The Carolingian dynasty was the second Frankish dynasty. At its height, the Carolingian Empire extended over a huge area that included Gaul, West Germany, the Alpine massif, and North Italy. Pippin III the Short, mayor of the Merovingian palace—he was superintendent of all the great estates and royal officers—and son of Charles Martel, who defeated the Arab armies at Poitiers, was anointed and crowned king of the Franks by St. Boniface in 751. This marked the beginning of the opulent Carolingian dynasty. Pope Stephen II legitimized the Carolingian dynasty by supporting the overthrow of the Merovingians, and obtained in return the Donation of Pippin in the treaty of Quierzy in 754, which created the Papal States and liberated the bishop of Rome from Byzantine control. This union opened the way for the unification of liturgical practices already planned by Rome in the ordines at the end of the seventh century.
At this stage in the history of the Franks—when the Frankish kingdom had been extended to its furthermost frontiers, and the Frankish kings ruled over a medley of peoples with different cultures—what referents did those in control use to build a homogeneous society? In what way were they integrated into the towns and villages? Is there a distinct Carolingian art?
Charlemagne (reigned 771-814), the true founder of the Carolingian Empire, became king of the Franks in 771. In 800, he was crowned emperor of the restored Roman Empire. Charlemagne began recreating a Christian-based Western empire and initiated a cultural renovatio (Latin: ‘renewal’ or ‘restoration’, later called the Carolingian Renaissance).
To help him achieve this, Charlemagne established a permanent capital at Aix-la-Chapelle, the centre of administrative organization and power. He broke with the tradition of an itinerant Frankish court and revived Classical tradition. The palace has two prominent architectural features; the aula, the basilica in which Charlemagne carried out his official duties—which may have been inspired by the Constantine basilica at Trier (Germany)—, and the imperial chapel, which legitimized his religious power. Built by Odo of Metz, it is a central-plan chapel in the Greco-Byzantine tradition. It was modelled on the Byzantine-style church of San Vitale in Ravenna.
Religion became the unifying force in the new Carolingian civilization and efforts were made to unify the peoples of the empire through liturgical practices. The kings continued working on these reforms throughout the ninth century.
There was a complete renewal of the religious architecture under Charlemagne. The Christian basilica remained but with a major innovation—the addition of westwork (ex. Corvey-sur-Weser) and a crypt below the eastern apse, which served the rising cult of saints and was based on the Roman model of the sixth century. The new liturgy, which consisted of private Masses, led to an increase in altars.
At the end of the eighth century, relations with the Muslim world improved and the sacred sites became accessible again. The abbey of S. Riquier (790–9) reflected the tendency during this period to imitate Jerusalem. The westwork contained a shrine to the Holy Saviour, there was an altar of the True Cross in the centre of the nave, and two towers in elevation illustrated this bipolarity.
Louis the Pious (reigned 814-840) took over the throne, backed by St. Benedict of Aniane, a Benedictine reformer who dramatically changed the architecture and life in the monasteries. Most of the abbeys were rebuilt, but Saint-Gall is the most illuminating example. Practicality was the key factor and the monasteries had to be completely autocratic.
Each region in the Empire adapted the new rules of religious architecture to their cultural heritage. The principal changes particularly affected the regions that were close to the centre of power in North Gaul and Germany. Local liturgies also continued.
The art of illumination disappeared in some parts of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, but continued in some Spanish, North African, and Italian workshops. The importation of manuscripts from the Mediterranean led to a revival of the art in North Gaul and the British Isles at the end of the seventh century. There are direct Irish, German, and Paleo-Christian influences, but the workshops close to the centre of power preferred Classical and eastern referents.
A production of fine decorative works flourished at the end of the eighth century. The systematic use of Classical models, through the observation of works that had survived and the involvement of Lombardian artists, was the cornerstone of the creation of a Carolingian vocabulary and aesthetics.
The Évangiles du couronnement at Xanten and Aix-la-Chapelle are particularly interesting examples of manuscript illumination, as they were probably produced by Mediterranean artists or artists trained to use their techniques. The illuminators used crimson parchment, a thick gouache, naturalism, and spatial perspective. The Carolingians imported the Byzantine techniques of stone-setting and cloisonné enamel in goldwork (Croix de Pascal I). The equestrian statuette of Charlemagne made in the Classical tradition is the only known example of bronzework.
Under Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald (reigned 843–877), the decorative arts reached their height. The art of glyptics and ivory work (on the bindings of the Psautier de Charles le Chauve) attest to an excellent technical mastery, adapted to a specifically Carolingian vocabulary.
The Carolingians were heavily influenced by the contemporary Byzantium model, which provided a Classical link in medieval Europe. Charlemagne continued these artistic, institutional, and legislative practices. But he remained a Germanic king in an empire where long-distance commerce was almost nonexistent and the great estates had become self-subsistent, in a world where wealth was based on land ownership. Under the Carolingians, the Frankish dynasty became truly continental. Charlemagne's empire, which had no navy or maritime commerce, was centred in the regions of Meuse, Moselle, and the Rhine, around Aix-la-Chapelle.
Historians have, however, challenged Henri Pirenne's theory that the Mediterranean was sealed off from the rest of the world in the Middle Ages. The artistic production shows that artists and religious intellectuals travelled widely. The emergence of the Umayyad dynasty in al-Andalus in 756 marked the beginning of diplomatic activity with the Muslim world. Relations between the Carolingian kings and the Córdoban Umayyads alternated between war and peace, but the two parties established more peaceful relations—there were embassies, truces, and alliances—than is often believed. But when Charles the Bald came to the thrown, these exchanges gradually died out.
When Charlemagne died in 814, he left behind a highly organized and well-administered empire that stretched from the Elbe to the Pyrenees, but his successor, Louis the Pious, failed to maintain the unity of the Empire due to disputes between his sons (Lothar, Louis, and Charles the Bald). In 843, the Treaty of Verdun divided the Empire into three kingdoms. Charles the Bald (reigned 843-877) attempted to re-establish imperial authority but a process of decline began, aggravated by the Norman invasions.
Collective work: Moyen Age: Chrétienté et Islam (The Middle Ages: Christianity and Islam), Paris, 1996, Flammarion.
Caillet, J.-P., L’art Carolingien, Paris, 2005, Flammarion, Tout l’Ar.
Sénac, P., Les Carolingians et Al-Andalus: VIIIe-IXe siècle, Paris, 2002, Maisonneuve et Larose.