posted on 03/04/23
Crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800, Charlemagne’s ambition to restore the Roman Empire in the West, rested as much on a vision of cultural resurgence – renovatio Romanorum imperii, as it did on military conquest. Assisted by a group of international scholars and artists, Charlemagne’s reforms manifested themselves in a flowering of scholarship, literature, art and architecture throughout the realm.
Following the collapse of the Carolingian empire and a period of turbulence, Saxony was the first area to return to stable government. On his imperial enthronement in 963, Otto I recommitted to a renovatio imperii defining this as a Regnum Italicum. The outstanding achievements in architecture, dazzling bronze and gold works and superlative sculpture of this era demonstrate strong links with the Carolingian tradition, while at the same time confidently proclaiming a new age. The German Romanesque reached its apogee with Salian and Hohenstaufen art and architecture. By the mid-13th century, the arrival of the Gothic style in Germany marked a new beginning.
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The best preserved Carolingian imperial palaces are located in Aachen and Ingelheim. The palace chapel in Aachen (793¬–813) is an icon of early medieval architecture. Its furnishings, including the famous throne of Charlemagne, give an intimate insight into concepts of imperial rule and identity during his reign. Architectural spolia, such as columns, capitals, fresco fragments and precious porphyry found at the site of the palace at Ingelheim provide a vivid image of imperial splendour.
Carolingian abbey churches and cathedrals were surprisingly richly endowed with fresco painting, stucco sculpture and even stained glass windows that survive from Paderborn and Corvey in the north to Mals and Mustair in the south. Carolingian ring crypts, the oldest type of crypt deriving from St Peter’s in Rome, were designed for the growing worship of relics. Beautiful examples still exist in Regensburg and Essen-Werden. Reliquaries, resplendent with gold and jewels, served the same purpose and play a prominent role in the almost theatrically staged veneration of saints.
Otto the Great, reunified the German empire with his Regnum Italicum, adopting the styles and dimensions of Carolingian buildings. The art of Byzantium became a major stylistic influence in the Ottonian period. Claiming equal status with the Byzantine emperors in the east, the marriage between Otto II and the Byzantine princess Theophanu was a political achievement with far-reaching impact on the arts. At the same time, the highly influential bishops of the empire, paved the way for the development of a truly new and distinct form of German architecture.
In the field of the precious arts, cult objects such as wooden carved Madonnas, lavishly gilded and gem studded or polychromed, led the way to free-standing three-dimensional sculpture. Byzantine influence is tangible in many of the crucifixes made from wood, gold and silver. Crux gemmata, gem encrusted processional crosses, are among the most spectacular noble commissions of this era. The imperial crown, possibly created for the imperial coronation of Otto I in the second half of the 10th-century is an absolute masterpiece of gold and enamel work, telling us much about imperial self-identity at the time.
The Salian Henry IV was a pugnacious character, deeply convinced of his divine mission to rule as Holy Roman Emperor. His actions brought him into conflict with the princes of the empire and also with Pope Gregory VII, who excommunicated him in 1076. Against this backdrop, Henry redesigned Speyer Cathedral, which had been built by his grandfather Konrad II as burial site and memorial for the Salian dynasty. Magnificent vaulting throughout and a new east end were added to impressive effect. Meanwhile, princely opposition had elected a counter-king. The centre of conspiratorial power was the imperial palace in Goslar, where astonishing bronze works tell a fascinating story of betrayal and presumption.
In spite of Henry IV’s penitential Walk to Canossa and ritual submission there, the controversy over precedence between the empire and the papacy continued to foment. When Frederick I attempted to restore the complete imperial power attained by Charlemagne, conflict with the papacy boiled up again. Frederick’s canonization of Emperor Charlemagne and the theft of the relics of the Three Kings from Milan resulted not only in the proclamation of the Sacrum Imperium, but also in the commission of outstanding objects of art in Aachen and Cologne.
Specialist in mediaeval art and architecture. She studied art history and archaeology at the University of Regensburg and King’s College Aberdeen. Her PhD focused on art exhibitions and the cultural politics of post-war Germany. She has taught at university and now lectures for various cultural institutions as well as organising and leading many study days and trips in Germany and Austria.
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