From Carolingian to Romanesque Art



Late antique forms were revived under Charlemagne and continued in the art of the
Ottoman empire, which incorporated many Byzantine traditions. However, it was not
until the 11th century, when the influence of the monasteries at Cluny and Monte Cassino
spread along the pilgrimage routes, that a truly new style- the Romanesque— developed.


The history of the Carolingian dynasty is inextricably linked to the evolution of early medieval civilization in western Europe. Inaugurated by the coronation of Pepin the Short in ad751, the dynasty was eventually sent into decline by the division of the empire following the death of Charlemagne (ad742-814), whose aim of re-establishing a Roman empire involved a revival of the classical styles. With the lack of a central influence, the migrations of barbarian people brought a panorama of cultural change and a confusion of styles. However, as the)" gradually came under the influence of the burgeoning Christian culture, so this confusion of styles was gradually replaced by a trend towards unity and harmony, the like of which had not been experienced since the golden age of the Roman Empire.

Carolingian Art

The relationship between the Carolingien Empire and the Church was of great significance and proved to have a decisive effect on the development of artistic and architectural styles. During the course of the eighth century, the Church became involved in settling the regular clergy in monastic institutions. These monasteries were the subject of new architectural norms, often sanctioned and funded directly by those in power. This policy helped to create a close bond between sacred worship, imperial ceremony, architectural design, and religious furnishings. It aimed to communicate the idea that earthly events and imperial guidance were linked with historical destiny. One such example of this is the apocalyptic image of the Heavenly Jerusalem - the exemplary image of human history being redeemed by Christ - which was modelled onto silver incense burners (censers). It was also a dominant feature of the crown of the Holy Roman Empire and appeared on the pages of illuminated manuscripts, written in the clear, elegant Carolingian minuscule script. The most important innovations of Carolingian church architecture were clearly influenced by the idea of joining church and empire in a single enterprise. The most notable examples were the westworks: these fortresslike towers found at the west end of Carolingian churches were designed partly to accommodate the emperor when he attended solemn religious functions.

Lothair Cross, late tenth century.
Cathedral Treasury, Aachen, Germany.
The treasury also contains an ivory
diptych from about ad800



Plan of the votive chapel of San Satiro,
 Bishopric of Ansperto, Milan,
c. ad868-81

The importance of the crypt also increased, chiefly as a result of the growth of the cult of saints.
This underground chamber was where relics were often kept, and it was used as both burial place and place of worship. Architectural space was apportioned in both square and circular forms, the latter echoing the Anastasis Rotunda (or Church of the Holy Sepulchre) in Jerusalem. It is found in Saint Riquier at Centula, the votive chapel of San Satiro, Milan, and the Palatine Chapel of Aachen (although this last was most strongly influenced by the octagonal plan of the San Vitale in Ravenna). The sheer scale of the Carolingian vision had much in common with the ambitions of grandeur that dominated the Roman world. Indeed, Charlemagne's decision to restore the imagery of the Roman Empire at all levels was a striking feature of the was a striking feature of the new culture, and several works attest to the way in which classical forms permeated the new religious and imperial ideals. These include the reliquary of Einhard, Charlemagne's biographer and minister, in the form of a triumphal arch; the Corinthian capitals of the abbey of Lorch; the transepts of Aachen; and the architecture portrayed in paintings in the Grandval Bible (British Library, London). In fact, chronicles actually report that items of classical origin were brought directly from Ravenna to Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle). Charlemagne's capital and the coronation city of German kings (936-1531). Whereas Irish and Merovingian illuminated manuscripts had previously contained material of deliberate fantasy and abstraction - as exemplified by the Book of Durrow (Trinity College, Dublin) and the Codex Aureus (Canterbury) -the art of Charlemagne's court veered towards a style of classical, realistic representation. This style was used to adorn walls and to commemorate past events rather than encourage spiritual feelings. The classical mood was strongly evoked in the Gospel Book of St Medard of Soissons (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) and in that of Lothair (emperor of the Holy Roman Empire ad840-55). A lively narrative spirit infuses the crowds of characters in the pages of the Utrecht Psalter (University Library, Utrecht) - the greatest example of early medieval drawing - and the Bible of Charles the Bald (San Paolo Fuori le Mura, Rome).

Plan of the abbey of St Gallen.
Stiftsbibliothek, St Gallen, Switzerland


Bronze grating,
from the Palatine Chapel, Aachen, Germany, c.ad800

Odo of Metz, Palatine Chapel,
Aachen, Germany,

The atmosphere of the court was such that it was clearly receptive to new ideas and initiatives. Works such as the Coronation Gospels and the Ebbo Gospels (Municipal Library, Epernay) from the important Rheims School provide evidence that, by the first decades of the ninth century, access to classical painting was paving the way for a vibrant and powerfully expressive form of graphic art. The break with the Byzantine world, which was attributed to Charlemagne's imperial claims, proved only temporary when, in ad827, the fourth- or fifth-century mystical writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, a Syrian monk, influenced the court of Louis the Pious. These works, later translated into Latin by Johannes Scotus Erigena. introduced Neo-Platonic ideas, which stated that visible form is not fashioned for its own sake but intended as an image of invisible beauty. This principle was to have a lasting effect on the aesthetics of the medieval Christian world.

Ebbo Gospels: St Mark, ninth century.
Municipal Library, Epernay

Details of two Stories of the Saint,
from the gold altar,
Sant'Ambrogio, Milan, AD824-59

Apocalypse of Saint Sever, Christ hands the Gospel to Luke,
Albigensian School, 1028-1072.
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris


The tendency towards a narrative style also influenced wall-painting and transformed the fresco cycles into painted sermons with the introduction of instructive titles and captions. There were also secular cycles and allegorical representations, as seen in the villa of Theodulf of Orleans and in the palace at Aachen. Some evidence has shown that Greek fresco painters also contributed to these works, perhaps as a result of the general traffic of trade in the Adriatic.
 The barbarian taste for precious materials and technical skills managed to survive and be incorporated in Carolingian art; this resulted in the creation of masterpieces of gold and ivory work. The liturgical reforms proved profitable for artists and their pupils, who were now more responsive to both classical ideas and the practicalities of their art. The golden altar of Sant'Ambrogio in Milan, "signed" by Vuolvinius and commissioned by Angilbert II, bears astonishing testimony to the power with which the metallic splendour of gold could enhance a narrative. The precious mounting of filigree and enamel relates the iconographie messages perfectly. Similar comments could apply to the ivory covers of The Psalter of Charles the Bald (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris), the Lorsch Gospel Book (Vatican Library, Rome), the "Pax" of Chiavenna, Italy, and the amazing "Lothair crystal", now in the British Museum.


Adam and Eve from the Bible of Charles the Bald.
San Paolo Fuori le Mura, Rome

Gospel Book of St Medard of Soissons, the Source of Life.
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris


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