irish Art

1.3.1 – Overview

Celtic and Anglo-Saxon art display similar aesthetic qualities and media, including architecture and metalwork.

Anglo-Saxon art emerged when the Anglo-Saxons migrated from the continent in the fifth century and ended in 1066 with the Norman Conquest. Anglo-Saxon art, which favored brightness and color, survives mostly in architecture and metalwork.

1.3.2 – Anglo-Saxon Metalwork

Sutton Hoo helmet (reconstruction): The Sutton Hoo helmet features an iron skull of a single vaulted shell and has a full face mask, a solid neck guard, and deep cheekpieces. These features suggest an English origin for the basic structure of the helmet. Although outwardly similar to the Swedish examples, the Sutton Hoo helmet is a product of better craftsmanship. This reconstruction in the Royal Armouries shows the intricate jeweled inlay, repoussé reliefs, and abstract designs that once adorned the original.

Anglo-Saxon metalwork consisted of Germanic-style jewelry and armor, which was commonly placed in burials. After the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the seventh century, the fusion of Germanic Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Early Christian techniques created the Hiberno-Saxon style (or Insular art) in the form of sculpted crosses and liturgical metalwork. Insular art is characterized by detailed geometric designs, interlace, and stylized animal decoration.

Sutton Hoo Purse Lid: This ornamental purse lid covered a lost leather pouch, hung from a waist belt. The forms on the top row feature interlace typical of Insular art, while the bottom row features stylized humans and mythical animals either devouring or being devoured.

Anglo-Saxon metalwork initially used the Germanic Animal Style decoration that would be expected from recent immigrants, but gradually developed a distinctive Anglo-Saxon character. For instance, round disk brooches were preferred for the grandest Anglo-Saxon pieces, over continental styles of fibulae and Romano-British penannular brooches. Decoration included cloisonné (“cellwork”) in gold and garnet for high-status pieces. Despite a considerable number of other finds, the discovery of the ship burial at Sutton Hoo transformed the history of Anglo-Saxon art, showing a level of sophistication and quality that was wholly unexpected at this date. Among the most famous finds from Sutton Hoo are a helmet and an ornamental purse lid.

1.3.3 – Anglo-Saxon Architecture

Fobbing Parish Church, section of outer wall.: Blocked Anglo-Saxon round-arched window at Fobbing Parish Church. Also visible is the textured stone work of the outer wall.

Anglo-Saxon secular buildings in Britain were generally simple, constructed mainly using timber with thatch for roofing. No universally accepted example survives aboveground. There are, however, many remains of Anglo-Saxon church architecture. At least fifty churches of Anglo-Saxon origin display the culture’s major architectural features, although in some cases these aspects are small and significantly altered. The round-tower church and tower-nave church are distinctive Anglo-Saxon types. All surviving churches, except one timber church, are built of stone or brick, and in some cases show evidence of reused Roman work.

Anglo-Saxon church at Reculver: Triple arch opening separating the nave and apse in the seventh-century church at Reculver, Kent (now destroyed). This reconstruction shows the blank arcading that was common in Anglo-Saxon architecture.

The architectural character of Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical buildings range from influence from Celtic and Early Christian styles. Later Anglo-Saxon architecture is characterized by pilasters, blank arcading, baluster shafts and triangular-headed openings. In the final decades of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom a more general Romanesque style was introduced from the Continent, as in the additions to  Westminster Abbey made from 1050 onwards.

1.3.4 – Celtic Art

Tara Brooch, front view: Created in about 700 CE, the seven-inch long pseudo-penannular brooch is composed primarily of silver gilt and embellished with intricate abstract decoration including interlace on both the front and back.

“Celtic art” refers to the art of people who spoke Celtic languages in Europe and those with uncertain language but cultural and stylistic similarities with Celtic speakers. Typically, Celtic art is ornamental, avoiding straight lines, only occasionally using symmetry, and often involving complex symbolism. Celtic art has used a variety of styles and has shown influences from other cultures in knotwork, spirals, key patterns, lettering, and human figures.

Around 500 BCE, the La Tène style appeared rather suddenly, coinciding with some kind of societal upheaval that involved a shift of the major centers to the northwest. La Tène was especially prominent in northern France and western Germany, but over the next three centuries the style spread as far as Ireland, Italy, and modern Hungary. Early La Tène style adapted ornamental motifs from foreign cultures, including Scythian, Greek, and Etruscan arts. La Tène is a highly stylized curvilinear art based mainly on classical vegetable and foliage motifs such as leafy palmette forms, vines, tendrils, and lotus flowers together with spirals, S-scrolls, lyre , and trumpet shapes. It remains uncertain whether some of the most notable objects found from the La Tène period were made in Ireland or elsewhere (as far away as Egypt in some cases). But in Scotland and the western parts of Britain, versions of the La Tène style remained in use until it became an important component of the Insular style that developed to meet the needs of newly Christian populations.

The Ardagh Chalice: The Ardagh Chalice reflects the interlace styles introduced into the Celtic Insular Art form from the Mediterranean.

Celtic art in the medieval period was produced by the people of Ireland and parts of Britain over the course of 700 years. With the arrival of Christianity, Celtic art was influenced by both Mediterranean and Germanic traditions, primarily through Irish contact with Anglo-Saxons, which resulted in the Insular style. The interlace patterns that are regarded as typical of Celtic art were in fact introduced from the Mediterranean and Migration Period artistic traditions. Specific examples of Celtic Insular art include the Tara Brooch and the Ardagh Chalice.

Ahenny High Cross (700-800 CE): Ahenny High Cross, Ireland, one of the primary examples of Celtic sculpture.

Catholic Celtic sculpture began to flourish in the form of the large stone crosses that held biblical scenes in carved relief . This art form reached its apex in the early 10th century, with Muiredach’s Cross at Monasterboice and the Ahenny High Cross.

1.4 – Illustrated Books in the Early Middle Ages

Insular art is often characterized by detailed geometric designs, interlace, and stylized animal decorations in illuminated manuscripts.

1.4.1 – Background

An illuminated manuscript contains text supplemented by the addition of decoration, such as decorated initials, borders (marginalia), and miniature illustrations. In the strict definition of the term, an illuminated manuscript indicates only those manuscripts decorated with gold or silver. However, the term is now used to refer to any decorated manuscript from the Western tradition. The earliest surviving substantive illuminated manuscripts are from the period 400 to 600 CE and were initially produced in Italy and the Eastern Roman Empire. The significance of these works lies not only in their inherent art historical value , but also in the maintenance of literacy offered by non-illuminated texts as well. Had it not been for the monastic scribes of Late Antiquity who produced both illuminated and non-illuminated manuscripts, most literature of ancient Greece and Rome would have perished in Europe.

The majority of surviving illuminated manuscripts are from the Middle Ages , and hence most are of a religious nature. Illuminated manuscripts were written on the best quality of parchment , called vellum. By the sixteenth century, the introduction of printing and paper rapidly led to the decline of illumination, although illuminated manuscripts continued to be produced in much smaller numbers for the very wealthy. Early medieval illuminated manuscripts are the best examples of medieval painting, and indeed, for many areas and time periods, they are the only surviving examples of pre-Renaissance painting.

1.4.2 – Insular Art in Illustrated Books

Deriving from the Latin word for island (insula), Insular art is characterized by detailed geometric designs, interlace, and stylized animal decoration spread boldly across illuminated manuscripts. Insular manuscripts sometimes take a whole page for a single initial or the first few words at beginnings of gospels. The technique of allowing decoration the right to roam was later influential on Romanesque and Gothic art. From the seventh through ninth centuries, Celtic missionaries traveled to Britain and brought the Irish tradition of manuscript illumination, which came into contact with Anglo-Saxon metalworking. New techniques employed were filigree and chip-carving, while new motifs included interlace patterns and animal ornamentation.

