Carolingian Art & Architecture

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  • 0:01 The Carolingians
  • 1:00 Carolingian Art
  • 2:55 Carolingian Architecture
  • 4:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the art and architectural styles of the mighty Carolingian Empire in the 9th century. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.


Today, we're talking about Carolingian art and architecture. But what does that mean? Carolingian is a funny word. What is Carolingian? Sounds like a Christmas song mixed with a French pastry. But it's not. And it's not just an artistic style. Carolingian refers to a mighty empire of medieval Europe.

The Carolingian Empire was a 9th century realm in Europe, roughly corresponding to France and Germany, and ruled by the Carolingian family. This empire lasted from 800-888 AD, starting with the powerful Frankish king Charlemagne. Charlemagne was crowned as an emperor by the Pope, and his descendants kept that title until 888. Although the Carolingian Empire would eventually dissolve into the kingdoms of France and Germany, for a while they were the greatest power in Europe. And what do great powers in Europe do? They make art.

Carolingian Art

Since the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe had been largely without a serious culture of art. Centuries of continual warfare and instability can do that. In part to demonstrate the stability and power of his kingdom, Charlemagne began commissioning more and more artwork for his court. Charlemagne specifically wanted to try and revive Roman styles to show that his empire was just as powerful.

Carolingian art was mostly produced by the Church. Monks, who were highly trained, extraordinarily patient, and had time to spare, were commissioned to create art. Although they carved and painted, the most notable examples of their artwork were illuminated manuscripts. No, illuminated manuscripts did not glow. The term illumination refers to these large books as being illustrated (having hand-drawn pictures).

The illuminated manuscripts of the Carolingian Empire were mostly Bibles or Gospel books, which had one to four of the Gospels but not the rest of the Bible. The books were illuminated (illustrated) with small scenes, often contained inside large letters. They were extremely time-consuming to make, being done entirely by hand, and they were also very expensive. There were several centers across the Carolingian Empire where this art form thrived, each developing a unique local style.

Many of the more lavish manuscripts also had binding that was set with jewels, leading to the tradition of treasure bindings, or ornately decorated covers. The cover was covered in gems and minerals, and in the center was an ivory panel that was intricately carved, generally into biblical scenes. With these covers, Carolingian artists became very talented metal and goldsmiths, as well as skilled sculptors. These skills were applied to Carolingian palaces, which became filled with sculptures and fine mosaics.

Carolingian Architecture

Like their art, Carolingian architecture was consciously modeled after Roman examples. They had the general form of a Roman basilica, which was adopted by the early Christian Church for their worship halls. A basilica structure is long and narrow with a perpendicular hallway, making the entire building into the shape of a cross. The early Christian churches tended to be smaller and had a sense of gracefulness. The Carolingian churches replaced the delicate columns of early churches with ones that were robust and bulky. This provided more structural support and allowed the engineers to design larger buildings. Charlemagne had dozens of churches and monasteries built across his empire, and they rivaled anything else in the region for size and grandeur.

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