Carolingian Renaissance: The Revival of Classical Style Inspired by Constantine

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Words: 1867 |

Pages: 4|

10 min read

Published: Jul 7, 2022

Words: 1867|Pages: 4|10 min read

Published: Jul 7, 2022

The revival of the Western Roman Empire, an empire that lasted for over a millennium, an empire that rivaled the Byzantine Empire, an empire that helped shape modern Europe as we know it, and all came from a group of people with the same name as some sketchy dive bar, Franks. This empire was founded when Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Lombards, of the Carolingian dynasty was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III in the year 800 CE. Charlemagne saw himself as Dr. Nancy Ross said, “as the new Constantine”, so Charlemagne implemented new reforms such as church reforms from his “Adomonitio Generalis” and cultural reforms from him his “Epistola de litteris colendis”. Those reforms led to the invitation “of the greatest scholars from all over Europe to come to court and give advice for his renewal of politics, church, art, and literature”, these reforms led to what is now known as the Carolingian Renaissance. The Carolingian Empire, soon to be known as the Holy Roman Empire, wanted to be the revival of the Western Roman Empire, but with a more Christian background, and Charlemagne wanted to emulate Constantine which can be seen all throughout their art and architecture. The five works of art this paper will be discussing are the portrait of Saint Matthew from the Ebbo Gospels, the Portrait of Saint Mark from the Ebbo Gospels, the Palatine Chapel, and the Santa Prasedde, and the Lindau Gospel cover. These works of art represent the influence that the Byzantine style, Classical style, and early Christian art styles had on the Carolingian Renaissance.

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The Ebbo Gospels was an illuminated gospel book from the Carolingian Empire the gospel contains many images but the main two are the portraits of Saint Mark and Saint Matthew which are perfect examples of how Carolingian art was influenced by the both the Byzantine style and the Classical style. The Byzantine influence in both these works of art can be seen in the iconography in how these are literal saints who are spreading the word of God, and the other Byzantine influence is that the portraits are a part of an illuminated manuscript which was a huge thing in the Byzantine Empire. The question comes up though why did the Byzantine Empire have such a huge influence on these two portraits. As it turns out during the Carolingian Renaissance the Byzantine Empire was going through its Iconoclasm phase which saw the destruction of many pieces of art because they were showing holy figures in human form. With many Byzantine artists losing their jobs and having their works destroyed and a new empire being formed inviting scholars from all over Europe was the best place for the Byzantine artists to relocate to as Ruth Berenson said, “Greek artists fleeing the Byzantine Iconoclasm of the eighth century”. The influence of the classical style can also be easily seen in the portraits of Saint Matthew and Saint Mark in the Ebbo Gospels, respectively, as Dr. Nancy Ross and Dr. Jennifer Awes Freeman pointed out in their video “Saint Matthew from the Ebbo Gospels”, in the portrait of Saint Matthew you can see these frenzied lines could have been Carolingian artists interpretation of the classic drawing style, they do not point out the frenzied lines in Saint Mark’s portrait but it was still drawn in the same style. They are correct though, the frenzied lines have an uncanny resemblance to the tunics worn in the Roman Empire portraits, but also to this writer it has a lot of similarities to the statue of Augustus of Primaporta. Whereas in the lines of August bunched-up tunics are eerily similar. In the portrait of Saint Matthew Dr. Ross and Dr. Freeman again point out another influence from the classical style in their video “Saint Matthew from the Ebbo Gospels” in the upper portion of the portrait you can see the classical drawn landscape and buildings which can be seen all throughout the Roman art period, but to this writer, they are like the Painted Garden, Villa of Livia. These two works of art clearly show the influence that the Byzantine and Classic styles had on Carolingian art.

The Palatine Chapel was a part of the Aachen Palace, which was the crown jewel of Carolingian architecture, but the architect of this magnificent building drew its inspiration from Byzantine minds. The Palatine Palace was based off the San Vitale and according to Dr. Freeman “The San Vitale Chapel at Ravenna is probably the best comparison for what the Palatine Chapel looked like before its Gothic renovations”. The Palatine Chapel follows the floor plan of the San Vitale whereas in the Palatine chapel is an octagonal-shaped church with a centralized plan. The Palatine Chapel also takes inspiration from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which comes from the early Christian art period, the Palatine Chapel follows a centralized plan as noted earlier but it also has a surrounding ambulatory and upper gallery as Dr. Freeman notes in article Palatine Chapel, Aachen. According to Dr. Freeman, it was created by Constantine’s mother Saint Helena. The Palatine Chapel also uses an octagonal dome which can be seen used all throughout Byzantine architecture, but this dome is special because it also has iconographic traits as well. According to a video put out by UNESCO titled Aachen Cathedral, the number eight plays a major role in the Christian religion, an octagon can be drawn by two intersecting squares within a circle, and the circle represents God’s eternity while the square represents the secular world. With that definition from the UNESCO video, the use of an octagonal dome on the Palatine Chapel is exceptional. The Palatine Chapel also contains many mosaics and used to the iconography and symbolism as Dr. Freeman said, “the original dome bore an apocalyptic mosaic program consisting of the Lamb of God surrounded by the tetramorph (symbols of the four Gospel writers) and the twenty-four elders described in Revelations 4:4”. Having the representation of Jesus and four of his disciples are some of the biggest icons artists used both in the Carolingian Empire, Byzantine Empire, and early Christian art worlds. The Palatine Chapel is a glorious building, but this building would not exist in its current form if it were not for the works of the Byzantine empire and the early Christian art style. The funny thing about the Palatine Chapel though is it is based off a building that was created by the mother of the man Charlemagne was trying to emulate.