The Book of Kells (Irish: Leabhar Cheanannais), created by Celtic monks in 800, is an illustrated manuscript considered the pinnacle of Insular art. Also known as the Book of ColumbaThe Book of Kells is considered a masterwork of Western calligraphy, with its illustrations and ornamentation surpassing that of other Insular Gospel books in extravagance and complexity. The Book of Kells‘s decoration combines traditional Christian iconography with the ornate swirling motifs typical of Insular art. Figures of humans, animals, and mythical beasts, together with Celtic knots and interlacing patterns in vibrant colors, enliven the manuscript’s pages. Many of these minor decorative elements are imbued with Christian symbolism . The manuscript comprises 340 folios made of high-quality vellum and unprecedentedly elaborate ornamentation including 10 full-page illustrations and text pages vibrant with decorated initials and interlinear miniatures. These mark the furthest extension of the anti- classical and energetic qualities of Insular art.

Book of Kells: Folio 27v: Folio 27v contains the symbols of the Four Evangelists (clockwise from top left): a man (Matthew), a lion (Mark), an eagle (John), and an ox (Luke). The Evangelists are placed in a grid and enclosed in an arcade, as is common in the Mediterranean tradition. However, notice the elaborate geometric and stylized ornamentation in the arcade that highlights the Insular aesthetic.

The Insular majuscule script of the text itself in the Book of Kells appears to be the work of at least three different scribes. The lettering is in iron gall ink with colors derived from a wide range of substances, many of which were imported from distant lands. The text is accompanied by many full-page miniatures, while smaller painted decorations appear throughout the text in unprecedented quantities. The decoration of the book is famous for combining intricate detail with bold and energetic compositions . The illustrations feature a broad range of colors, most often purple, lilac, red, pink, green, and yellow. As typical with Insular work, there was neither gold nor silver leaf in the manuscript. However, the pigments for the illustrations, which included red and yellow ochre , green copper pigment (sometimes called verdigris), indigo , and lapis lazuli , were very costly and precious. They were imported from the Mediterranean region and, in the case of the lapis lazuli, from northeast Afghanistan.

The Book of Kells: This example from the manuscript (folio 292r) shows the lavishly decorated section that opens the Gospel of John.

The decoration of the first eight pages of the canon tables is heavily influenced by early Gospel Books from the Mediterranean, where it was traditional to enclose the tables within an arcade . Although influenced by this Mediterranean tradition, the Kells manuscript presents this motif in an Insular spirit, where the arcades are not seen as architectural elements but rather become stylized geometric patterns with Insular ornamentation. Further, the complicated knot work and interweaving found in the Kells manuscript echo the metalwork and stone carving works that characterized the artistic legacy of the Insular period.

The Stockholm Codex Aureus: The evangelist portrait from the Stockholm Codex Aureus, one of the “Tiberius Group,” that shows the Insular style and classicizing continental styles that combined and competed in early Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.

Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscripts form a significant part of Insular art and reflect a combination of influences from the Celtic styles that arose when the Anglo-Saxons encountered Irish missionary activity. A different mixture is seen in the opening from the StockholmCodex Aureus, where the evangelist portrait reflects an adaptation of classical Italian style, while the text page is mainly in Insular style, especially the first line with its vigorous Celtic spirals and interlace. This is one of the so-called “Tiberius Group” of manuscripts with influence from the Italian style. It is the last English manuscript in which trumpet spiral patterns are found.

1.4.3 – The Beatus Manuscripts

The Commentary on the Apocalypse was originally a Mozabaric eighth-century work by the Spanish monk and theologian Beatus of Liébana. Often referred to simply as the Beatus, it is used today to reference any of the extant manuscript copies of this work, especially any of the 26 illuminated copies that have survived. The historical significance of the Commentary is even more pronounced since it included a world map, offering a rare insight into the geographical understanding of the post-Roman world. Considered together, the Beatus codices are among the most important Spanish and Mozarabic medieval manuscripts and have been the subject of extensive scholarly and antiquarian inquiry.

Beatus World Map: The world map from the Saint-Sever Beatus, measuring 37 x 57 cm. This was painted c. 1050 as an illustration to Beatus’s work at the Abbey of Saint-Sever in Aquitaine, on the order of Gregori de Montaner, Abbot from 1028 to 1072.

Though Beatus might have written these commentaries as a response to Adoptionism in the Hispania of the late 700s, many scholars believe that the book’s popularity in monasteries stemmed from the Arabic-Islamic conquest of the Iberian peninsula, which some Iberian Christians took as a sign of the Antichrist. Not all of the Beatus manuscripts are complete, and some exist only in fragmentary form. However, the surviving manuscripts are lavishly decorated in the Mozarabic, Romanesque, or Gothic style of illumination.

Beatus of Liébana. Judgement of Babylon.: From Beatus Apocalypse. Depicts Babylon on fire using Insular art illumination forms, influenced by Arabic geometric designs.

Mozarabic art refers to art of Mozarabs, Iberian Christians living in Al-Andalus who adopted Arab customs without converting to Islam during the Islamic invasion of the Iberian peninsula (from the eighth through the 11th centuries). Mozarabic art features a combination of (Hispano) Visigothic and Islamic art styles, as in the Beatus manuscripts, which combine Insular art illumination forms with Arabic-influenced geometric designs.

2 – The Vikings

2.1 – Norse Ships in the Early European Middle Ages

The Oseberg ship was discovered in a burial mound in Norway and is one of the finest artistic and archaeological finds from the Viking Age.

2.1.1 – Introduction

Of Scandinavian descent, Norsemen are often called Vikings after their trading locations on the Norwegian shoreline. Known as pre-Christian traders and pirates, Vikings used their great ships to invade European coasts, harbors, and river settlements on a seasonal basis. They created fast and seaworthy longships that served not only as warring and trading vessels, but also as media for artistic expression and individual design.

The great ships of the Vikings contain some of the major artworks left from this time. For instance, the Oseberg Bow demonstrates the Norse mastery of decorative wood carving and intricate inlay of metal. Likewise, the ship head post—representing a roaring beast—is five inches high with complicated surface ornamentation in the form of interwoven animals that twist and turn.

Osberg Ship Head Post: Animal head post found in the Oseberg ship. Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway. The exact function of the head post is unknown.

Other examples of artistic design on Norse ships include the “King” or “Chieftain” vessels designated for the wealthier classes. Chieftain ships were distinguishable by the design of the bow of their vessel with designs such as bulls, dolphins, gold lions, drakes spewing fire out of their nose, human beings cast in gold and silver, and other unidentifiable animals cast in bronze metal. Typically, the sides of these vessels were decorated using bright colors and wood-carvings.

2.1.2 – A Ship Burial

The Oseberg ship (Norwegian: Osebergskipet) is a well-preserved Viking ship discovered in a large burial mound at the Oseberg farm near Tønsberg in Vestfold County, Norway. This ship is widely celebrated as one of the finest artistic and archaeological finds to have survived the Viking Age.

The Oseberg Ship: The Oseberg ship (Viking Ship Museum, Norway)

The Oseberg burial mound contained numerous grave goods and the remains of two female human skeletons. The ship’s interment into its burial mound dates from 834 CE, but parts of the ship date from around 800 CE, and scholars believe that ship itself is older. The bow and stern of the ship are elaborately decorated with complex woodcarvings in the characteristic “gripping beast” style, also known as the Oseberg style. This style’s primary features are the paws that grip the borders around it, neighboring beasts, or parts of its own body. Although the Osberg style distinguishes early Viking art from previous trends, it is no longer generally accepted as an independent style. Although seaworthy, the ship is relatively frail. It is thought to have been used only for coastal voyages.

