Sunday, June 3, 2012

Carolingian Manuscript Art - Part One

Thanks to Deborah J. for presenting a fabulous class on Thursday! None of the rest of the TAG-5 had even thought of manuscript art and how it began. This is where five heads are better than one when studying art history! Following is an overview (tome-like!) of her presentation. The first part is mostly groundwork and the second is mostly images, so please stay tuned:

See the blue area? That's Charlemagne's kingdom!  Some of the city/town names shown will become significant in this post.  For example: Aachen (underlined in red), and Revenna, Italy, etc.

Frankish King Charlemagne’s palace was located in Aachen, formerly Austrasien, now in Germany.  Most of the original palace was destroyed (long story!), but the palace chapel is still intact.   Aachen’s palace chapel, built in ca. 547 AD was designed by an architect named Einhard whom you will lhear about later in this post.  The chapel’s architecture was derivative of the  Basilica of San Vitale  in Ravenna, Italy. So the groundwork of manuscript begins. (A Basilica is another word for church)

Construction of this palatine chapel, with its octagonal basilica and cupola, began c. 790–800 under the Emperor Charlemagne. Originally inspired by the churches of the Eastern part of the Holy Roman Empire, it was splendidly enlarged in the Middle Ages. N50 46 28 E6 5 4, KMH1975, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported 

The Palatine Chapel is another name for Charlemagne's personal palace chapel.

Profile view of charlemagne's throne in the Palatine chapel.

Exterior view: Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Emilia-Romagna, Italy. Author: Tango7174. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Until the Carolingian period, churches looked fairly plain on the outside, but on the inside they were quite elaborate.  Around 875 A.D., more Christian churches were being built and they began to have a few more decorative elements on the outside.  The building’s footprint also expanded as more people were seeking the church to guide them, thus more churches/cathedrals were constructed.   What did all this mean?  It meant that more and more manuscripts needed to be hand written to meet the needs of all those churches. And since manuscripts came from the monasteries (as studied earlier), they became a manuscript production facility so-to-speak!   Each  individual ‘manuscript production facility’ began to take on certain characteristics of the individual monasteries. 

A man named Alcuin (or Albinus) was the leading scholar of the day and started in York, England as a headmaster in a cathedral school. Not only was he an academic, but he educator and theologian as well. One of Alcuin’s loves was record keeping, a ‘library’ of collected information.  He became friends with Charlemagne, and in ca. 781 AD, Charlemagne invited him to come to his palace in Aachen to set up an educational system.  He came to the palace (who would deny the king??) where he started a basic (elementary) educational system.   Alcuin stayed at Aachen for over 15 years, schooling a lot of people to read and hand write . . . yes―manuscripts.  But, reading and writing were only the basics, the study of grammar, rhetoric and logic as well as arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music followed in a higher level of education.   

In comes a Frankish aristocrat named Einhardt (also Einhard), who was an engineer/architect .  After arriving in Aachen, Einhardt studied under the tutelage of Alcuin, becoming Alcuin’s most brilliant pupil and Charlemagne’s close friend.  Besides becoming Charlemagne’s biographer after his intense schooling, he was the engineer/architect of public buildings, Charlemagne’s private palace chapel at Aachen, and the Aachen Cathedral

Back to the world of manuscript art, at that time period, just because one could read and write, did not mean one can artistically illustrate images or stories―be an artist― in this case, illustrating Gospel stories.  The standard for writing manuscripts had been established, but it was felt that there needed to be a guide for the illustrations that accompanies the text. Suddenly, manuscripts could be identified by the art that was included on pages inside books as well as the elaborate covers.  The characteristics of the manuscript art during the Carolingian period showed more action versus expression in their images.  They were didactic in nature.  In this short Carolingian period, there is still a culture of illiteracy, unless one had the ways and means to go to school “free“ at a monastery or church.  
As I write, I am momentarily pondering over the word “free” as it relates here.  It strikes me on a number of levels. At this moment I’m thinking: the majority of the people who lived in that time period had to work to stay alive, and if one worked, they were looked upon as being a slave.  Slavery was a way of life as was being illiterate.   But, at least, progress was being made on some level in baby steps.  No?  In hindsight, yes, but in some ways no!  If one understands where humanity has been, hopefully one can comprehend where we need to go.  It’s kind of like appreciating art, if one can understand how it came to be―it’s history, one can “appreciate” it, but one doesn’t have to like it.  Okay, it’s time to move forward.

Alcuin and Einhard were only two of many participants, but they were especially significant in Charlemagne’s world.  They brought more scholarship, organization and standardization not only into the religious world, but a preparative path into the secular, common world as well―give or take a few hundred years!   

Mary B.

Please continue to the post:  Carolingian – Manuscript Art Part Two

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