The beginning of the Carolingian period was marked by the coronation of Charlemagne or Charles the Great in 800 and ended in 924. Charlemagne was King of the Franks and united most of Western Europe during the early Middle Ages. The division of the Carolingian Empire in 843 marked the earliest stage in the history of the kingdom of France and the kingdom of Germany, which later during the High Middle Ages would become the most powerful monarchies of continental Europe, thus laying the foundations for modern France and Germany.
During the early Carolingian period all the Western classical tradition accumulated in the court of Charlemagne the great promoter of medieval culture. Although Charlemagne and his barons, the magnates of his court, his ministers and dignitaries were mostly Franco-Germanic, they tried with all their will to assimilate the ancient Western civilization which they considered superior to that of their time.
Charlemagne gathered around him Anglo-Saxon and Irish-Celtic missionaries, the only ones who had the sufficient knowledge of sacred matters in order to be educators of his “second” Roman Empire. Charlemagne’s court, as well as ancient Rome, became an international society whose art revealed the intersection of different cultures.
The most interesting architectural work built in times of the emperor in the late eighth century and still standing almost intact to this date, is the Chapel of his Imperial Palace in Aachen (or Palatine Chapel), located on the right bank of the Rhine. Its floor plan and layout very much resemble those of San Vitale in Ravenna. This Palatine chapel, dedicated to Virgin Mary, has an octagonal floor plan with a central dome which, instead of being constructed with lightweight materials as was Byzantine’s San Vitale, was built instead in stone and therefore could not be made as high as San Vitale is. In each angle of the octagon there is a solid pillar and the upper floors have arches divided by columns. Its vaults were covered with mosaics, probably made by Byzantine artists brought under orders of the emperor. This church was attached to the imperial palace by a portico where the emperor had exhibited artistic treasures brought from the conquered provinces. The chief architect of the palatine chapel of Aachen was Odo of Metz. Charlemagne preferred the palace of Aachen over other palatial residences because it was nearby hot springs and was at the very center of his vast empire. Charlemagne is buried there.
Chroniclers of the time also remember other buildings constructed under the initiative of Charlemagne, like the colossal bridge over the Rhine at Mainz and the channel intended to unite the Rhine and Danube rivers which was never finished.
The ministers and collaborators of Charlemagne imitated the example of their emperor. Theodulf, Bishop of Orléans, built in Germigny-des-Prés a church consecrated in 806 (still existing) with a small high dome supported by four pillars and naves surrounding it. It is the only monument from the time of Charlemagne that is preserved intact in France. Interestingly, Theodulf, although in the court of the Franks, retained the traditions of the Spanish Visigothic culture.
But it is undeniable that the most influential personality during the literary and artistic restoration attempted by Charlemagne was Alcuin, a Saxon who had been raised and educated in the school of York which in turn inherited its cultural roots from the Benedictines who arrived in England with St. Augustine of Canterbury. Alcuin’s presence in Aachen together with other of his Celtic and Anglo-Saxon peers, brought the use of the geometric interlace to Carolingian ornamentation. Thus, artistic elements coming from Italy by the east, from Spain by the south, from Britain by the North and Germanic by the West all intermingled to form the basis of the art that would later spread throughout the Empire.
An exclusively Germanic influence was exemplified by wooden constructions with high towers often brightly painted. This type of structures was in vogue during the following centuries and allowed to build with relatively cheap materials, because these constructions had masonry walls but the upper parts were entirely made out of wood.
In the eastern provinces of the Carolingian Empire closer to the Byzantine territories, the Christian art of Constantinople was the dominant artistic influence. This Byzantine cultural penetration in a purely German environment is clearly seen in the monuments of Cividale del Friuli, the ancient Roman Forum Julium, which in times of the Lombards was the capital of a big duchy and then was one of the largest feuds of the emperor. A barbarian or Germanic monument is still intact in Cividale. It is a baptistery built by the Teutonic bishop Sigualdo. Its altars and baptismal fonts are filled with reliefs including barbaric symbols and interlace. Built shortly after the baptistery of Sigualdo, is a small church dedicated to St. Mary covered with stucco and with clear Byzantine influence. Above its door is a beautiful frieze with virgins with pleated straight tunics, three on each side of a niche, and with the figure of a sitting bishop standing in the shadows. The archivolt* above the door is decorated with a frieze of grape vines, the tender fine and stylized leaf buds of these vines are repeating their symmetrical curves orderly without the typical profusion of Celtic decoration or the complexity of the Teutonic decor.