Oseberg Ship: This detail from the Oseberg ship demonstrates the elaborate woodcarving designs used as ornamentation on the bow and front of the ship.

The skeletons of two women were found in the Oseberg burial mound. One may have been sacrificed to accompany the other in death. Regardless, the opulence of the burial rite and the grave goods suggests that this was a burial of very high status. For instance, one woman wore a very fine red wool dress of fabric woven in a lozenge twill pattern (a luxury commodity) and a fine white linen veil in a gauze weave. The other wore a plainer blue wool dress with a wool veil, showing some stratification in their social status. Neither woman wore anything entirely made of silk, although small silk strips were appliqued onto a tunic worn under the red dress.

“Buddha Bucket”: The so-called “Buddha bucket” (Buddha-bøtte), brass and cloisonné enamel ornament of a bucket (pail) handle in the shape of a figure sitting with crossed legs.

The grave had been disturbed in antiquity and many precious metals that were initially buried with Oseberg ship went missing. Nevertheless, many everyday items and artifacts were found during the early 20th-century excavations of the site. These included four elaborately decorated sleighs, a four-wheel wooden cart, bedposts, wooden chests, and other richly decorated items. For instance, the so-called “Buddha bucket” is a well-known object from the Oseberg site that features a brass and cloisonné enamel ornament of a bucket (pail) handle in the shape of a figure sitting with crossed legs. The bucket itself is made from yew wood held together with brass strips, and the handle is attached to two anthropomorphic figures often compared to depictions of the Buddha in lotus posture (although any connection to Buddhism is uncertain). Archaeologists also found more mundane items, such as agricultural and household tools, and a series of textiles that included woolen garments, imported silks, and narrow tapestries. The Oseberg burial is one of the few sources of Viking-age textiles, and the wooden cart is the only complete Viking-age cart found so far.

2.2 – Jelling Stones

The Jelling Stones are visual records of the transitional period between Norse paganism and the process of Christianization in Denmark.

Jelling Stones: The Jelling Stones are massive carved runestones from the 10th century, named for the town of Jelling in Denmark. Here they are seen protected behind glass.

The Jelling Stones are massive carved runestones from the 10th century, named for the town of Jelling in Denmark. Prior to the 10th century, stone carving was  extremely rare or non-existent in most parts of Scandanavia. Subsequently, and likely influenced by the spread of Christianity, the use of carved stone for permanent memorials became prevalent.

The older of the two Jelling Stones is attributed to King Gorm the Old, thought to have been raised in memory of his wife Thyra. King Gorm’s son Harald Bluetooth raised the larger of the two stones in memory of his parents, in celebration of his conquest of Denmark and Norway, and to document his conversion of the Danes to Christianity. Art historians consider the runic inscriptions on the Jelling stones the best-known in Denmark.

Harald’s Stone: Carving of Christ: The figure of Christ on Harald’s runestone. One scholar has suggested that this imagery was used to indicate that Christ had replaced the Norse pagan god Odin, who in one myth hung for nine nights in the tree Yggdrasill.

Scholars have long considered the Jelling Stones visual records of the transitional period between the indigenous Norse paganism and the victory of Christianization in Denmark. The larger stone, known as Harald’s stone, is often cited as Denmark’s baptismal certificate (dåbsattest), containing a depiction of Christ and an inscription celebrating the conversion of the Danes to Christianity. The Jelling Stones are also strongly identified with the creation of Denmark as a nation-state, and both stones offer the earliest examples of the name Danmark (in the form of tanmaurk on the large ston, and tanmarkar on the small stone).

Harald’s Stone: Inscription: This Jelling Stone, with its depiction of Christ and celebration of the Conversion of the Danes, is widely regarded as Denmark’s “baptismal certificate.”

The runestone of Gorm, the older and smaller of the Jelling Stones, has an inscription that reads: “King Gormr made this monument in memory of Thyrvé, his wife, Denmark’s adornment.” The larger runestone of Harald Bluetooth is engraved on one side with an inscription that reads: “King Harald ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother. That Harald who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.” Harald’s stone has a figure of Jesus Christ on one side and on another side a serpent wrapped around a lion. The depiction of Christ standing in the shape of a cross and entangled in what appear to be branches is of note. One scholar suggested that this imagery was used to indicate that Christ had replaced the Norse pagan god Odin, who in one myth hung for nine nights in the tree Yggdrasill.

Replica of Harald’s Stone: This plaster-cast replica gives us an idea of the original polychromatic appearance of the Jelling Stones. National Museum of Denmark

Remnants of red pigment show that the Jelling Stones were once brightly painted. This practice was apparently widespread across Scandinavia, with runestones at locations such as Strängnäs Cathedral (Sweden) and Oppland (Norway) bearing similar hues . Replicas made from plaster casts in the twentieth century recreate the stones’ polychromatic appearances.

Animal relief on Harald’s Stone: The drawing of this stone depicts a colorful, stylized animal that bears a striking resemblance to similar forms found in the British Isles, such as in the hoard found at Sutton Hoo.

The reliefs on Harald’s Stone bear a striking resemblance to the styles of humans, animals, and abstract patterns that appear in illuminated manuscripts and on decorative arts in the British Isles of the Early Middle Ages . This common thread is a result of contact between the cultures through migration and invasion.

2.3 – Norse Timber Architecture in the Early European Middle Ages

Archaeological finds of political and religious architecture suggest a significant mastery of woodworking and engineering in Viking culture.

2.3.1 – Background

Timber architecture is used to describe a period of medieval art in which two distinctive wood building traditions converged in Norwegian architecture. One was the practice of building with horizontal logs notched at the corners, a technique likely imported east of Scandinavia. The other influence was the stave building tradition, which possibly evolved from improvements on the prehistoric long houses that had roof-bearing posts dug into the ground .

Although scant evidence exists of actual buildings from the earliest permanent structures, the discovery of Viking ships (i.e. the Oseberg) and stave churches suggest a significant mastery of woodworking and engineering in Viking culture . Not counting the 28 remaining stave churches, at least 250 wooden houses predating the Black Death of 1350 are preserved more or less intact in Norway. Most of these are long houses, some with added stave-built galleries or porches. As political power in Norway was consolidated and had to contend with external threats, larger and more durable structures including fortresses, bridges, and ultimately churches and manors were built with stone and masonry.

2.3.2 – Long Houses

Very little archaeological evidence of actual buildings from the earliest permanent structures in the Viking era have survived. However, in the Lofoten archipelago in Northern Norway, a Viking chieftain’s holding has been reconstructed at the Lofotr Viking Museum. In 1983, archaeologists uncovered the Chieftain House at Borg, a large Viking-era building likely established around the year 500 CE. Excavations later in the 1980s revealed the largest building ever to be found from the Viking period in Norway. The foundation of the Chieftain House at Borg measured 272 feet long and 30 feet high. After the excavation ended, the remains of what had once been the long house remained visible.

Viking Long House: Reconstructed long house in the Viking Museum in Borg, Vestvågøy/Lofoten, Norway.

Also known as mead halls, long houses typically housed the high-ranking members of Viking society, particularly royalty and aristocracy. From around the year 500 up until the Christianization of Scandinavia (by the thirteenth century), these large halls were vital parts of the political center. They were later superseded by medieval banquet halls.

