Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Carolingian Period – Monasteries

As mentioned in a previous post, monasteries are an important part of the Carolingian period. They were producing art! Here are a few to ponder:
The monastery was established to allow monks to live communally under the authority of an abbot (meaning: father), who would be the head or chief governor of the community. Benedict of Nursia (St. Benedict) established what is known as the Benedictine Order in ca. 529 AD. I say ‘known as’ because in my research I don’t believe it was his intention to start a religious order per se, but have it become a standard for individuals to live in equality for religious study; it just evolved that way since he was the first to write a book of rules to live by.

St. Benedict delivering his Rule to St. Maurus and other monks of his order,France,
Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes, 1129, Wikimedia Commons.

The Rule required their members to participate in manual labor, sacred reading, writing, copying books, studying music for chanting, and teaching to name a few. The monasteries were the schools of the early middle ages (aka. early medieval period,) as well as being self-sufficient communities. The St. Benedict Rule was basically a practical instruction book on day-to-day living and organization of a monastic order.

 Hatton 48 fol. 6v-7r of the Bodleian library in Oxford.
This manuscript is a copy of St. Benedicts rule. Date: 8th Century AD, Wikimedia Commons

During the time of St. Benedict, manual labor was considered disgraceful and he wanted workers to have self-respect in whatever work they did by giving it the dignity that religion had at the time. This was the beginning of the work ethic. He essentially liberated working people from their association with slavery by recognizing work as being a self-sufficient activity which benefitted their entire religious community. You see, working people in that time period were considered slaves. There was a great disparity between the ‘haves-and-have-nots.’ Remember the St. Patrick post?
St. Benedict Rule's became a standard for Western monastic establishments.  Even though it was over two hundred years later, this standard was encouraged by Charlemagne (remember, Charlemagne was about setting universal standards in Europe for communication, in a monetary system, measuring system, and religious communal life to name a few).
The clergy in monasteries were often, but not always, scribes and scholars and had the skills of reading and writing at a time where universal illiteracy was the norm. The monastic libraries and scriptoria (where books were read, copied, illuminated and bound with ornamented covers) became centers of study and repositories of what remained of the literary culture of early Christianity. It is written history not oral history.
While the Benedictine monistaries were generally male, other religious orders allowed females (nuns), with an emphasis for them of useful work and sacred reading. Religious life became not only a calling for men but women as well. Women weren't exactly encouraged to follow this line of work. Then, a woman didn't have to be a virgin to join, just a single woman and that included widows.  Times were changing.  Women were even becoming saints!  I'm wondering now who the first woman saint was in this male dominated world.  Hmmmmmm.

Saint Gall (St. Gallen), Switzerland, was only one of these Abbeys that accepted women. Below is a proposed diagram for an ideal monastery sent to Saint Gall, Switzerland, ca.819 AD as a construction plan for their community. The original was in red ink on parchment.
 The Plan of St Gall Monastery/Convent, the only surviving major architectural drawing from the High Middle Ages Wikimedia Commons

Image: The diagram version of the Plan, Carolingian style Abbey of St. Gall Wikimedia Commons
(I have personally added a few of the names of the various modules as shown in "Gardner's Art Through the Ages."  See Books on the upper blog tab.)
This particular plan for a monistary/convent is set up in a series of modules which are in standard units of 2 ½ feet lengths. All modules are consistent-sized parts and multiples of parts, including the length of each monk’s bed, widths of paths in the vegetable garden, etc, to reflect orderliness; a rational philosophy built on carefully planned units. This is not unlike the division of books into chapters and subchapters, etc., a virtual outline. An ideal monastery provided all the facilities necessary for the conduct of daily life: a mill, bakery, infirmary, vegetable garden, and brewery, so that monks felt no need to wander outside its protective walls. Although this plan wasn’t followed explicitly at St. Gall, it is nonetheless interesting to look at its layout.

Something else of note is the size of the chapel. It was not only a chapel, but a temporary refuge for refugees, or pilgrims who were not allowed in other parts of the compound. It could temporarily house the family of a sick person in the hospital for the poor if they had traveled a great distance. It had to be large enough for people to gather and to benefit from the spiritual teachings; they were also saving souls―providing it was a speaking order. I'm sure there are some idiosyncrasies here that I'm missing. 
As a side note, Saint Paul is the Patron Saint of St. Gall. His symbol is usually a book or a sword. This shows a book. He is recognized not by his actual portrait, but by his symbol.

Image: Saint Paul writing. From an early 9th century manuscript, written in the Monastery of St. Gallen. Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart. This is believed to be one of the earliest depictions of St. Paul in European manuscripts. The picture follows an early medieval tradition of depicting the author of a text. The inscription says: "S(AN)C(TU)S PAULUS" and "sedet hic scripsit" ("he sits here and writes"). Wikimedia Commons

Currently, the library at St. Gall has one of the most complete medieval libraries in the world. Wikipedia says:
“As of 2005, the library consists of over 160,000 books, of which 2100 are handwritten. Nearly half of the handwritten books are from the middle ages and 400 are over 1000 years old."
Whew! There's so much more to tell.
Please note that this “history” is very brief and my intention is not to offend anyone that has more knowledge on the subject than me; I am not a religious nor a monastic historian. This is my blanket disclaimer that I am simply laying groundwork that will be prove important during the Carolingian period forward as most, if not all, art was religious in nature. It was a time of conversion, where the church began to take power. Charlemagne evidently wanted a standard religion—Christianity, his personal religion—he was in power. It was a significant turning point considering religious images were being destroyed at the same. (Byzantine Iconoclasm)
Mary B.

No comments:

Post a Comment