39 Art, Architecture, and Military and Technological Developments

Art and Architecture


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. (102)


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 withengaged 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. (103)

Picture of the three-arched entrance way leading to the courtyard of Lord Abbey.
Figure 8-12: Carolingian gatehouse of Lorsch Abbey by Matthias Holländer Heyde is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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 domeserves 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.

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.

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. (103)

Image of a stone walkway leading up to the entrance way of Corvey Abbey. The Abbey is symmetrical in shape, with extended steeples on both outside walls of the site.
Figure 8-13: a stone walkway leading up to the entrance way of Corvey Abbey by Aeggy is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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. (103)

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. (104)

Floor plan of St. Cyriakus at Gernrode depicting the nave and the two arcades on both ends of the facility.
Figure 8-14: Floor plan of St. Cyriakus at Gernrode by Georg Dehio/Gustav von Bezold is licensed under Public Domain
Image of the exterior of St. Cyriakus, Gernrode. From this perspective, the viewer sees the round arcade of the cathedral and the two steeples above it.
Figure 8-15: Exterior of St. Cyriakus, Gernrode by Hejkal is licensed under CC BY 2.0 Germany
Image of St. Cyriakus from the interior. From this vantage, the viewer shares the perspective of the chancel, looking into the navel of the cathedral and in image of the heavenly Christ within the gallery of the rear arcade.
Figure 8-16: St. Cyriakus from the interior by RomkeHoekstra is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0


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.

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. The Bible has a gold-laden cover and the corner of the book has been bejeweled. At the center of the codex is a raised image of a seated Christ.
Figure 8-17: Cover of the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München is licensed under Public Domain

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 thePaliotto , 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, andenamel (105)

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. (105)

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 12 th century. (105)

Statue of a Carolingian king, possibly Charlemagne, riding on horseback and carrying a sword in his right hand and a royal orb in his left hand (c. 870)
Figure 8-18: Statue of Charlemagne mounted on a horse holding a sword, on marble base by Charles Marville is licensed under Public Domain

The Ottonians were also 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. (106)

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).

Picture of the Cross of Lothair (c. 1000). The wooden cross is laden in gold and bejeweled in center. The center of the cross has a depiction of the Carolingian ruler Lothair.
Figure 8-19: Cross of Lothair by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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 also depicts the Hand of God holding a wreath containing a dove representing the Holy Spirit uction of the entire Trinity into the crucifixion, iconography that has been repeated for centuries.

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. (106)

Image of the Codex Aureus of Echternach. The Bible has a gold-plated cover with an illustration of the crucifixion carved in ivory at its very center.
Figure 8-20: Codex Aureus of Echternach by Zinneke at Luxembourgish Wikipedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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. (106)

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. (106)

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.
Figure 8-21: Bernward Doors by Bischöfliche Pressestelle Hildesheim (bph) is licensed under Public Domain

Military and Technological Developments

During the later Roman Empire, the principal military developments had to do with attempts to create an effective cavalry force as well as the continued development of highly specialized types of troops. The creation of cataphract-type soldiers was an important feature of 5 th century Roman military developments. The various invading tribes had differing emphasis on types of soldiers — ranging from the primarily infantry Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain to the Vandals and Visigoths which had a high percentage of cavalry in their armies.

Image from an illuminated manuscript, the Skylitzes manuscript in Madrid, showing Greek fire in use against a fleet of enemies.
Figure 8-22: The Skylitzes manuscript in Madrid by unknown artist is licensed under Public Domain

During the early invasion period, the stirrup had not been introduced into warfare, which limited the usefulness of cavalry as shock troops, but not to the extent that has generally been proclaimed. It was still possible for cavalry to use shock tactics in battle, especially when the saddle was built up in front and back to allow greater support to the rider. The greatest changes in military affairs during the invasion was the adoption of the Hunnic composite bow in place of the earlier, and weaker, Scythian composite bow. Another development of the invasion period was the increasing use of longswords and the decrease in the use of scale armor and the increasing use of mail amour and lamellar armor.

During the early Carolingian period, a decline in the importance of infantry and light cavalry began, with a corresponding dominance of military events by the elite. The use of militia-type levies of the free population declined over the Carolingian period. Although much of the Carolingian armies were mounted, a large proportion during the early period appear to have been mounted infantry, rather than true cavalry. One exception was Anglo-Saxon England, where the armies were still composed of local levies, known as the fyrd, which were led by the local elites. In military technology, one of the main change was the return of the crossbow, which had previously been known in Roman times, but reappeared as a military weapon during the last part of the Early Middle Ages. Another great change was the introduction of the stirrup, which allowed the more effective use of cavalry as shock troops. One final technological change that had implications beyond the military was the horseshoe, which allowed horses to be used in rocky terrain. (101)


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