Typically load-bearing with post-and-lintel entrances, long houses had sharply pitched roofs that bore a curve similar to that of a ship. In fact, the roofs of many reconstructed long houses resemble inverted boats placed atop the exterior walls. This shape was likely due to the climate, as pitched roofs allow snow to fall to the ground without causing collapse.

2.3.3 – Stave Churches

Stave Church: Example of a Norwegian wooden stave church: Stave church in Lom.

The most commonly cited examples of timber architecture are the Norwegian stave churches. Until the beginning of the 19th century, as many as 150 stave churches still existed. Many were destroyed as part of a religious movement that favored simple, puritan lines , and today only 28 remain (although a large number were documented with measured drawings before they were demolished).

A stave church is a medieval wooden church with post-and-beam construction related to timber framing. The wall frames are filled with vertical planks. The load-bearing posts (stafr in Old Norse , stav in Norwegian) lend their name to this building technique. The stave churches owe their longevity to architectural innovations that protected these large, complex wooden structures against water rot, precipitation, wind, and extreme temperatures. Most important was the introduction of massive sills underneath the staves (posts) to prevent them from rotting. Over the two centuries of stave church construction, this building type evolved to an advanced art and science.

2.3.4 – Forms of Church Construction

Archaeological excavations have shown that stave churches descend from palisade constructions and later churches with earth-bound posts. Similar palisade constructions are known from the buildings of the Viking era. Logs were split in two halves, rammed into the ground, and given a roof. This was a simple form of construction but very strong. The wall could last for decades if set in gravel—even centuries. Remains of these buildings are found over much of Europe and are commonly grouped into two categories. Type A had no free-standing posts and a single nave as seen in the Renli Stave Church.

Type A: Reinli Stave Church: Reinli stave church with the old pillory and a single nave: Sør-Aurdal.

Type B had a raised roof and free-standing internal posts as in the Lomen Stave Church.

Type B Lomen Stave Church Interior: Interior from Lomen stave church depicting a raised roof and cross braces between upper and lower string beams and posts. Intermediate posts have been omitted.

Type B churches were often further divided into two subgroups. The Kaupanger group had a complete arcade row of posts and intermediate posts along the sides and details that mimic stone capitals . These churches gave an impression of a basilica . The other subgroup was the Borgund group. These churches had cross braces joining upper and lower string beams and posts that formed a very rigid interconnection, resembling the triforium of stone basilicas. Many stave churches had or still have outer galleries running around the entire perimeter, loosely connected to the plank walls. They probably served to protect the church from the harsh climate.

After the Protestant Reformation , no stave churches were built. Instead, new churches were composed of stone or horizontal log buildings with notched corners. Most old stave churches disappeared because of redundancy, neglect, deterioration, or because they were too small to accommodate larger congregations and too impractical according to new architectural standards.

2.3.5 – Ornamentation of Stave Churches

Hedal stave church portal: Drawing by G. A. Bull of the main portal in Hedalen stave church (c. 1853), depicting the intricate ornamentation.

Even though the wooden churches had structural differences, they give a recognizable general impression. Facade difference may conceal common floor plans, while apparently similar buildings might have significant structural differences. Certain basic principles were common to all church types.

Basic geometric figures, simple numbers, just a few length units, simple ratios, and perhaps proportions were among the theoretical aids all builders inherited. The specialist knew a particular type of building so well that he could systematize its elements in a slightly different way from previous designs, thus carrying developments a stage further. Ornamentation included intricate interlace patterns, stylized human figures, and mythological animals.

3 – The Carolingians

3.1 – Carolingian Painting in the Early European Middle Ages

Carolingian artwork consists of frescoes and mosaics that reached a pinnacle of production under the reign of Charlemagne.

3.1.1 – Background

Carolingian art comes from the Frankish Empire from about 780 to 900 CE, during the reign of Charlemagne and his immediate heirs. This period is popularly known as the Carolingian Renaissance. The art was produced by and for the court circle and a group of important monasteries under imperial patronage .

Surviving examples of painting from this era consist mainly of frescoes and mosaics produced in present-day France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, northern Italy, and the Low Countries. These sites have allowed art historians to theoretically conceptualize Carolingian paintings. Paintings show an attempt to conform to Charlemagne’s desire to revive the Roman Empire under a Christian banner. The figures in the frescoes, although relatively flat and posed in a stylized manner, display a degree of modeling and an acknowledgement of the body beneath the clothing. Their facial expressions and body language imply a sense of interaction, although few stand in profile and none turn their backs to the viewer . Surviving frescoes show a greater degree of modeling, a variety of poses, and a relatively naturalistic rendering of draperies and acknowledgement of the bodies beneath. Outside the elite circle that produced these works, however, the quality of visual art was much lower.

3.1.2 – Frescoes

Fragments of Carolingian-era frescoes (early ninth century), St. John at Müstair: Art historian Dr. Bernd Schälicke examines the Carolingian frescoes on the north wall of the Benedictine Monastery Church of St. John at Müstair.

Various forms of Carolingian painting include frescoes, which reached a pinnacle of production under the reign of Charlemagne. A villa that featured the oratory of the Palatine Chapel belonged to Bishop Theodulf of Orléans, a key associate of Charlemagne. It was destroyed later in the century, but contained multiple Carolignian frescos of the Seven Liberal Arts, the Four Seasons, and the Mappa Mundi (Map of the World). Art historians have found numerous other Carolingian frescoes in churches and palaces that have since been nearly completely lost.

The Abbey of Saint John at Müstair, Switzerland is the site of exceptionally well-preserved Carolingian art. The original church has several significant early medieval frescoes from around 800 CE. The paintings are organized in five rows that stretch from the southern wall across the west wall to the northern wall. The top row features scenes from the life of King David of the Old Testament. The next three rows show scenes from the youth, life, and Passion of Christ. The bottom row contains scenes from the crucifixion of Saint Andreas. On the western wall the rows are tied together with an image of the Last Judgment. The palette consists of a limited range of colors including ochre , red, and brown.

Saint Gregory Disputing with Paulus Diaconus (c. 825).: Church of St. Benedict, Mals, Italy.

The frescoes at Saint Benedikt at Mals, Italy are contemporary with those at neighboring Saint John at Müstair. They belong to a limited set of surviving frescoes of the Carolingian period. The frescoes are mostly distributed in three niches in the altar wall, showing Jesus Christ flanked by pope Gregory the Great and Saint Stephen. On the walls separating the niches are donor portraits below a troop of 12 angels, and scenes showing Gregory writing his Dialogi and disputing with Paulus Diaconus (Paul the Deacon) alongside scenes showing Paul of Tarsus and a fragment of a scene from the life of Saint Benedict.

3.1.3 – Mosaics

Palatine Chapel at Aachen, interior view: The surviving mosaics begin above eye level at the piers or arches and span upward into the dome.

Mosaics were created by assembling small pieces of colored glass, stone, pigments, and other materials. The mosaics were created in Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel at Aachen, whose interior remains adorned with arch-to-dome mosaics. Like the Byzantine mosaics that influenced their design, those that adorn Charlemagne’s chapel feature floral motifs and classicized figures in various poses against largely gold backgrounds.

Ark of the Covenant, Germigny-des-Prés (c. 806): Restoration of the original that once adorned the Palatine Chapel. The subject seems drawn from illuminated Jewish bibles and relates to the Libri Carolini, possibly written by Theodulf, where the Ark is cited as divine approval of sacred images.

