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Carolingian Art: Revival and Sacred Architecture!

Carolingian art is named in this way in honor of Charles Martel father of Pepin the short,first king of France who in turn will be the father of Charles the Great which will become first emperor of Carolingian Empire that is to say the first emperor of the West from the fall of Rome. Carolingian art is placed commonly between decline of Late Antique and Romanesque which means within the Early Middle Ages.The birth and development is linked to the birth of Carolingian Empire which was imbued by a strong religioSITY so much that later it will be called Holy Roman Empire.Besides religious a great motivation towards a new art was given by word “renovatio” which means rebirth and even then it was used to find a common cohesion and cultural heritage into empire made up of peoples very different from each other.

Religion was not the only element who shaped carolingian art even though it was undoubtedly very important but there was even a rediscovery of roman classical art and a need to give up barbaric art which was characterized by a great abstractionism and therefore it was not suitable to educational and propaganda needs. Carolingian empire had two important allies: Catholic Church and Benedictine Order which promoted the building of several abbeys. A distinctive character of carolingian art ,but which nevertheless was common to all Middle Ages,was the reuse of materials of the Late Roman period as well as paleochristian one. The era of Charles the Great was the most prosperous from the construction and architectural point of view evidenced by the building of no less than 75 palaces,7 cathedrals and something like 232 monasteries in 46 years of reign,really an incredible feat. All this irresitible urge to build could be explained by two factors: the first of a practical nature since were needed buildings in order to administer the empire and the second to show off imperial grandeur to the subjects.

One of the innovations introduced by carolingian art was “the westwork“,literally central body which was a multy-storey bulding placed in front of entrance of church. We can admire an intact example about such innovation is the Corvey Abbey in the nothern Rhineland. The westwork had an atrium covered by vaults from which you could access to the naves of the church and on the two upper floors you could find a large hall in the centre than in its turn was surrounded by galleries; in the great hall was placed the throne of emperor and usually took place liturgies and cerimonies.

Clearly religious architecture was the master in all history of carolingian empire and especially during the era of Charles the Great who made use of churches, abbeys and cathedrals also to emphasize the Christianization of empire as well as to unify and strengthen his power, even though it should be added that the building of monasteries and abbeys occured on the basis of Roman models which were resumed and updated.

Unluckly in carolingian period painting of high quality has been lost indeed have come to us very few examples,that because of their rarity are of a great importance.Among these survived paintings we need to mention frescoes of the crypt of Saint Germain d’Auxerre in France,whose date was placed between 847 and 857 but ridiscovered only in 1927. In such frescoes we can notice architectonic decorations,probably recoveries from fake architecture of Roman period,and scenes of Saints. Other cycles of frescoes we need to remember are those of church of Saint Benedict in Malles which consist on two stylized portraits about founders of the church while in the church of Saint Procolo in Naturno survive some frescoes of the 9th century characterized by a bidimensional linearity. There would be another cycle of frescoes rediscovered in the church of Saint Mary foris portas in Castelseprio but art historians are not so sure to assign them to the carolingian period.

On the contrary of very few finds about wall painting there are many carolingian miniature survived.In fact books played a vital importance for the empire since they were a means for spreading written laws and to recover ancient wisdom. The emperors themselves were large customers of books and perhaps for this reason they have been preserved so many till nowadays. The first phase which saw the presence of miniature on manuscripts was the one of monastery of Corbie to the north of Paris where we can notice a good balance between image and text. However the second phase was the one lauched by client of Luis the Pious son of Charles the Great, in which it was tried to recover and replicate ancient styles.There was even a third phase of dubious origin maybe from Reims in which you can notice a great expressive vitality highly innovative.

Example of carolingian miniature

Carolingian sculpture was expressed in many forms among which bronze with whom were often creates equestrian statues and other subjects. Sumptuary arts,that is the processing of precious metals,had a big boost due to the success of military campaigns in which were accumulated huge treasures which then often were bestowed to basilicas,cathedrals and abbeys. One of the most precious material was ivory which was worked with great mastery both to create polypthycs and to create plates to apply to books and other objects. In carolingian period flourished again glittal art and in particular the processing of rock crystal that is a variety of quartz completely colorless. Carolingian artists reached highest levels in the processing of this peculiar precious stone which was shelved with the fall of Western Roman Empire. Even the field of goldsmith churned out masterpieces as altar of Saint Ambrose preserved perfectly in the basilica of Milan.


Carolingian art was for sure imbued with a great religiosity a bit like paleochristian art and byzantine one but it stood out from them mainly in the field of architecture with the construction of several abbeys,monasteries and cathedrals which were in turn decorated with wall paintings religious-themed that sadly have been lost for the major part. In all carolingian period there was an attempt to recover roman classicism as well as an artistic,cultural and moral rebirth imbued of Christianism which had the task to stand up both to art and barbaric society which were cleverly embedded in the glorious carolingian empire.

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