The Carolingian Renaissance
Written by Alfonso Elizondo
Created on Monday, October 17, 2016, 9:11
Charlemagne was king of the Franks from 768, and was later crowned emperor in 800. His reign ended with the death of his son Ludovico Pio in 840. His kingdom extended over Germany, Switzerland, Austria, plus Belgium, the Netherlands (Nederland) and Luxembourg. Finally it also took in a part of Italy. The Carolingian Renaissance occurred when Charlemagne claimed hegemony over Rome, and especially the Old Roman Empire with two basic ideas: to expand the Christian faith and to elevate Culture to higher than the then- current levels.
That was when he transformed the city of Aachen in western Germany into the most important cultural center in his kingdom and asked for the support of the Church and the most influential people to strengthen his political power. He assumed a double role by linking religion with politics, as had his predecessor Justinian, so that clerics carried out administrative functions of the Imperial State.
It was then that Culture left the walls of monasteries with the creation of cathedral schools which included the palace of Aachen itself. Libraries were founded with books coming primarily from Spain, Italy and Ireland. A palace was built at Aachen consisting of a set of political and religious edifices built in the last decade of the eighth century and continuing to be built until Charlemagne’s death in 814. This palace was the center of literary activities and the palace school educated the sons of the emperor and the children of the aristocracy who later served the monarchy.
What is known as Carolingian art are the artistic works produced in the territories ruled by the Carolingian dynasty, from the mid-eighth century until the last three decades of the ninth century during the reigns of Pepin and Charles the Bald. Carolingian art became a propaganda tool and provided new perspectives for Western art which seemed to be in decline. This was followed by a period of flowering when a distinct architectural style started to emerge.
With artists from Ravenna and the influence of Byzantine architecture, a new and ambitious project was developed with the use of materials such as marble, stone and wood together with the remains of ancient buildings. The main buildings were monasteries, palaces and crypts such as the Church of the Abbey of Corvey, the crypt of St. Germain of Auxerre, the Episcopal Group of churches in Metz, the Abbey Church of Saint-Riquier and several others. These buildings were influenced by Romanesque art, with their many interconnected apses, the bond stone arches (the structural type), the transept with what is called the lantern tower, and wooden towers. The 'ambulatory' was also created and it consisted of a passage behind the altar that extended along the lateral aisles of the churches.
The visual arts treated both religious and secular themes. Based on the models of classical antiquity and Byzantine art, the main character sat on a long, comfortable bench located in the center of the picture. This placement created symmetry between two columns under a semi-circular arch. Two plants at both ends bordered the arch and served as an aesthetic frame for a kind of window similar to those on a theater stage, which gave the impression that they could be closed at any moment and that the character was waiting for someone to open them again.
The character’s attire consisted of a classic tunic which appeared stiff and rigid like the character’s face and gaze. This showed that his thoughts were concentrated on writing. His right arm with a pen in his hand was outstretched and resting on a small column for support. His left arm held the book in which he was writing his text. Around his head was a halo and a bird whose outspread wings in front of a sun with a hint of little rays represented a halo at the top. Warm colors, like red are dominant, and cold colors like green and blue, while the earth tones were designed to match the color of the marble columns and arches. The bottom was completely flat with a separating drape in the middle part of the composition, showing that there was only one blue sky blue on top and a green floor at the bottom serving as a point of support.
Although the Carolingian Empire lasted only a century, it created a great legacy, not only through its works of art, but also through the imperial spirit of some societies that see the glorification of divine power as the only way forward politically and economically, forgetting that the essence of man is not only matter, but also spirit. This has given rise to a paradox: if in early Christianity, matter – that is, the body - was suppressed to allow the spirit to reign, whereas now it is exactly the opposite, it is hard to understand the purpose served by this long struggle that has been ongoing for more than ten centuries and still has not come to an end.
Addendum: It is likely that the aesthetic dimension of Carolingian art has been very limited, compared with the art of Western Europe, but there is no doubt that the profound political, religious and social dimension that it instituted is still operating.