The most famous mosaic in Charlemagne’s chapel showed an enthroned Christ worshiped by the Evangelist’s symbols and the 24 elders of the Apocalypse. This mosaic no longer survives, but a restored one remains in the apse of the oratory at Germigny-des-Prés (806), discovered in 1820 under a coat of plaster and depicting the Ark of the Covenant adored by angels.

3.2 – Carolingian Architecture in the Early European Middle Ages

Carolingian architecture is characterized by its attempts to emulate late Roman classicism, early Christian, and Byzantine styles.

Carolingian architecture is the style of northern European pre-Romanesque architecture belonging to the Carolingian Renaissance . During the eighth and ninth centuries, the Carolingian dynasty (named for Charlemagne) dominated western Europe politically, culturally, and economically.

Carolingian architecture is characterized by its conscious attempts to emulate Roman classicism and Late Antique architecture. The Carolingians thus borrowed heavily from early Christian and Byzantine architectural styles, although they added their own innovations and aesthetic style. The result was a fusion of divergent cultural aesthetic qualities.

The gatehouse of Lorsch Abbey, built around 800 CE in Germany, exemplifies classical inspiration for Carolingian architecture, built as a triple-arched hall dominating the gateway, with the arcaded façade interspersed with engaged Corinthian columns and pilasters above. In addition to the engaged columns and arcades , the apse-like structures on either side of the gatehouse recall the ancient Roman basilicas , which were the sites of important government events.

Lorsch Abbey: Lorsch Abbey (800 CE) demonstrates the Roman classical inspiration the Carolingians took for their architecture, with a triple arch hallway dominating the gateway and interspersed with engaged classical columns.

By contrast , the Palatine Chapel in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), with its sixteen-sided ambulatory and overhead gallery, was inspired by the Byzantine-style octagonal church of San Vitale in Ravenna. The chapel makes use of ancient spolia , conceivably from Ravenna, as well as newly carved materials. The bronze decoration is of extraordinarily high quality, especially the doors with lion heads and the interior railings with Corinthian order columns and acanthus scrolls. Like San Vitale, the Palatine Chapel is a centrally-planned church whose dome serves as its focal point. However, at Aachen, the barrel and groin vaults and octagonal cloister vault in the dome reflect late Roman practices rather than the Byzantine techniques employed at San Vitale. Its round arches and massive supporting piers draw from Western Roman influence. A multicolored marble veneer creates a sumptuous interior. A monumental western entrance complex called the westwork is also drawn from Byzantine architecture.

Palatine Chapel in Aachen, interior view: The Palatine Chapel in Aachen (792-805) demonstrates the Byzantine influence on Carolingian architecture, evidenced by its octagonal style.

Carolingian churches are generally basilican like the Early Christian churches of Rome, and commonly incorporated westworks, arguably the precedent for the western façades of later medieval cathedrals . A westwork (German: westwerk) is a monumental west-facing entrance section of a medieval church. This exterior consists of multiple stories between two towers, while the interior includes an entrance vestibule, a chapel, and a series of galleries overlooking the nave. The westwork first originated in the ancient churches of Syria.

Corvey Abbey: The westwork is the only surviving architectural component of the original Carolingian monastery.

The westwork of Corvey Abbey (873-885), Germany, is the oldest surviving example. Like the gate house from Lorsch Abbey, the westwork of Corvey consists of a symmetrical arcade of three round arches at the base . This arcaded pattern repeats in the windows on the second and third stories. The heavy masonry throughout the façade recalls the massive appearance of the interior of the Palatine Chapel. On the upper stories of the center and towers of the westwork, a range of modified classical columns divide and accent the windows, also round arches.

3.3 – Carolingian Illustrated Books in the Early European Middle Ages

3.3.1 – Introduction

Illuminated manuscripts are the most common surviving works of the Carolingian era. This includes a number of luxury manuscripts, mostly Gospel books. They are decorated with a relatively small number of full-page miniatures , often including evangelist portraits and lavish canon tables drawn from Insular art in Britain and Ireland. Carolingian narrative images and cycles are rare but do exist. They tend to be mostly of the Old Testament, while New Testament scenes are typically found on the ivory reliefs on the covers.

3.3.2 – Early Carolingian Manuscripts

Drogo Sacramentary: Drogo Sacramentary (c. 850) depicts a historiated initial “C” which contains the Ascension of Christ. The text is in gold ink.

Carolingian illustrators adopted the oversized, heavily decorated initials of Insular art and developed the historiated decorated initial to produce small narrative scenes. These were seen for the first time toward the end of the period, most notably in the Drogo Sacramentary (850-855). The historiated initial, a harmonious union of classical lettering with narrative scenes, had influence into the Romanesque period.

Ultrecht Psalter: From the Utrecht Psalter, ninth century. Naturalistic and energetic figurine line drawings were entirely new and became the most influential innovation of Carolinian art in later periods.

Carolingian luxury manuscripts were given treasure binding, rich covers with jewels set in gold and carved ivory panels. As in Insular art, these were prestige objects kept in the church or treasury . By contrast , working manuscripts featured a few decorated initial and pen drawings and were kept in libraries. One exception is the Utrecht Psalter, a heavily illustrated library version of the Psalms done in pen and wash and almost certainly copied from a much earlier manuscript. This was perhaps the most important of all Carolingian manuscripts for its innovative and naturalistic figure line drawings that became the most influential innovation of Carolinian art.

3.3.3 – Carolingian Manuscript Workshops

Carolingian manuscripts are presumed to have been produced largely or entirely by clerics in a few workshops around the Carolingian Empire. Each of these workshops practiced its own style that developed based on the artists and influences of that particular location and time. The earliest workshop was the Court School of Charlemagne, then the Rheimsian workshop (which became the most influential of the Carolingian period), the Touronian style, the Drogo style, and the Court School of Charles II (the Bald).

3.3.4 – The Court School of Charlemagne

Lorsch Gospels: Ivory book cover with carvings. The Lorsch Gospels reflect its origin in the Court School of Charlemagne with its Late Antiquity Imperial scenes adapted to a Christian theme.

The Court School of Charlemagne (also known as the Ada School) produced the earliest manuscripts, including the Godescalc Evangelistary (781–783), the Lorsch Gospels (778–820, ), the Ada Gospels, the Soissons Gospels, the Harley Golden Gospels (800-820), and the Vienna Coronation Gospels. The Court School manuscripts were ornate and elaborate, reminiscent of sixth-century ivories and mosaics from Ravenna, Italy. The Court School of Charlemagne initiated a revival of Roman classicism, yet maintained Migration-Period artistic (Merovingian and Insular) traditions in their linear presentation, with no concern for volume and spatial relationships.

3.3.5 – The Rheims School

Saint Matthew, from the Ebbo Gospels (816-835): Portrait of Matthew, depicting him sitting and writing in the foreground. The wavy lines that form the details on Matthew’s clothing and the diagonal lines adding detail to the background and foreground are examples of the energetic subject matter in the Ebbo Gospels.

In the early ninth century, Archbishop Ebbo of Rheims assembled clerical artists and transformed Carolingian art. The expressive animations of the Rheims School would have influence on northern medieval art for centuries to follow, far into the Romanesque period. One example was the Gospel Book of Ebbo (816–835), painted with swift, fresh, vibrant brush strokes that evoked an inspiration and energy unknown in classical Mediterranean forms. This emotionalism was new to Carolingian art. Figures in the Ebbo Gospels are represented in nervous, agitated poses. The illustration uses an energetic, streaky style with swift brush strokes. The style directly influenced manuscript illumination for decades, as seen in the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram. The evangelist portrait of Matthew in the Ebbo Gospels is similar to the illustration of the psalmist in the first psalm of the Utrecht Psalter.

