Carolingian Art
Carolingian Art CHAPTER 1
Carolingian Art
Carolingian Art CHAPTER 1
Clichés about the Middle Ages
Welcome to the Middle Ages!

The belief that the Middle Ages were a dark and gruesome time is not true. There’s nothing sombre about this 1,000-year-long period. As the “funny bits” in the manuscripts show us, mediaeval creators did not lack imagination or humour.


As for the arts, we will now focus on 4 key periods:

Saddle up and let’s go!

In a nutshell

There are a lot of unjustified negative clichés about the Middle Ages (which are said to be dirty and violent).


The Carolingian era (8th-9th centuries) is one of the great Medieval periods. The arts flourished, and this is thanks to Charlemagne.

Albrecht Dürer, Imaginary Portrait of Charlemagne,
1512, oil on wood, 6’3” x 2’11”, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg
  • Dates : 768 – 814
  • Charlemagne was from a dynasty of kings originating in Germany – the Carolingians.
  • This conqueror and clever politician was crowned Emperor in 800. He then reigned over a large part of Europe.
  • His, surely, was the inheritance of Ancient Rome!
  • Fascinated by literature, he kept the company of many intellectuals.
  • He was also a patron of the arts and supporter of artistic creation. During his reign, hundreds of palaces, churches and monasteries were built.
In a nutshell

Charlemagne, who reigned over Europe at the beginning of the ninth century, was a great patron of the arts.

Constantinople and Byzantine art
Charlemagne was not the only great emperor at the time.

 There was rivalry with the empire of Constantinople (a city also known as Byzantium or, today, as Istanbul). The latter also shared the legacy of the eastern part of the Roman Empire.

His coronation took place in the large church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople. Everything inside it comes from byzantine art, colourful and luxurious.

The 200-feet-high Dome and mosaics on a golden background

Icons, which are sacred religious images for worship. They portray really stiff-looking saints!

In a nutshell

Byzantine art, which we can admire in Constantinople, is particularly luxurious.


Charlemagne decided to establish his capital in Aix-la-Chapelle. He wanted it to be just as splendid as Rome and Constantinople.


The reputation of his palace quickly spread. It contained a whole series of buildings, including thermal pools for bathing and washing. The Emperor particularly liked swimming in his pool!


But the most prestigious area was the chapel.

Its lavish decorations were fit for a powerful emperor like Charlemagne. When attending Mass, it was impossible to miss the emperor as he sat on his white marble throne.

The Dome, with its mosaic decorations

Columns recovered from ancient Italian buildings.

The solid bronze door.

In a nutshell

Charlemagne founded Aix-la-Chapelle, the capital of his empire, which was also the symbol of his power.

The Carolingian renaissance

With Charlemagne, there was no question of wiping out the past. He was so obsessed with the Roman Empire that he would have himself buried in a salvaged ancient sarcophagus.



During his reign, he encouraged intellectuals to read ancient manuscripts and learn Latin. Even artists were inspired by Rome for their creations. This is known as the Carolingian Renaissance”.

Antiquity, therefore, was not left behind. And it would never be forgotten. After all in medieval times, people lived among ancient ruins!

On the left: Equestrian statuette representing Charlemagne or his grandson Charles the Bald, 9th century, Louvre Museum, Paris. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC-BY 2.5 / On the right: Replica of the equestrian statue by Marc Aurèle, around 161-180, 1981, Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome. Photo: Johan Haggi, CC BY-SA 2.0
On the left: Corinthian columns in the Palatine Chapel of Aix-la-Chapelle Cathedral, 798, Aix-la-Chapelle. Photo: Andrea Schaffer, CC BY 2.0 / On the right:A Corinthian column from the Mount Olympus Temple to Zeus, Fourth century BC and 131, Athens. Photo: Rob Lisa Meehan, CC BY 2.0
On the left:Pierre de Montreuil, Adam, around 1250, Cluny Museum, Paris. Photo: Thesupermat, CC BY-SA 3.0 / On the right: The Aphrodite of Menophantus, First century AD, National Roman Museum, Rome. Photo: Jastrow
« We are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. »
This is what Bernard de Chartres said about Ancient thinkers (12th century).
In a nutshell

Under Charlemagne, Antiquity, with its manuscripts and art, was fashionable: this is known as the Carolingian Renaissance.

Carolingian manuscripts

To study ancient manuscripts, people first of all needed books. Copies of the manuscripts were made in des scriptoria, excerpts that could be found in monasteries and palaces.

Covers decorated with ivory plates, with metal fasteners (metalwork).

A document written partly in gilded text on a purple-tinted parchment (red dye, almost violet)

There were no printers at the time! It was mainly monks and nuns who copied manuscripts and decorated the books.
This meant that the manuscripts were objects of luxury:

Theodulf’s Bible
Photo: © Reproduction Philippe Berthé / CMN
Ebbon Gospels, Saint Luke,
Hautvillers Abbey, Reims, Second quarter of the ninth century, Épernay Municipal Library, Paris. Photo: Yorck Project
Drogo Sacrementary,
between 845 and 855, illuminations on parchment, 10.5 x 8.3 inches, French National Library, Paris. Photo: G. Garitan, CC BY-SA 4.0
In a nutshell

The Carolingian manuscripts were luxury items that had been copied and richly decorated by hand.

Artists showed little attachment to reality
Medieval artists took a few liberties in their interpretation of reality…

Bodily proportions and perspective were sometimes disregarded.


In this painting, King Charles the Bald is bigger than the other characters, even though he is sitting down!


This does not mean that the artists were not gifted. They were just not bothered with realism. For them, the priority was to make what was important stand out at the first glance: in this case, the King.

Vivien’s Bible, known as Charles the Bald’s First Bible,
845, French National Library, Paris
In a nutshell

During the Middle Ages, artists did not seek to portray reality (proportions, perspective, etc) but to reveal the importance of their subjects.

In summary, you have discovered:

  • Clichés about the Middle Ages
  • Charlemagne
  • Constantinople and Byzantine art
  • Aix-la-Chapelle
  • The Carolingian renaissance
  • Carolingian manuscripts
  • Artists showed little attachment to reality
Pour s’entraîner

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