Revival of Empire in Germany

views updated

Revival of Empire in Germany

The Ottonians.

Although the Carolingian Empire lasted hardly a hundred years, the mantle of empire was passed in the tenth century to a dynasty of rulers from Saxony, in Germany, known as the Ottonians (after "Otto," the name used by three of them). These rulers styled themselves "Roman Emperors" and very self-consciously attempted to recapture the power and prestige of Rome and Constantinople for their reigns, just as Charlemagne had done. In the sumptuous production of the cathedral and monastic workshops (which were supported by imperial donations), precious metalwork objects, carved ivory panels, and deluxe manuscripts speak of the Ottonian reign as decreed by God, and, in particular, they show a strong debt to Byzantine artistic practices. Like Charlemagne, the Ottonian rulers were formally recognized by the Byzantine emperors and the two realms were soon connected by marriage ties. Byzantine visual arts and fashions of all kinds were imitated by Ottonian artists and court officials. This imperial art in the center of Europe, with its impressive synthesis of Carolingian, Byzantine, and other, especially Roman, traditions, would play a major role in the elaboration of the early Romanesque style by the mid-eleventh century.

The Imperial Crown.

In its material and symbolic richness, the German Imperial Crown fashioned for the coronation of Otto I as emperor in 962 (and used as well by subsequent German emperors) is a wonderful example of German imperial art of the early Middle Ages. Its eight arched golden plates form an octagon, in deliberate reference to the architecture of Charlemagne's palace chapel in Aachen. The many gemstones and pearls arranged on the eight plates make explicit reference to the number and distribution of pearls and gems on the walls of the Heavenly Jerusalem as described in the biblical Book of Revelation. The symbolic schema applied to the construction of this crown therefore serves both to associate Otto's rule with that of his famous Carolingian predecessor and also to lend biblical authority to that rule. The crown's structure and arrangement of parts clearly demonstrate that monastic artists of the time could combine their masterful craftsmanship with their scriptural and theological knowledge. In this way a work of medieval art also becomes a document of medieval learning and culture in a broader sense.

Visual Arts

In the year 330 the Roman emperor Constantine founded a new capital at an ancient site in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) known as Byzantium. Here at this strategic location on the eastern frontier of the empire he set out to reconstitute the city of Rome, thus establishing a tradition of magnificence for his new capital, renamed after himself, "Constantinople" (modern Istanbul). When the Roman Empire split in 395 into a western half and an eastern half, Constantinople became the capital of the latter, a vast empire with borders that, by the sixth century, extended as far as North Africa and Italy in the west and the Caucasus and northern Mesopotamia (modern Syria and Iraq) in the east. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the late fifth century, it was the Eastern Roman Empire, known today as the Byzantine Empire, that would carry forward into the Middle Ages the memory and the traditions (especially legal and administrative) of Roman antiquity.

Byzantine civilization, however, was distinct from that of ancient Rome. Its language was not Latin, but Greek, and its unique form of government, elaborate court ceremonial, famous material refinement, and distinctive national church (Greek Orthodox, not Roman Catholic) all helped to keep the Byzantine Empire separate from, and alien to, the culture of Latin Christendom in Western Europe. The Byzantine visual arts—painted icons, silks, mosaics, enamels, and illuminated manuscripts—were celebrated in the medieval West for their beauty, richness, and high degree of technical development. The commercial supremacy of Byzantium insured that its luxury goods (especially silks, spices, and jewelry) would be known all over the world. For the less highly developed civilization of western Christendom, Byzantium was the standard of courtly sophistication and cultural achievement (as were the Islamic court cultures centered in Córdoba and Baghdad from the eighth century onward). The visual arts of Byzantium were therefore admired and emulated at various times throughout the western Middle Ages, and it was in particular the Byzantine emphasis on the human figure in art that made that civilization such an important link between the arts of classical antiquity and those of the Renaissance. When the empire finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 (over eleven hundred years after it was first established), it was the end of what had been the longest-lived state in medieval Europe.

The Lothair Cross.

The Lothair Cross, a work created around the year 1000 for processional use or for display on the church altar during a mass before an imperial audience bears a clear relationship to earlier examples such as the Spanish Victory Cross of Oviedo. With its very different front and back configurations, however, the Lothair Cross expresses the dual, antithetical character of medieval Christianity. On the one side, a simple linear engraving of the dead Christ on a silver ground embodies the notion of the cross as an instrument of suffering and death. On the other side, an array of jewels upon a golden ground proclaims Christ's victory over death and recalls the magnificent, visionary images of the cross as an apocalyptic sign of Christian triumph. Early medieval art objects and images were very often designed in this way so as to negotiate between such antithetical concepts as luxury and austerity; biblical past and apocalyptic future; time-bound narrative and eternal symbol. The Roman cameo with its portrait bust of the emperor Augustus, set in the center of the cross's triumphal side, provided a worthy model for the imperial rule of the reigning emperor, Otto III (983–1002). It also illustrates the interrelationship between religion and politics that was crucial in the configuration of so much early medieval art.

The Gospel Book of Otto III.

Ottonian artists were equally accomplished in the field of manuscript illumination, and this pictorial medium was just as important as metalwork objects in expressing the ideals of the Ottonian emperors and bishops who commissioned particular manuscripts. The deluxe Gospel Book of Otto III is a case in point. Upon opening the jewel-encrusted golden cover, with its inset carved ivory panel, one finds a painted ceremonial portrait of the emperor and members of his court spread across two full pages. The very formal, frontal depiction of the larger-than-life emperor hearkens back to late Roman and early Christian ruler portraits. His large scale and central placement with respect to his attendants (bishops on his right, secular lords on his left) indicates his place at the top of the hierarchy and his sovereignty over both church and state. The four female figures that approach in homage on the facing page are personifications of the four provinces of the empire bearing tribute for the emperor. In early medieval painting as in metalwork or sculpture, any attempt at naturalism is generally subordinated to the symbolic or hieratic (traditional) expression of key ideas in unambiguous terms. Naturalism did exist in early medieval art, but not in any absolute sense, and always in tension with non-naturalistic modes of representation.


William Diebold, Word and Image: An Introduction to Early Medieval Art (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000).

Henry Mayr-Harting, Ottonian Book Illumination: An Historical Study. 2 vols. 2nd rev. ed. (London: Harvey Miller, 1999).

Marilyn Stokstad, Medieval Art. 2nd ed. (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004).

About this article

Revival of Empire in Germany

Updated About content Print Article