Bern Physiologus, Folio 12v (825-850).: Image of the text and drawings from the Bern Physiologus, showing the miniatures drawn unframed into the text block. This is typical of late Antique manuscripts, leading scholars to believe that it is a copy of a fifth-century original.

Other books associated with the Rheims school include the Utrecht Psalter and the Bern Physiologus (825-850), the earliest Latin edition of the Christian allegorical text on animals. Many of its miniatures are set unframed into the text block, which was a characteristic of Late-Antique manuscripts. For this reason, it is believed to be a copy of a fifth-century manuscript. This is one of the oldest extant illustrated copies of the Physiologus.

3.3.6 – St. Martin of Tours

Another style developed at the monastery of St. Martin of Tours in which large Bibles were illustrated based on late Antique Bible illustrations. Three large Touronian Bibles were created. One of the best examples was the Vivian Bible (c. 846), commissioned by Count Vivien, the lay abbot of St. Martin of Tours, and presented to Charles the Bald. The Tours School was cut short by the invasion of the Normans in 853, but its style had already left a permanent mark on other centers in the Carolingian Empire.

3.3.7 – Charles the  Bald Court School

Charles the Bald, from the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram (c. 870): Depiction of Charles the Bald enthroned, surrounded by angels and saints. The Hand of God reaches down from beneath the red canopy, hovering over the emperor’s head.

Charles the Bald established a Court School that fused Touronian, Rhemsian, and Charlemagne Court School styles. Several manuscripts are attributed to this institution, and the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram (870) was the last and most spectacular. The school’s location at the time is unknown as its previous base at St Martin’s Abbey in Tours was destroyed in 853, but it had probably moved to the Basilica of St. Denis outside Paris by the time of the production of the Codex. Seven full-page miniatures show the four evangelists, Charles the Bald enthroned, the Adoration of the Lamb, and a Christ in Majesty.

3.4 – Carolingian Metalwork in the Early European Middle Ages

3.4.1 – Introduction

Carolingian-era metalworkers primarily worked with gold, gems, ivory , and other precious materials. For instance, luxury Carolingian manuscripts were given treasure bindings and elaborately ornate covers in precious metals set with jewels around central carved ivory panels. Metalwork subjects were often narrative religious scenes in vertical sections, largely derived from Late Antique paintings and carvings. Those with more hieratic images, such as the front and back covers of the Lorsch Gospels, were derived from consular diptychs and other imperial art.

3.4.2 – Charles the Bald’s Palace School Workshop

Important Carolingian examples of metalwork came out of Charles the Bald’s Palace School workshop, and include the cover of the Lindau Gospels, the cover of the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram, and the Arnulf Ciborium. All three of these works feature fine relief figures in repoussé gold. Another work associated with the Palace School is the frame of an antique serpentine dish, now located in the Louvre.

Cover of the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram (870): Gold and gem-encrusted cover of the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram, 870. Produced by the Carolingian Palace School.

Under Charlemagne, there was a revival of large-scale bronze casting in imitation of Roman designs, although metalwork in gold continued to develop. For example, the Aachen chapel’s figure of Christ in gold (now lost) was the first-known work of this type and became a crucial inspiring feature of northern European medieval art. Another one of the finest examples of Carolingian metalwork is the Golden Altar (824–859), also known as the Paliotto, in the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan (since damaged by World War II bombings). The altar’s four sides are decorated with images in gold and silver repoussé framed by borders of filigree, precious stones, and enamel.

3.4.3 – An Imperial Portrait

Charlemagne’s personal appearance is known from a good description by a personal associate Einhard, whose biography of the emperor describes him as tall and well-built with a round head and wide eyes. This written portrait is confirmed by contemporary depictions of the emperor, his exhumed body, and sculptures believed to depict his likeness. One possibility is a bronze equestrian statuette once housed in Aachen Cathedral. Typical of sculpture in the round produced during the Carolingian period, the statuette is small, approximately eight inches high. The rider is depicted with a mustache, an open crown on his head, and a riding cloak fastened with a fibula. Like the architecture and painting of the time, this sculpture reflects Charlemagne’s desire to recreate the Roman Empire, as it bears similarities with a large-scale bronze equestrian portrait of Marcus Aurelius from the second century. Similar to the ancient Roman emperor, the mounted Carolingian ruler wears a calm expression as he rides without holding the reins. Rather, he holds a sword (now lost) in his right hand and an imperial orb in his left. Unlike its ancient predecessor, the horse does not pounce on a missing enemy but calmly prances, reflecting the stateliness of the rider.

Equestrian Statuette of a Carolingian Ruler, Possibly Charlemagne (c. 870): Statuette of Charlemagne (?) mounted on a horse holding a sword on marble base. 8 inches high.  Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Several gold reliquaries, including one in the form of a portrait bust of Charlemagne, were produced under later dynasties, especially after his canonization in the 12th century.

3.4.4 – The Wolf’s Door

Bronze also features in many decorative elements in Carolingian westwork of Aachen Cathedral. Known as the Wolf’s Door, the main entrance consists of heavy bronze leaves. Each leaf is divided into eight rectangles—a number that had religious symbolism in Christianity, as a symbol of Sunday, the day of the Resurrection. These boxes were framed by decorative strips, which are made of egg-shaped decorations. The egg was considered a symbol of life and fertility from antiquity. In Christian belief it was imbued with the even wider symbolism of Eternal Life. The door-rings in the shape of lions’ heads are wreathed by 24 stylized acanthus scrolls—again to be understood at the deepest level through numerology. The Wolf’s Door’s imitation of the shape of the ancient Roman temple door signifies Charlemagne’s claim to have established a New Rome in Aachen with the Palatine Chapel as the distinctive monumental building.

4 – The Ottonians

4.1 – Ottonian Painting in the Early European Middle Ages

The Ottonian Renaissance (951-1024) was a period of cultural and artistic achievement inspired by the revival of the Holy Roman Empire.

4.1.1 – Sculpture and Painting

Originally a ducal family from Saxony, the Ottonians (named after their first King Otto I the Great) seized power after the collapse of Carolingian rule in Europe and re-established the Holy Roman Empire. Ottonian rule was accompanied by renewed faith in the idea of imperium (Latin, roughly translated as “power to command”), referring to the sovereignty of state over individual). This coincided with a period of significant church reform. Both combined to create the Ottonian Renaissance (circa 951-1024), a period of heightened cultural and artistic fervor and achievement.

The Ottonian Dynasty desired to confirm a sacred Roman imperial lineage that connected them to the Christian rulers of Late Antiquity such as Theodoric and Justinian and to their Carolingian predecessors, particularly Charlemagne. Ottonian art reflected this desire, fusing traditions and influences from late Roman, Byzantine, and Carolingian art.

The style is generally grand and heavy, sometimes to excess, and initially less sophisticated than the Carolingian equivalents. Additionally, the Ottonian style exhibits no direct influence from Byzantine art and less understanding of its classical models. Surviving paintings from this period exist predominantly in illustrations from illuminated manuscripts and a small number of mural and fresco fragments. In fact, illuminated manuscripts are the best source of painted imperial portraiture from the Ottonian Renaissance.

4.1.2 – Ruler Portraits

Master of the Registrum GregoriiOtto II Enthroned (c. 985).: Ottonian art was created to confirm a direct Holy and Imperial lineage as a source of legitimized power linked from Constantine and Justinian.

