People, Places, and Backgrounds
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Charlemagne (747 - 814)

The "Father of Europe"

Charlemagne, depicted here on the ostentatious front cover of the Vienna Coronation Gospels

The great epoch of the famous Carolingian emperor and ruler over a huge empire (ruled 768-814) is also a time of the highest importance for book illumination. At his Royal Palace of Aachen, the illuminators of the co-called Court School of Charlemagne were active and produced – drawing on late antiquity – important works. Aside from that there was the Palace School, which was more stylistically oriented on Byzantine Art. These developments in book art are evidence by the great artistry of the illuminators of the 8th and 9th centuries. They are, however, also attributable to the tight organization of Charlemagne, who enacted countless reforms in his empire in the cultural field. 

From Frankish King to Emperor

Der Stricker: Charlemagne – A rhyming epic about the life and works of Charlemagne

Charlemagne came from the ruling house of the Carolingians. This is named after Charles Martell, who would become famous from his victory over Arab invaders in the Battle of Tours. As the father of Pippin he was simultaneously the grandfather of Charlemagne. The Carolingians overtook the French crown from the Merovingians in the 8th century, nonetheless, it was Charlemagne who first was able to build the kingdom into the greatest empire since the time of the Romans. Through campaigns against the Lombards, Moors, Saxons, and other peoples, he made countless territorial gains. Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, saw himself has the successor to the Roman Emperors, which is why he was crowned Emperor by the Pope in Rome on Christmas Day in the year 800.

A Golden Age of Spiritual and Cultural Life

The Lorsch Gospels – Charlemagne held it in his hands – is furnished with a gorgeous binding of engraved ivory

At his court, Charlemagne assembled the supreme lineup of spiritual life in his time. Noteworthy among many others are Theodulf of Orléans, the great scholar and poet, and Paulinus II of Aquileia, a theologian and grammarian.  As his consultant, and as teacher and director of the court school, Charlemagne brought the Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin to Aachen. In the court school, magnificent manuscripts for the use of the most important monasteries and spiritual centers of the empire were produced, in order to disseminate the spiritual achievements of the Court of Aachen across the entire empire. As a result, there are two terms in art history today that are inseparably bound with the Carolingian book art under the rule of Charlemagne: one with the label of the Ada-Group, which subsumes the artists of the court school, the other being the so-called Vienna Coronation Gospels Group, named after the primary work of the Palace School. 

Famous Works of Carolingian Book Art

Majestas Domini: This page from the Lorsch Gospels belongs among the most famous illuminations of the Middle Ages

In the famous so-called Court School of Charlemagne in Aachen and the neighboring, simultaneously-existing Palace School, there arose great works of illumination from a mix of Byzantine elements with old Christian influences. Significant works from these startups and centers of Carolingian illumination are the Lorsch Gospels (ca. 810) or the Vienna Coronation Gospels (shortly before 800). After the death of Charlemagne, the centers of Carolingian illumination relocated from the Royal Palace of Aachen to Metz, Lorraine, Rheims, Tours, and Fleury, where such famous manuscripts as the Utrecht Psalter (ca. 825), the Ebo Evangeliary (816-845), or the Leiden Aratea (after 825) arose. 

The Carolingian Renaissance

The beginning of the Gospel of Luke in the Lorsch Gospels: The famous words of the evangelist IN PRINCIPIO ERAT VERBUM are written on a gold background.

In the 46 years of his rule, Charlemagne enacted elaborate and encompassing reforms, which had an effect on both the state structure as well as the culture of the Carolingian Empire. Along with comprehensive domestic administrative reforms, the Carolingian reform of education is particularly worthy of mention. Charlemagne had monasteries and schools founded, a uniform Bible and liturgy was meant to unify the multinational state. The emergence of the co-called Carolingian miniscule, the inauguration of a uniform script, was a stroke of genius. A cultural golden age was dawning as the court was installed as the center of scholarship and art. Manuscripts were to be collected and ancient books copied in order to deliver them to posterity. Carolingian book illumination, brought about by Charlemagne and his sophisticated rule, is still counted among the glory days in the history of book art