Carolingian Manuscript Illumination

Eric Ramírez-Weaver

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online July 2012 | | DOI:
Carolingian Manuscript Illumination

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
  • Literary Studies (Early and Medieval)
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  • Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400)
  • Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology


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Away from home during his fourth journey to Rome and in celebration of Christmas Day at the end of the year 800, Charlemagne made his way to Old St. Peter’s basilica at the Vatican Hill. When Pope Leo III (795–816) universally acknowledged the Frankish king from north of the Alps as the emperor of the Romans, not only did Leo recognize and legitimize the interdependence of sacred and secular authority mutually shared by the two leaders. Leo III also gave his imprimatur to the renovatio underway throughout the Frankish lands. Carolingian manuscript illuminations reveal alternatively their emphasis upon a return to classical or Italo-Byzantine illusionism in certain figures and spaces, the decorative refinement of their interlace, the masterful pursuit of the decorative and narrative potential of the historiated initial, and an extensive experimental range of calligraphic or painterly pictorial styles. This diversity of artistic output documents more than a renewal of classical and late Antique pictorial precedents. The vast array of image types and styles of spatial organization reveal instead the inventive legacy of an artistic period in which the foundations not only of medieval but future Western art forms take root. As crafted confessions of Christian piety and the sacred interpretation of the liberal arts, the illustrated codices of the Carolingian era supply a living witness to the sedulous efforts of clerics, scribes, and imported savants from abroad at creating a new Christian culture in central Europe. This curious Frankish cultural admixture was forged by joining its classical and pagan roots to an overt political platform advocating for spiritual orthodoxy and devout Christian praxis. For this reason the kinds of manuscripts illustrated from roughly 751–900 include liturgical books for church use such as evangeliaries or lectionaries (containing the relevant gospel readings for the Mass) or sacramentaries (which are service books with indications of the appropriate rites and prayers) alongside personal prayer books and psalters (with the Psalms). During the Carolingian period, the biblical text was corrected by Alcuin (b. c. 740–d. 804) while he was abbot of St. Martin at Tours and additionally by Theodulf, the bishop of Orléans. The emphasis upon textual correction and emendation contributed to a lavish array of expertly copied, decorated, and at times illuminated biblical books, including pandects (complete one-volume copies) and illustrated gospel books. Traditional approaches to the study of Carolingian manuscript illumination have tended to emphasize through stylistic analyses the various court schools and manuscript-making scriptoria associated with distinct prelates. These abbots and members of the episcopate clustered around themselves important artists who were capable of satisfying the local needs for books, fulfilling royal commissions, and even producing at times manuscripts purposefully intended for economic and evangelistic export. New directions for the exploration of Carolingian manuscript illumination, the full history of which nevertheless remains to be written, continue to explore the complicated collaborations of professional itinerant early-medieval artists who plied their trade following the work, rather than remaining linked forever to the monolithic mandates of an isolated school or scriptorium.

Article.  18532 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy ; Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400) ; Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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