Ottonian ruler portraits usually combine ancient Roman elements with contemporary (medieval) ones. Portraits are most frequently found in the dedicatory prefaces of illuminated manuscripts. Ottonian art eschews naturalism for a more abstract style, focusing on symbolism to convey deeply philosophical and theological concepts.

A portrait of Otto II enthroned depicts the emperor wearing a bejeweled crown in lieu of a laurel wreath and a large disc bearing the cross in place of an imperial orb. However, his upright posture and general pose with one raised hand somewhat recalls the Colossus of Constantine, which sat in the Basilica Nova in the fourth century. Likewise, his attire slightly resembles a Roman toga, a sartorial mainstay among emperors and senators of ancient times. In a departure from classical art, however, Otto and the figures who flank him appear flat. Further, their scale is hierarchical, which organizes size in relation to importance. Otto is the largest of the five figures depicted. Lastly, the architectural space that surrounds the emperor fails to convey a sense of naturalistic recession into space.

4.1.3 – Wall Paintings

Jesus and the Gadarene Swine (tenth century): Nave fresco in St George, Oberzell, Reichenau Island.

Although it is clear from records that many churches were decorated with extensive wall painting, surviving examples are extremely rare, usually fragmentary, and in poor condition. As a result, their dates of production are uncertain, especially since many have been restored. Most surviving examples are clustered in south Germany, although there are also important examples from northern Italy. There is a record of bishop Gebhard of Constance hiring lay artists for a now-vanished cycle at his newly founded Petershausen Abbey (983). Laymen may have dominated the art of wall painting, perhaps basing their designs on monastic illuminations. The artists seem to have been nomadic, regularly moving throughout Europe.

The church of St. George at Oberzell on Reichenau Island has the best-known surviving example of wall paintings. However, much of the original work has been lost, and the remaining paintings to the sides of the nave have suffered from time and restoration. The largest scenes show the miracles of Christ in a style that shows both specific Byzantine elements and similarity with Reichenau manuscripts such as the Munich Gospels of Otto III. They are therefore usually dated around 980–1000. Indeed, the paintings are one of the foundations of the case for Reichenau Abbey as a major center of manuscript painting.

4.2 – Ottonian Architecture in the Early European Middle Ages

Ottonian architecture flourished in the 10th and 11th centuries and drew inspiration from Carolingian and Byzantine architecture.

Originally a ducal family from Saxony, the Ottonians (named after their first king Otto I the Great) seized power after the collapse of Carolingian rule in Europe and re-established the Holy Roman Empire. Ottonian architecture first developed during the reign of Otto the Great (936 – 975 CE) and lasted until the mid-11th century. Surviving examples of this style of architecture are found today in Germany and Belgium.

Ottonian architecture chiefly drew its inspiration from Carolingian and Byzantine architecture and represents the absorption of classical Mediterranean and Christian architectural forms with Germanic styles. Some features foreshadow the development of Romanesque architecture, which emerged in the mid-11th century. Its balance and harmony are a remarkable reflection of the high regard in which the Ottonians held the mathematical sciences. This is evident in the modular planning, which bases the measurements of each component of the interior on a single square unit multiplied or divided accordingly.

Plan of a typical Western basilican church: The arrow at the left marks the entrance to the church. Main seating for worshipers is located in the nave, while the aisles were originally used to accommodate large crowds on feast days. As churches began collecting relics (housed in the chapels) that attracted pilgrims, churches added the ambulatory. This connects the aisles to the chapels behind the choir, where clergy members perform their rituals.

Barring a few examples influenced by the octagonal Palatine Chapel built by Charlemagne in Aachen, Ottonian religious architecture tends to diverge from the model of the central-plan church, drawing inspiration instead from the Roman (Western) basilica. This typically consisted of a long central nave with an aisle at each side and an apse at one end. When adopted by early Christians, the basilica plan assumed a transept perpendicular to the nave, forming a cruciform shape to commemorate the Crucifixion.

Plan of St. Cyriakus at Gernrode: This plan shows the apse at both the west and east ends of the church, with a single transept dividing the nave from the east apse. The black circles and rectangles between the nave and each aisle mark the alternating columns (circles) and piers (rectangles).

The Ottonians adopted the Carolingian double-ended variation on the Roman basilica, featuring apses at the east and west ends of the church rather than just the east. Most Ottonian churches make generous use of the round arch, have flat ceilings, and insert massive rectangular piers between columns in regular patterns, as seen in St. Cyriakus at Gernrode and St. Michael’s at Hildesheim.

  

[LEFT]: Church of St. Cyriakus, Gernrode, exterior: St. Cyriakus is one of the few surviving examples of Ottonian architecture and combines Carolingian elements with innovations that anticipated Romanesque architecture.
[RIGHT]: St. Cyriakus, interior : The painted ceilings were added during the 19th-century renovation, which also lined most of the walls with cut stone panels. The original Ottonian walls featured rough quarry stone masonry.

One of the finest surviving examples of Ottonian architecture is St. Cyriakus Church (960-965) in Gernrode, Germany. The central body of the church has a nave with two aisles flanked by two towers, characteristic of Carolingian architecture . However, it also displays novelties anticipating Romanesque architecture, including the alternation of pillars and columns (a common feature in later Saxon churches), semi-blind arcades in galleries on the nave, and column capitals decorated with stylized acanthus leaves and human heads.

  

[LEFT]: St. Michael’s Church at Hildesheim (1010-1031).: Unlike the Romanesque churches that would follow, Ottonian churches like St. Michael’s had two apses (visible at the right and left ends of this photograph) and two transepts that divided each apse from the central nave area.
[RIGHT]: St. Michael’s at Hildesheim, interior facing east.: Major differences between St. Michael’s and St. Cyriakus are the clerestory windows in place of galleries and one pier placed after each pair of columns. The round arches at the east end of the divide the nave from the crossing and the crossing from the apse.

St. Michael’s at Hildesheim (1010-1031) is one of the most important Ottonian churches, a double-choir basilica with two transepts and a square tower at each crossing . This layout can be seen from the exterior of the building. The west choir is emphasized by an ambulatory and a crypt . Adhering to the Ottonian appreciation for mathematics, the ground plan of the building follows a geometric concept in which the square of the transept crossing in the ground plan constitutes the key measuring unit for the entire church. The square units are defined by the alternation of columns and piers. Unlike St. Cyriakus, St. Michael’s lacks a second-story gallery. However, ample light enters through a row of clerestory windows placed above the arcades dividing the name from the aisles.

4.3 – Ottonian Metalwork in the Early European Middle Ages

Ottonian metalwork ranged from jewel-encrusted objects of precious metals to large-scale bronze reliefs of stylized yet dramatic figures.

4.3.1 – Introduction

The Ottonians were renowned for their metalwork, producing bejeweled book covers and massive bronze church doors with relief carvings depicting biblical scenes, a process so complex that it would not be repeated until the Renaissance . Fine, small-scale metal sculpture flourished and exquisite book covers made of ivory and embellished with gems, enamels , crystals, and cameos were produced during this period.

4.3.2 – The Cross of Lothair

Many of the finest examples of the crux gemmata (jeweled cross) date from Ottonian rule. These wooden crosses were encased in carved gold and silver and encrusted with jewels and engraved gems. Arguably the finest of these Ottonian jeweled crosses is the Cross of Lothair, dating from around 1,000 and housed in the Aachen Cathedral . The cross takes its name from the large engraved green rock crystal seal near its base , which bears the portrait and name of the Carolingian ruler Lothair II, King of Lotharingia (835-869). The cross was actually commissioned over a century later for Otto III, the Holy Roman Emperor . The cross bears a cameo of the great Roman emperor Augustus Caesar on one side and an engraving of the crucifixion of Jesus on the other. The cross thus represents both church and state in keeping with the Ottonian agenda, and connects the Ottonian emperors to the original Roman emperors.

