Goldsmithing and ivory carving in Carolingian Pre-Romanesque Times

We know today about the Carolingian sculpture thanks to the Carolingian reliefs, mainly from the works of embossed goldsmith and the plaques carved in ivory. The greatest silversmith of the imperial palace at Aachen, considered a master in the art of casting and chiseling, was the biographer of Charlemagne himself: the modest and applied Einhard. No jewel or ivory has been clearly identified as the work of Einhard, but the great golden altar of St. Ambrose of Milan is signed by Vuolvinus or Volvinios, who is mentioned as his disciple.

The golden altar of St. Ambrose of Milan, a work by Vuolvinus (Basilica of St. Ambrose of Milan, northern Italy).

The reliefs of the altar of Milan were executed in a style used in other works of contemporary goldsmithing similar to the style of the miniatures produced in the scriptorium of the imperial palace at Aachen, whose director was also Einhard.

Although not abundant, the ivory carvings from the Carolingian period outnumbered the metal reliefs. Most of them are represented by hard covers used to decorate luxurious books. Some of these ivories still showed pagan scenes, while others interpreted biblical themes with a novelty and freedom similar to those later shown by Renaissance artists. One of such Carolingian ivory plaques, now in the National Library in Paris, intended to illustrate the Psalm 91 (“He will order the Angels to guard you, and They’ll have you in Their hands”): two lions open their jaws, the souls of the damned look at the soul of the righteous peacefully resting on the lap of an angel while they fall into the tomb that themselves have opened.

The front cover of the Evangelium Longum (Stiftsbibliothek-Abbey Library of Saint Gall, St. Gallen, Switzerland).

A monk of Saint-Gall, called Tuotilo, demonstrated an unusual imagination when he dared to carve on the back ivory cover of the Evangelium longum (ca. 900) the local legend of the patron saint of the monastery without using a known repertoire as it was the custom. At the top is the Assumption of the Virgin and below it is the scene in which St. Gall commands a bear to bring firewood and to throw it to the fire, after which the bear received bread and was ordered to leave for good. The front cover of this Evangeliary details the scene, so much represented in other miniatures, of the glorification of the Lord inside a Central halo between angels and seraphim. Below are the Earth and the Ocean, and in the corners the four Evangelists: three of them writing while the other prepares the “pen”, as it was often observed in ancient miniatures.

The back cover of the Evangelium Longum (Stiftsbibliothek-Abbey Library of Saint Gall, St. Gallen, Switzerland).

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