The Santa Prassede contains a beautiful mosaic in the apse from the Carolingian Empire that follows the Byzantine style. The subjects in the mosaic according to Richard Bowen, Dr. Beth Harris, and Dr. Steven Zucker in the video Mosaics, Santa Prassede (Praxedes), Rome are, Saint Praxedes, Jesus Christ, Saint Paul, the apostles represented by lambs leaving the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and Saint Paschal who is presenting the church. The interesting thing about Saint Paschal, who was then Pope at the time of this mosaic’s creation, is the square halo around his head. According to Mr. Bowen, Dr. Harris, and Dr. Zucker in their video Mosaics, Santa Prassede (Praxedes), Rome the square halo in Christian iconography represents a saint who is still alive in the timing of their depiction. Now, Saint Paschal was also Pope at the time of this mosaic so that means that Pope Paschal canonized himself and it makes sense that his depiction is presenting the church to Jesus Christ since the pope is the head of the Catholic Church and the heir to Saint Peter. The mosaic not only follows the Byzantine style just because it is a mosaic, but it follows it in the sense that the images are extremely flat and by the definition of flat it means that there is no sense of a third dimension. Another thing Richard Bowen, Dr. Harris, and Dr. Zucker point out in their video Mosaics, Santa Prassede (Praxedes) is that the figures in the mosaic ignore the groundline that has been used in many pre-Christian periods by the figure's feet just appear to be dangling, which can also be seen in Byzantine works as well. The mosaics in the Santa Prassede are a prime example of the influence the Byzantine style had on Carolingian art.

The Lindau Gospel cover is an extraordinary work of art made out of gold, pearls, emeralds, rubies, and many other fine jewels that shows the depiction of Christ in His crucifixion, this piece represents the influence that classical style had on the Carolingian Renaissance. The mediums of the cover are not just to make it look wonderful but each one of the materials has symbolism of how to get to the heavenly city of Jerusalem from the Book of Revelations as Dr. Ross and Dr. Zucker point out in their video, Lindau Gospels Cover. The gospels cover also shows a very Carolingian style Christ called the Triumphant Christ that Dr. Ross and Dr. Zucker claim in their video Lindau Gospels Cover, which means that Christ shows no suffering in his crucifixion. The cross upon further inspection is extremely detailed in the fact that it has arches all around it. The Lindau Gospel cover is a clear representation of the influence of classical style which can be seen in the cloth of Christ and the two figures below him, as Dr. Ross and Dr. Zucker tell in their video Lindau Gospels Cover by, looking back to the classical art in the cloth, because classical art was concerned with drapery and drapery folds, and the Carolingian artists are trying to revive the classical art style. The revival of the classical style can be seen throughout some earlier examples of this paper, but the Lindau Gospels cover shows it the best because the figures especially the figure of Christ do not contain any abstract muscles and have been smoothed. The figures were made with a technique where they were hammered in from the inside, which is called the Repoussé technique as Dr. Ross and Dr. Zucker say in their video Lindau Gospels Cover. With all this evidence it is clear to say that the Lindau Gospels Cover were influenced by the Classical style.

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All these works of art and architecture are glorious in their own ways, but these works of representing the influence that the Byzantine, Classical style and early Christian styles had on the Carolingian Renaissance. Charlemagne wanted to resurrect the Roman Empire as a new Christian empire with the Carolingian Renaissance he did that and more. The Carolingian Renaissance and the amazing works of art and architecture that came from it were just the beginning for this empire. The whole art world needs to thank the Carolingian empire for what it did for medieval art by going away from the abstract human form and bringing it back to the more natural classical style human form. Its architecture is still stunning to this day, but it could not have been possible without the inspiration from the early Christian style and especially the Byzantine style. Truly a glorious empire that would shape modern Europe even the modern world all thanks to one man and his wonderful renaissance.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Carolingian Renaissance: The Revival of Classical Style Inspired by Constantine. (2022, July 07). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from
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