The Cross of Lothair (c. 1000): An example of the prestigious metalwork of the time. The front shows a cameo of the emperor Augustus.

The cross also depicts the Hand of God holding a wreath containing a dove representing the Holy Spirit in the crucifixion scene. This is the earliest-known appearance of the dove motif and the introduction of the entire Trinity into the crucifixion, iconography that has been repeated for centuries.

4.3.3 – The Codex Aureus of Echternach

Codex Aureus of Echternach (c. 980s): Front cover of the Codex.

Ottonian relief figures from treasure bindings and cast sculptures are often more stylized yet more dramatic than their restrained Carolingian counterparts. The cover of the Codex Aureus of Echternach (1030-1050) dates from about 50 years before the manuscript. The metalwork is attributed to the Trier workshop set up by Egbert, Archbishop of Trier. It centers on an ivory plaque showing the Crucifixion. Surrounding the ivory plaque are panels with figures in repoussé gold relief. The style of the metal reliefs differ significantly from the central plaque. These panels are set in a framework with larger elements made up of alternating units of gold filigree set with gems and cloisonné enamel with stylized plant motifs. Thinner gold bands set with small pearls run along the diagonal axes, further separating the relief images into compartments and creating an “X” that may stand for “Christ.” The figures are produced in an elegant elongated style that contrasts strongly with the forceful and slightly squat figures of the ivory.

4.3.4 – Bronze Sculptures in Hildesheim

Ottonian metalwork also includes objects produced from non-precious metals. The most famous of these is the pair of church doors, the Bernward Doors, commissioned by Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim. They contain biblical scenes from the Gospels and the Book of Genesis in bronze relief, each cast in a single piece. These powerfully simple compositions convey their meanings by emphatic gestures, a hallmark of the Ottonian style.

Bernward Doors, St. Mary’s Cathedral at Hildesheim (c. 1015): These bronze doors bear relief sculptures depicting the history of humanity from Adam to Christ.

The figures on the Bernward Doors feature a progressive style of relief, leaning out from the background instead of extending a uniform distance. A particularly apt example of this is the figure of Mary with the baby Jesus in the depiction of the Adoration of the Magi. While her lower body is still in low relief, her upper body and Christ project out further and her head and shoulders are cast in the round . This unusual style was used for artistic reasons, not because of technical limitations.

Another striking Ottonian metal sculpture from is the Bernward Column (c. 1000), named for the same patron as the Bernward Doors. Produced for St. Michael’s Cathedral in Hildesheim, the column depicts images from the life of Jesus arranged in a helix similar to Trajan’s Column. Just as Roman victory columns depict the military deeds of the Emperor in an upward spiraling frieze , the Bernward Column depicts the peaceful deeds of Christ from his baptism at the Jordan to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

Bernward Column (c. 1000): Bernward had this victory column cast from bronze in conscious imitation of Trajan’s column and the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome.

The column is significant for the vitality of the figural relief, which is unusual for its time. The relief complements the Bernward Doors. Both artworks reflect Bernward’s efforts to put his seat in the position of northern Rome in the context of the Ottonian Dynasty’s renewed Christian Roman Empire. They also emphasize Christ as a model of just and godly kingship for the rulers. For this reason, the execution of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas is given a great deal of space.

4.4 – Ottonian Illustrated Books in the Early European Middle Ages

4.4.1 – Introduction

Ottonian monasteries produced lavish illuminated manuscripts under the sponsorship of emperors, bishops, and other wealthy patrons.

The Ottonian Renaissance (circa 951 – 1024 BCE) coincided with a period of reform and growth in the church, providing an impetus for the production of religious art .

4.4.2 – The Illuminated Manuscript

One of the most important art forms of the period was the illuminated manuscript, one in which the text is supplemented by ornamentation in the form of colored initials, decorative borders, and miniature illustrations, sometimes with the addition of gold and silver leaf. Ottonian monasteries produced some of the most magnificent medieval illuminated manuscripts, working with the best equipment and talent under the direct sponsorship of emperors, bishops, and other wealthy patrons.

The manuscripts produced by Ottonian scriptoria (monastic centers for copying texts) provide invaluable documentation of contemporary, religious, and political customs as well as the stylistic preferences of the period. The most richly illuminated manuscripts were used for display and were most liturgical books, including psalters, gospel books, and large, complete Bibles. These lavish manuscripts sometimes include a dedication portrait commemorating the book’s creation in which the patron is usually depicted presenting the book to the chosen saint. Colored initials, borders, and marginalia also contain miniature portraits and other decorative emblems and motifs. Illuminated manuscripts were enclosed in ornate metal book covers decorated with gems and ivory carvings.

4.4.3 – Presentation Portraits

Master of the Reichenau School. Munich Gospels of Otto III (c. 1000): Depiction of Roma, Gallia, Germania, and Sclavinia paying homage to Otto III, from the Munich Gospels of Otto III, one of the Liuthar Group.

Following late Carolingian styles , presentation portraits of the patrons of manuscripts are very prominent in Ottonian art. Much Ottonian art reflected the dynasty’s desire to establish a visual link to the Christian rulers of Late Antiquity such as Theodoric and Justinian as well as to their Carolingian predecessors, particularly Charlemagne. For example, Ottonian ruler portraits typically include elements with a long imperial history as iconography , such as province personifications, or representatives of the military and the Church flanking the emperor.

4.4.4 – Famous Artists and Scriptoria

Codex Egberti: The dedicatory page of the Codex Egberti. The portrait is done in purple and gold and says “Egbertus” on top.

Among the greatest artists of the Ottonian period was the anonymous Master of the Registrum Gregorii, who worked chiefly in Trier in the 970s to 980s. He derived his title from the miniatures in the Registrum Gregorii (a collection of letters by Pope Gregory the Great) and the Codex Egberti, a famous gospel lectionary manuscript, both for Archbishop Egbert of Trier (circa 950-993). However, most of the 51 images in the Codex Egberti, which represented events in the life of Christ, were made by two monks in the Benedictine monastery on the island of Reichenau on Lake Constance. Reichenau housed a scriptorium and artists’ workshop that was one of the largest and most influential in Europe during the late 10th and early 11th centuries. It became famous for its style of gospel illustration in liturgical books. Other famous scriptoria of the Ottonian age were found at the monasteries of Corvey, Hildesheim, and Regensburg, and the cathedral cities of Trier and Cologne.

Master of the Reichenau School. Annunciation to the ShepherdsAnnunciation to the Shepherds from the Pericopes of Henry II, Liuthar Group of the Reichenau School.

The Pericopes of Henry II (1002-1012) is a luxurious medieval illuminated manuscript made for Henry II, the last Ottonian Holy Roman Emperor . The manuscript is a product of the Liuthar Circle of illuminators, who worked in the monastery at Reichenau. The style of the Liuthar Group departs further from classical traditions. Its figures are flattened, stylized , and have exaggerated gestures. Backgrounds are often composed of bands of color with a symbolic rather than naturalistic rationale. As with depictions of Otto II and Otto III, figures’ scale is relative to importance, not based on reality. For example, the Annunciation to the Shepherds depicts the angel as the largest and thus most important figure, followed by humans and animals, as was the commonly accepted belief in Christendom at the time. Manuscripts from the Liuthar Group introduced the gold background to Western illumination, a characteristic that would remain common until the Italian Renaissance.


Provided by Boundless, published by Lumen Learning under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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