Carolingian Art: History, Style & Characteristics

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  • 0:06 The Carolingian Renaissance
  • 1:23 Church Schools
  • 2:25 Illumination
  • 3:55 A Beautiful Cover for…
  • 4:30 Other Carolingian Art
  • 5:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson covers the art of the Carolingian Renaissance. We'll explore the causes of the Carolingian Renaissance, then see how the art of illumination was adapted for new uses. Then we'll discuss treasure bindings and finish with a quick survey of the few other surviving forms of Carolingian art.

The Carolingian Renaissance

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Western Europe saw a sharp decline in literacy, art, architecture, urban populations, and pretty much every aspect of civilization. Traditionally, historians have referred to this period as the Dark Ages, and indeed, compared to the glory of Classical civilization, conditions in Europe must have seemed very dark indeed. Imagine leaving a palatial mansion to camp in the wilderness for a few centuries, and you've got some notion of the transition Western Europe endured.

Charlemagne built an empire that resulted in a cultural explosion called the Carolingian Renaissance.
Charles the Great

Yet, amid all this darkness, there were a few pockets of light. An ambitious Frankish king tried to recapture the former glory of the Roman Empire and build a civilized empire of his own. Charles the Great, aka Charlemagne, forged the Frankish Empire, which covered most of Western Europe, including modern day France, Germany, Switzerland, much of Austria, and Northern Italy. In 800 CE, he was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III. His attempts to regain the glory of Classical civilization gave rise to an explosion of culture known today as the Carolingian Renaissance.

Church Schools: Centers of the Carolingian Renaissance

Now, empires are notoriously tricky things to administer in the best of times, and Europe in the 9th century was hardly the best of times. Charlemagne needed literate scribes to facilitate communication across the empire. Yet, literacy was all but nonexistent in Western Europe at the time.

Charlemagne needed to find a way to teach his subjects how to read and write. For help in this quest, Charlemagne turned to the few literate people left in the West: the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church. He received the aid he required from some princes of the Church: Archbishop Egbert of Trier, Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim and Abbot Odo, who founded the Monastic order of Cluny. Yet, perhaps Charlemagne's greatest ally in the Church was Alcuin of York.

With the help of the Church, Charlemagne established schools of literacy across his empire. And, it was at these church schools that students encountered the most popular form of Carolingian art: the illuminated, or illustrated, manuscript.


The art of illumination had been around for a few centuries and had reached new heights of complexity and beauty in Ireland, where Irish monks created intricate works like the Book of Kells.

The illustrations of Carolingian manuscripts were more primitive than some that came before them.
Illuminated manuscripts

Since they were made later, we might expect the illuminations of the Carolingian Renaissance to be even more impressive. If so, we would be disappointed by early Carolingian illuminations like the Utrecht Psalter. Instead of beautiful-but-confusing interlacing patterns like we see in the Book of Kells, the Utrecht Psalter offers us some very primitive drawings interspersed between a few sentences.

This is because Carolingian illumination was meant more for instruction than for aesthetics. The illustrations aren't there to inspire, but rather to help young scribes in training make sense of written Latin. In this sense, this Psalter has less in common with the Book of Kells and more in common with the Dick and Jane books.

Of course, not all Carolingian illuminations were meant to be purely educational. The people of the mainland seemed impressed by the illuminated Bibles produced during the Irish Golden Age. Though they never attempted anything as ambitious as the overlapping bands of Irish illuminations, they did start making some prettier illuminations:

  • Godescalc Evangelistary ca. 783
  • Gospel Book of Charlemagne ca. 800
  • Gospel of Ebbo of Reims ca. 816
  • Lorsch Gospels ca. 820
  • Drogo Sacramentary ca. 850
  • Lindau Gospels ca. 880

A century later, the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire renewed this practice:

  • Gospel of Otto III ca. 1000
  • Echternach Codex ca. 962-1056

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