Ottonian Art: History, Characteristics & Style

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  • 0:05 Art of the Ottonian Empire
  • 2:20 Characteristics of…
  • 3:02 Illuminated Manuscripts
  • 3:43 Sculpture
  • 4:53 After Ottonian Art
  • 5:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Vivid book illustrations and jeweled bible covers -- what do these things have in common? In this lesson, learn about the history of Ottonian art and explore some characteristics of the style.

Art of the Ottonian Empire

Art often reflects the time period in which it is made. This is certainly true of Ottonian art, which developed in the 10th and 11th centuries in northern and central Europe. Before we get to art, let's cover historical background on the Ottonian Empire, which represented a transitional point in Europe.

A king's death often brought change. In the 9th century, King Charlemagne ruled parts of northern Europe, including Germany and France, and his kingdom was known as the Carolingian Empire. But after Charlemagne died in 814, internal fighting and external tribal invasions brought the Carolingian Empire to an end.

Eventually, eastern Frankish tribes from parts of present-day Germany banded together. One of their leaders, Otto I, became king in the early 900s. Otto was powerful and close to the church. So close that in 962, he was also crowned Holy Roman Emperor. Later, Otto I's son Otto II and grandson Otto III followed him on the throne. The kingdom became known as the Ottonian Empire. The Ottonian Empire lasted from the mid 900s through part of the 11th century. It included parts of Germany, Switzerland and north and central Italy.

Ottonian art developed from three influences. It reflected elements of earlier Carolingian art; it was created with growing interest in the art of northern Italy; and it reflected the growing connections to Byzantium and Byzantine art. Ottonian art looked back while also exploring stronger connections to religion.

Why religion? Political power and religious agencies during the Ottonian Empire were intertwined. Otto I, who was close to the Pope, also wanted to rekindle the glory of the earlier Holy Roman Empire. He worked to build closer ties to Byzantium. Making art reinforced the connection. Another key factor in the development of Ottonian art were monastic orders. Monastic orders were groups of religious people who lived together apart from society. During the Ottonian Empire, many existing and new monastic orders became prosperous, independent entities that produced art. So the church played a prominent role in Ottonian art.

Characteristics of Ottonian Art

Ottonian art revived and adapted some early Christian forms. Subject matter often included stories and characters from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. It was not a strongly nature-based style, and Ottonian artists weren't concerned with how real their figures looked. Rather, emphasis was placed on emotion and expressiveness. Figures were often elongated with obvious gestures.

Ottonian artists were skilled workers with metals and precious materials, creating jewelry, book covers, and reliquaries, or containers for saints' remains and relics. Artists often embellished objects with gems, crystals and enamels. Ottonian artists also created murals and wall paintings, but few of them survive.

Illuminated Manuscripts

Some of the most beautiful examples of Ottonian art are illuminated manuscripts, or hand-written books with illustrations and written script. Ottonian illuminated manuscripts were created in monasteries, often in groups or schools called scriptoria where making them was a full-time activity involving many artists. Most manuscripts were of religious subjects. Some covered certain books of the Bible, like the gospels. Others were psalters which were manuscripts focused specifically on the psalms. Some manuscripts included an image of the person who commissioned them, often a powerful official in the church. Images were full of expressive line and vibrant color, sometimes embellished with powdered gold.

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