Carolingian Manuscripts

Initiated by the Emperor Charlemagne (742-814), who created a successor state to the Western Roman Empire, the Carolingian Renaissance (ca. 780 – ca. 900) was the first of three that ultimately culminated in the Italian Renaissance. It is named after Charlemagne, called Karolus by contemporary chroniclers, who not only brought order and stability to Latin Europe, but established monasteries throughout his empire and scriptoria at his court, as well as a culture of art patronage among the Frankish nobility and princes of the church.

His importation of Irish, Anglo-Saxon, and Byzantine scholars – Alcuin of York (ca. 735-804) foremost among them – not only united the greatest contemporary minds, but also created a synthesis of artistic styles. These great minds also created a uniform script for the empire, known as Carolingian miniscule, which is the foundation of our modern fonts.

Carolingian illumination first emerged ca. 780 in the Court and Palace Schools of Charlemagne and would last well into the 10th century, producing manuscripts like the Lorsch Gospels that possess such luxury and sophistication that they are the peer of any other. It is a blend of the dynamism of Insular art with the monumental and iconic aesthetic of Late Antique and Byzantine art, the result was an expression of both continuity with Rome as well as signaling the beginning of a new era. The Ottonian, Romanesque, and Gothic artistic traditions all have their roots in Carolingian art and can therefore be considered to be its descendants. 

Demonstration of a Sample Page

The Lorsch Gospels

Christ in Majesty

Here we see a perfect example of Carolingian Illumination from the Lorsch Gospels, one the best preserved and most influential specimens of Carolingian Illumination. The image is dominated by expensive gold leaf and purple dye, indicating that this had to be a commission of the Emperor Charlemagne from his Court School, which is known for its ornate and ostentatious style. 

The blend of Byzantine and Insular elements is clear: the figure of Christ is Byzantine with classical robes, flattened, standardized features, and piercing eyes while the intricate patterns framing the image are clearly Hiberno-Saxon. Within the band of the mandorla circling Christ, Insular-style Evangelist symbols appear next to small portraits reminiscent of Late Antique imagery.