Summary of the Carolingian arts

Art, and the talk about art, reflect the culture that produces it. This was as true for the Carolingians as it is for us today.

This particular post won’t be going into all the arguments about the relative merits of the Hiberno-Anglo school of manuscript production compared to the Carolingian court school. That is for a later day. This post will be a simple summary of the types of art produced in the 8th century, and a few words about them.

First of all, as with all things early medieval, there is not a lot to work with. Most anything made of wood or cloth has not survived, which means we are missing out on those items which are cheapest and most easy to produce. Anything easy to produce would probably have reflected views not always sanctioned by the abbots, counts, and kings of the day. Thus the art we have reflects an elite or official view of the world, but it is what we have.

When most people think of “art” they think of paintings, or frescoes – portraits, religious scenes, and battles, hanging on (or a part of) a wall or ceiling. Some Carolingian structures were decorated with frescoes, such as the church at Ingelheim which had scenes from the bible on one wall, and scenes from the church fathers and the Pippinids on the other.1.As described by the early 9th century poet Ermoldus Nigellus, and translated in David, Early Medieval Art, pp.84 – 88. Unfortunately virtually nothing has survived, which is truly a pity, because the author of the Libri Carolini (Caroline Books) states, “in painting, much that is false, wicked, foolish and unsuitable can be found, and to pass over particular examples, almost everything either possible or impossible has been depicted by learned painters.”2.Davis-Weyer, Early Medieval Art, p.103. Sounds like fun.

The second thing that usually comes to mind is statuary of some kind, and here we get a little closer. The craft of marble sculpture did not make it into northern Europe, but carving in stone and other materials is in evidence. One of the more popular materials was ivory, and there are a number of examples of elephant ivory book covers. The covers usually illustrate some kind of biblical scene, because most books were bibles, or contained Christian material like saints’ lives. There is also carving in stone, in bas relief on the side of a burial box, rather than in the round like a statue.

This lack of “big” art is not happenstance.

[T]here was in the countries north of the Alps an artistic tradition of long standing, largely the heritage of the Migration Period (about 400-600). This Northern art was opposed to Mediterranean art in almost every respect. Associated in its origins with wandering and warlike tribes without fixed abode, it was almost entirely confined to portable objects, such as personal ornaments, weapons, and implements of daily use. It did not include immovable objects such as stone buildings, fresco paintings, mosaics and monumental sculptures. Goldsmiths’ work, enameling, the casting of small bronze objects, and bone carving were the crafts in which the Northern artists excelled.3.Kitzinger, Early Medieval Art, p.36.

Merovingian ring
Gold Merovingian ring with garnets and tourquoise

Jewelry is considered one of the “minor arts,” and there is some available, even after twelve centuries of looting, loss, and various depredations. Jewelry was transportable, and thus more suited to the less-settled lifestyle of an earlier age, as mentioned above. Pieces are small, gold, and set with rough cut gemstones. Rings, brooches, pins, and belt buckles are most prevalent, with deep maroon garnets being a favorite stone.

The crown jewel of early medieval art is manuscript illumination. From the amazing intricacy of the famed Book of Kells (Irish) to the flowing robes and natural figures of the Carolingian court school of the late 8th century, manuscript illumination offers us a pageant of color and style. It is easy to spot the melding and merging of the traditional northern and southern artistic styles in manuscripts. Figures (from the southern influence) mix with rich pseudo-architectural designs (the northern influence) into a new style, a hallmark of the “Carolingian renaissance.” In later manuscripts the colors become brighter, the figures less constrained in the page, architectural elements are included, and expressions become more intense.4.Hollander, Early Medieval Art, p.51.

There is one aspect of the early medieval arts that caught my eye, and that is the possibility that those intricate loops and geometry may have meant more than just a pretty picture.

It is quite possible that primitive and contemporary forms of magic played a part in the designs. Interlace and knotwork were used for a long time, probably until the Romanesque period, as symbols to banish demons. The richly decorated stemposts, mainpieces, and planks of Viking ships, which had patterns closely resembling those of Hiberno-Saxon work, were held to be talsimans against sea spirits and evil powers… Certainly we can suppose faith in the power of these desings to banish evil, because such beliefs were stil widely held… There are obvious formal links, but historical sources give insufficient evidence that demon-banishing patterns were consciously used by Christians in the early Middle Ages, although they were widely current in the heathen districts, and, in areas that became Christianized, their use continued.5.Hollander, Early Medieval Art, p.23.

Personally I love the idea that a gospel book was inscribed with magical patterns, and a viking stempost was imbued with powers to subdue and cow the ocean spirits.

There is an odd gap in the artistic record, from the end of the 7th century to the end of the 8th. I have not been able to find any artistic examples of any kind during this period, not even examples labeled as poor quality, derivative, imitative, etc. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has a nice little slideshow of early medieval pieces that span those centuries, but there is nothing from the first two-thirds of the 8th century.

We have to make the most of what we do have, and appreciate these works for what they are, the windows into the souls of their makers.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. As described by the early 9th century poet Ermoldus Nigellus, and translated in David, Early Medieval Art, pp.84 – 88.
2. Davis-Weyer, Early Medieval Art, p.103.
3. Kitzinger, Early Medieval Art, p.36.
4. Hollander, Early Medieval Art, p.51.
5. Hollander, Early Medieval Art, p.23.

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