Saturday, December 1, 2007

Summary of Lecture Twelve

As a mnemonic we alluded to the old triple sequence of archaic/classic/baroque. In a rough sort of way the sequence of the books of Durrow, Lindisfarne, and Kells accords with this scheme. As a footnote to the last lecture, we examined some striking images from the Echternach Gospels, a work that falls between Durrow and Lindisfarne. As posited by O.-K. Werckmeister, the image of the man seem to incorporate a numerological allusion pertaining to the word Adam. The Echternach image of the lion is possibly the ultimate masterpiece of Insular illumination.

By way of introduction to the Carolingian era, the Pirenne thesis was discussed. The noted Belgian historian expounded this concept in his late book, titled "Mohammed and Charlemagne." Weighing in on the perennial problem of the Fall of Rome, Pirenne held that the status quo largely prevailed through the sixth century, as the barbarian rulers sought to maintain the amenities of civilized Romsn life. It was the Islamic conquests in the seventh century that effected fundamental change, isolating Western Europe in a "natural" economy dependent on barter. The change forced the West back on its own resources, reorienting its fundamental axis to the northwest, with the great rivers of the Loire, the Seine, the Meuse, the Rhine, and the Elbe as the new "highways."

While some erosion of detail has occurred, essentially the Pirenne thesis seems to have held. This means that there is a basic disconnect between the revivalist ideology of Charlemagne's brains trust and the reality on the ground. (Needless to say, this was not to be the first time in which geopolitical reality clashed with ideological aspiration.)

In many respects, Charlemagne's court was peripatetic, in order to take advantage of local tribute and also to fight his numerous frontier wars. Yet a capital of a sort arose at Aachen on the western fringe of Germany. Here the palace chapel of 805 survives (then part of a larger complex, including the throne hall). The plan and elevation stem from San Vitale in Ravenna, with simplifications.

The gate house at Lorsch is a variation on a Roman triumphal arch, with a strong northern input in the chromaticism of the geometrical surface patterns.

Insight into the transition from Merovingian art to Carolingian is afforded by the two covers of the Lindau Gospels (Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum). The lower cover is dominated by barbarian lacertines, possibly with an apotropaic purpose. The upper cover, with its delicate figures in relief, is a superb example of Carolingian goldsmiths work.

We then focused on three illuminated manuscripts, representatives (as it were) of the archaic, classic, and baroque phases of Carolingian art. The images in the Godescalc Gospels (completed in 783) are somewhat awkward, also showing traces of insular influence. The full-page frontal image of Christ is virtually an icon, reflecting Charlemagne's policy of resistance to Byzantine iconoclasm.

The Coronation Gospels in Vienna is a purple manuscript, showing a strong classical influence.

Finally, the Ebbo Gospels (of the Reims school) exhibits a powerful expressionism. The deliberate distortions of the figure of Matthew are echoed by the "animation" of the landscape. The whole is a vivid depiction of the ecstasy of sacred inspiration.

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