In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ottonian Art

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Patronage
  • Byzantine Influences
  • Architecture
  • Sculpture
  • Metalwork
  • Ivory Carving
  • Textiles

Medieval Studies Ottonian Art
Karen Blough
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0066


This entry includes texts that address the visual arts primarily in the area represented by present-day Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands—the heart of the early medieval Holy Roman Empire—between about 950 and 1125, that is, during the reign of the culturally undifferentiated Ottonian and Salian dynasties (919–1024 and 1024–1125, respectively). The designation “Ottonian” derives from the prominence of Otto I the Great (r. 936–973), the first emperor of this Saxon dynasty, and his son and grandson, Otto II (r. 973–983) and Otto III (r. 983–1002). During Otto I’s reign, a cultural flowering began whose characteristics, in the visual arts and architecture, exhibited a fair degree of consistency into the 12th century. Initially, Ottonian artists responded chiefly to Late Antique and, especially, Carolingian sources, a choice of models dictated in part by availability and perceived relevance and in part by Otto I’s programmatic intent to associate himself with Charlemagne, Justinian, and Constantine. By the time the 10th century came to a close, however, Ottonian artists had developed a unique manner that largely eschewed figural naturalism and spatial illusionism in favor of imagery emphasizing metaphysical and hieratic values. The mature Ottonian style, most famously represented by the rich body of illumination created at Reichenau, dominated the following century. An interest in Ottonian art—particularly manuscript illumination, metalwork, ivory carving, and architecture—has been manifest in German-language art history since the late 19th century, but it is only from the late 20th century that scholars writing in English have followed suit. Although early studies foregrounded issues of style and artistic identity, the role of the patron, frequently a member of the royal family or a prominent ecclesiastic (or both), soon emerged as a principal theme in Ottonian studies. Most surviving Ottonian works were created for a sacred purpose, and recent scholarship has attempted to view them contextually, particularly in light of interrelated practices of gift-giving, commemoration of the deceased, and construction of community identity. The scope of patronage studies has furthermore been broadened to include the important role played by Ottonian women patrons. Because of the long-standing predominance of German scholarship in Ottonian studies, German-language titles figure prominently in this article; however, works in English are included to the greatest extent possible.

General Overviews

For a brief but comprehensive introduction to Ottonian art, see Elbern 1964: much like the basic but lengthier discussions in Grodecki 1973 and Kubach and Elbern 1976, it does not assume prior knowledge. Jantzen 1947 is the earliest study of Ottonian art and architecture; it remains an extremely valuable general but intellectually sophisticated study. Schramm 1983 and Schramm and Mütherich 1962 address the visual expression of kingship, a prominent aspect of Ottonian art. Of early-21st-century date and including many very high-quality photographs is Beuckers, et al. 2002, which addresses various aspects of Ottonian art and architecture in individual essays.

  • Beuckers, Klaus Gereon, Johannes Cramer, and Michael Imhof, eds. Die Ottonen: Kunst, Architektur, Geschichte. Petersberg, Germany: Michael Imhof Verlag, 2002.

    Holistic exploration of Ottonian culture, with essays both broad in scope, such as chapters on Ottonian wall painting and Ottonian architecture, and focused on specific, important monuments (e.g., the palatine complex at Tilleda and the church of St. Wiperti in Quedlinburg). Important recent resource because of both its scope and its copious, excellent illustrations.

  • Elbern, Victor. “Die bildende Kunst der Ottonenzeit zwischen Maas und Elbe.” In Das erste Jahrtausend: Kultur und Kunst im werdenden Abendland an Rhein und Ruhr. Vol. 2. Edited by Victor Elbern, 1014–1042. Düsseldorf: Verlag L. Schwann, 1964.

    Introductory essay on Ottonian art, including wall and book painting and large- and small-scale sculpture in various materials. Extensive but dated bibliography.

  • Grodecki, Louis. Le siècle de l’an mil. Paris: Gallimard, 1973.

    Also published as Die Zeit der Ottonen und Salier (Munich: Beck, 1973); the French-language edition is more widely available in the United States. Includes chapters on architecture and architectural decoration, manuscript illumination, and small-scale sculpture in metal and ivory, chiefly in the Ottonian Empire. Copious photographs, diagrams, and maps.

  • Jantzen, Hans. Ottonische Kunst. Munich: Münchner Verlag, 1947.

    Original, most widely accessible edition of the classic study of Ottonian art. Includes 174 plates with old but high-quality black-and-white photographs of major Ottonian monuments and works in various media.

  • Kubach, Hans, and Victor Elbern. Das frühmittelalterliche Imperium. Baden-Baden, Germany: Holle, 1976.

    Originally appeared in 1968. Dense but basic discussion of Carolingian and Ottonian architecture, wall and book painting, ivory carving, metalwork, and large-scale sculpture. Illustrated with older but high-quality photographs, many in color, and numerous diagrams and plans. Good resource particularly for architecture.

  • Schramm, Percy. Die deutschen Kaiser und Könige in Bildern ihrer Zeit, 751–1190. Munich: Prestel, 1983.

    Originally appeared in 1928. Introduction to imperial portraiture followed by a catalogue of portraits in diverse contexts, including seals, coins, ivory plaques, and manuscripts. See Parts 2 and 3 for the Ottonian and Salian monarchs.

  • Schramm, Percy, and Florentine Mütherich. Denkmale der deutschen Kaiser und Könige: Ein Beitrag zur Herrschergeschichte von Karl dem Groβen bis Friedrich II, 768–1250. Munich: Prestel, 1962.

    Part 1 comprises an essay by Schramm on the trappings of medieval kingship and their accumulation, augmentation, and dispersal. In Part 2, Mütherich provides catalogue entries for characteristic objects; see pages 139–179 for the Saxon and Salian emperors. Part 3 includes the plates.

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