Because in Germany Irish missionaries had to instruct the population on western culture, the great centers for the development and teaching of the Carolingian culture had to be the monasteries ruled by the apostles of the Celtic Church. The most famous of them were those of Fulda, on the Rhine, Reichenau, on Lake Constance, and Saint-Gall, in Switzerland. Today there are little remains of these monasteries from the Carolingian period, but we can judge the spirit that impregnated them by studying the literary treasures kept in their precious libraries and that today enrich modern ones.
The school and teachings of these Irish and British monks came to influence the whole art of the Benedictine Order. Even the same head office of the Order in Montecassino (southeast of Rome) soon was saturated with artistic Celtic influences, and from it in turn, the unique artistic style of the Irish Church with its complicated interlace ornamentation and zoomorphic motifs swept throughout Southern Italy. Thus Montecassino, due to its location between Rome and Naples, spread styles and ideas of Irish monks to all other Benedictine abbeys in the world, and so the style of the Order came to be characterized as a derivation of Celtic art.
Meanwhile in northern Italy during the Carolingian period, an architectural school was forming which would later contribute to the stabilization of the Romanesque art. It is called Lombard because it was supposedly created or at least disseminated by groups of masons who had their headquarters in Como, a small Lombard town a few hours from Milan. (The Lombards were a tribe of Germanic origin who ruled Italy between 568-774).
The specialty of these Comacine masons that made them so famous, was the construction of vaults whose technique they had inherited from the old building tradition established in times of imperial Rome. To do so, they divided the floor plan or nave in square spaces using transverse arches and each square was covered by a groin vault supported on diagonal arches going from pillar to pillar. These transverse arches rested on a widening of the pillar making them to look “compound”, that is, they were no longer simple rectangular or circular pillars as those who use to support ancient vaults, but they were formed by several pillars intersecting one another.
The oldest of these compound pillars, so characteristic of Lombard architecture, came from near the first half of the eighth century. These compound pillars appeared later in other Lombard churches: St. Ambrose of Milan or Sant’Ambrogio, San Michele Maggiore of Pavia and in several other such buildings made by the Comacine or Lombard masons in Italy and beyond. Although the date of their construction is uncertain, St. Ambrose of Milan and San Michele of Pavia, both very similar, must be considered the mother churches of the Lombard style: both are also Romanesque and therefore also Carolingian.
The church of St. Ambrose of Milan is a Latin basilica with three naves, completely covered by groin vaults with diagonal arches on each square section of its floor plan, only just in front of the apse there was an octagonal dome now destroyed.
Another concern of the Comacine masons was to decorate buildings with the same architectural forms they employed in its construction. For example, the reinforcement arches rested on pillars attached to a wall forming compound pillars* that gave some variety to the interior view of the building. Externally, the walls were decorated with strips of protruding stones or topped with blind arches forming a terminal cornice. In the bell towers, these cornices with arches were used in every floor thus dividing them into several horizontal zones; and in the apses, vertical pillars and stone strips were combined with a line of arches. The buildings made by Lombard masons were rarely decorated with sculptures, only the capitals and the reliefs located on top of doors had monsters and interlace* decorations. Moreover, the Carolingian period completely lacked monumental sculpture.
*Archivolt: Also called voussure, is an ornamental molding or band along the curvature of an arch. It is composed of bands of ornamental moldings surrounding the opening of the arch. It is the equivalent of the architrave of a rectangular opening.
*Interlace: A decorative element found in medieval art. In interlace, bands or portions of other motifs are looped, braided, and knotted in complex geometric patterns, often to fill a space. Interlacing is common in the art of Northern Europe, especially in the Insular art of the British Isles and Norse art of the Early Middle Ages and in Islamic art.
*Compound pillar or Compound pier: A clustered column or pier used to carry arches of additional orders, or to support the transverse or diagonal ribs of a vault. These compound piers can be found commonly in Romanesque cathedrals.