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The Cambridge Dictionary defines the phrase ‘melting pot’ as a place where many different people and ideas exist together, often mixing and producing something new. Today, the rule of Charlemagne and his court is often described as a cultural melting pot, but is this true of the art and architecture produced there? Yes, the art and architecture of the Carolingian period can also be described as a cultural melting pot because old and new ideas in art and architecture, as well as cultures, come together to make a style of art and architecture that is new. I will show this by first discussing the history of Charlemagne and his court and then discussing the works silver denarius of Charlemagne, and the art and architecture found in the palace of Aachen complex, showing how they reflect the aspects of a cultural melting pot, as the court of Charlemagne did.
Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was a Frank and ruled during a period that is called the Carolingian period. His empire was a combination of many kingdoms that him and his predecessors had conquered over the decades and this empire was located in the area that is now modern day France and part of modern day Germany. Charlemagne continued, and intensified an alliance with the Catholic Church that his father, Pippin the Short, had begun. This alliance was useful to both parties because the Church needed Charlemagne’s Empire to defend it and Charlemagne needed the Church as a way to legitimize his rule and authority. This alliance was intensified when the Pope crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800.
The rule of Charlemagne was unique in that it brought together many kingdoms in Western Europe that had not been united for a long time. Due to the fact that he was ruling over so many different kingdoms and people who had different cultures and languages, he became invested in creating a consolidated empire with continuity throughout. There were many initiatives that he started in order to obtain this goal. He began by using education and religion to bring everyone together. He wanted the upper classes to be educated, especially members of the church so that they would be teaching the same and correct messages to the regular civilians. Charlemagne brought in educators from all over the world in order to increase education within the empire. He returned to the use of Latin in what he believed to be its original classic form and had many people learn this form of Latin so that there was a common written language. In addition to this he created Carolingian Miniscule, which was a new script to be used in manuscripts. He created this because it was uniform and easy to read so that every literate person in the empire would be able to read any manuscript that they picked up. Charlemagne was focused on correcting, reforming, and standardizing in order to bring the empire together as a whole.
Another focus that Charlemagne had was the revival of the Classics, especially that of Ancient Rome. He was fascinated with Constantine who was the Roman Emperor that brought Christinity to the Romans. Charlemagne sought to emanate Constantine in any way that he could because he saw himself as similar, as a Christian Holy Roman Emperor.
The first work that I will be discussing is the Silver Denarius of Charlemagne. This is a coin that was created during the Carolingian period. The denarius is a clear example of how Charlemagne emanated Ancient Rome, but combined it with new ideas. On the front of the coin is an image of Charlemagne in profile, which is clearly an idea that came from Ancient Roman coins. However, even though he is clearly copying the style of Ancient Roman coins, the back of this coin is different from those of Ancient Rome. On the back of the Denarius of Charlemagne is an image that shows a church with a cross in the middle. The Ancient Roman coins have the image of a pagan temple on the back. Clearly Charlemagne took this general idea, but changed it and added new ideas, Christianity, to make it relevant in present day while still referencing the past. This is an example of a cultural melting pot because the ideas from the past and the present are coming together in order to make something entirely new.
The Palace at Aachen was one of Charlemagne’s most important palaces and he resided there frequently. The palace is located on the site of an old Roman town and the remains of Roman baths still exist on the site. In addition to this, the chapel that is found in the palace complex is one of the most well-preserved Carolingian buildings and is therefore one of the most famous. The Palace at Aachen is a large complex that consists of several different buildings. The main structures are the throne room, the gate, and the chapel. I will discuss each structure and how it reflects the characteristics of a cultural melting pot.
I will begin by discussing the throne room. This building is in the northern part of the complex and connected to the gate by a two story walkway. The throne room is two stories and has three apses. This three apse style is called a triclinium and is reminiscent of Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, which has a very similar three apse style. In addition to this, there are other references to Rome in the building, such as the recessed windows that are reminiscent of Constantine’s audience hall in Trier. These are two major ways that this building is drawing on ancient styles and ideas. This building shows the combination of Ancient Rome, Christian Rome, and new styles are all coming together in order to make an entirely new style that is known as the Carolingian style.
The next building in the palace complex that I will discuss is the palace chapel, also known as that Palatine Chapel. As aforementioned, the palace chapel is one of the best preserved examples of Carolingian buildings as is one of the most famous. The chapel has a central plan that is octagonal in nature. The inside has an ambulatory around the central nave with a second story gallery above and a dome over the nave. This specific type of plan is reminiscent of two famous buildings. The first being the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy and the second being the Golden Reception hall of the Sacred Palace in Constantinople. This shows the influence of both Rome and early christian Byzantine art going into this new church, bringing ideas and influence from different places and periods together to create a new idea. The chapel also has a throne for Charlemagne and it is believed that this throne was placed directly underneath the image of Christ showing the connection between Charlemagne and his rule and higher powers. Another major aspect of this chapel is that Charlemagne used spolia in its creation. This means that material from other works of art from Ancient Rome were removed from where they were originally placed and were transported to Aachen, Germany and used to build this new chapel. An example of spolia used in the palace chapel is columns that were used in the archways of the gallery. These columns serve no structural purpose, so their only purpose is a deliberate and symbolic use of ancient materials to show a connection between Charlemagne and his empire and Rome. This chapel shows a continuation of Carolingian art and architecture being the culmination of old and new ideas to create something entirely new.
The last two works at the Palace at Aachen that I will discuss are the pine cone and the bronze doors. The first work, as the name would suggest, is a bronze pine cone that was found inside of the palace chapel. On the pine cone, there are four allegorical figures that represent four different rivers. It is thought that the pine cone is unfinished and it was initially intended to be a fountain. This work is clearly modelled after the ancient pigna in the vatican which also resembles a large pine cone. The last work is the bronze doors of the chapel. These bronze doors are similar to the pine cone in that they also take their inspiration from classical ornamentation and Ancient Rome. The most relevant aspect of the bronze doors is the door handles. The door handles are ornamented lion heads that would have had ring pulls. This is a style that clearly was inspired by Ancient Rome. The ancient pigna is a work that comes from Ancient Rome and bronze lion heads with ring pulls also pulls ideas from Ancient Rome, so both of these works that are found in the palace chapel at Aachen are more ways of tying Charlemagne and his empire to Rome and show how Carolingian art brings together many varying ideas.
In conclusion, the Silver Denarius of Charlemagne and the various art works and architecture found at the Palace of Aachen, including the throne room, palace chapel, bronze pine cone, and bronze doors, all show how art in the Carolingian period brought together many different ideas from various periods of time throughout history to create a completely new style and a new set of ideas that is unique unto itself. This shows that the art and architecture that was produced under Charlemagne can also be described as a cultural melting pot, in addition to his court. The history of Charlemagne’s empire and initiatives that he started, such as uniform script, education, and a standardized Latin, all support the idea that every aspect of Charlemagne’s empire was about bringing different people and ideas together in order to create a new and unique whole. These ideas match the definition of a cultural melting pot – a place where many different people and ideas exist together, often mixing and producing something new.
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