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Carolingian architecture and art

Carolingian architecture and art, art forms and structures created by the Carolingians. Toward the beginning of the Carolingian Period, in the 8th cent., a gradual change appeared in Western culture and art, a change that later reached its apex under Charlemagne.

Carolingian Architecture

The new architecture, inspired by the forms of antiquity, abandoned the small boxlike shapes of the Merovingian period and used instead spacious basilicas often intersected by vast transepts. In some churches, such as Fulda and Cologne, the central nave ended in semicircular apses. An innovation of Carolingian builders, which was to be of incalculable importance for the later Middle Ages, was the emphasis given to the western extremity of the church. The facade, flanked symmetrically by towers, or simply the exterior of a massive complex (westwork), became the focal point of the structure. The function of the westwork is still debated. It had an elevation of several stories, the lowest a vaulted vestibule to the church proper, and above, a room reached by spiral staircases, which may have served as a chapel reserved for high dignitaries.

The outstanding structure of the Carolingian period still in existence is the palatine chapel at Aachen, dedicated by Pope Leo III in the year 805. It is centralized in plan and surmounted by an octagonal dome. The design of the palatine chapel appears to have been based in part on the 6th-century Church of San Vitale in Ravenna. Other important structures still partly preserved, or known through documentary evidence, include the churches of Corbie, Centula (Saint-Riquier), and Reichenau.

Carolingian Art

The best-preserved artistic achievements of the age are works of small dimensions—manuscript illumination, ivory carving, and metalwork. Besides the imperial court, at Aachen, the leading centers of art were the monasteries in Tours, Metz, Saint-Denis, and near Reims.

The earliest liturgical manuscripts of the Carolingian period, such as the Gospel book signed by the scribe Godescalc (written between 781 and 783), are characterized by a tentative and not always successful fusion of ornamental motifs of chiefly Anglo-Saxon and Irish origin and by figures derived from antiquity. Full-page portraits of the four evangelists were often designed. Later Carolingian miniatures show an increasing familiarity with the heritage of late antiquity and in some instances are perhaps influenced by Byzantine art. The manuscripts owe much of their beauty to the new minuscule form of writing, remarkable for its clarity and form. The most influential work was the Utrecht Psalter, illustrated in a mode of nervous and flickering intensity quite unparalleled in earlier Western art.

Closely allied in style to the miniatures were the ivory carvings, many of them originally part of book covers. Metalwork objects are rarer, although literary evidence shows that goldsmiths and enamel workers were active. The large golden altar of Sant' Ambrogio in Milan (executed in 835), the portable altar of Arnulf (now in Munich), several splendid book covers, and other sumptuously decorated objects provide insight into the artistic accomplishments of the period, which ended in the late 9th cent.


See A. K. Porter, Medieval Architecture: Its Origin and Development (2 vol., 1909, 1912, repr. 1969); A. Goldschmidt, German Illumination (Vol. I: Carolingian Period, 1928, repr. 1969); R. Hinks, Carolingian Art (1935, repr. 1962); H. Saalman, Medieval Architecture (1962); K. Conant, Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture (2d ed. 1966).

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