In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Carolingian Manuscript Illumination

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Historical Sources
  • Contributions to the Development of Carolingian Book Painting
  • Courtly Art Linked to Aachen and Charlemagne
  • Courtly Art Linked to Louis the Pious and Lothar
  • Leiden Aratea
  • Drogo and Episcopal Manuscript Production in Metz
  • Handbook of 809 and Carolingian Diagrams
  • Ebbo and Hincmar, Manuscript Production in the See of Reims
  • Utrecht Psalter and Carolingian Creativity
  • Monastic Manuscript Production in Tours
  • Courtly Art Linked to Charles the Bald
  • Books for Sacred Study from Fulda and the Franco-Saxon School
  • Monastic Manuscript Production and St. Gall

Medieval Studies Carolingian Manuscript Illumination
Eric Ramírez-Weaver
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0116


Away from home during his fourth journey to Rome and in celebration of Christmas Day at the end of the year 800, Charlemagne made his way to Old St. Peter’s basilica at the Vatican Hill. When Pope Leo III (795–816) universally acknowledged the Frankish king from north of the Alps as the emperor of the Romans, not only did Leo recognize and legitimize the interdependence of sacred and secular authority mutually shared by the two leaders. Leo III also gave his imprimatur to the renovatio underway throughout the Frankish lands. Carolingian manuscript illuminations reveal alternatively their emphasis upon a return to classical or Italo-Byzantine illusionism in certain figures and spaces, the decorative refinement of their interlace, the masterful pursuit of the decorative and narrative potential of the historiated initial, and an extensive experimental range of calligraphic or painterly pictorial styles. This diversity of artistic output documents more than a renewal of classical and late Antique pictorial precedents. The vast array of image types and styles of spatial organization reveal instead the inventive legacy of an artistic period in which the foundations not only of medieval but future Western art forms take root. As crafted confessions of Christian piety and the sacred interpretation of the liberal arts, the illustrated codices of the Carolingian era supply a living witness to the sedulous efforts of clerics, scribes, and imported savants from abroad at creating a new Christian culture in central Europe. This curious Frankish cultural admixture was forged by joining its classical and pagan roots to an overt political platform advocating for spiritual orthodoxy and devout Christian praxis. For this reason the kinds of manuscripts illustrated from roughly 751–900 include liturgical books for church use such as evangeliaries or lectionaries (containing the relevant gospel readings for the Mass) or sacramentaries (which are service books with indications of the appropriate rites and prayers) alongside personal prayer books and psalters (with the Psalms). During the Carolingian period, the biblical text was corrected by Alcuin (b. c. 740–d. 804) while he was abbot of St. Martin at Tours and additionally by Theodulf, the bishop of Orléans. The emphasis upon textual correction and emendation contributed to a lavish array of expertly copied, decorated, and at times illuminated biblical books, including pandects (complete one-volume copies) and illustrated gospel books. Traditional approaches to the study of Carolingian manuscript illumination have tended to emphasize through stylistic analyses the various court schools and manuscript-making scriptoria associated with distinct prelates. These abbots and members of the episcopate clustered around themselves important artists who were capable of satisfying the local needs for books, fulfilling royal commissions, and even producing at times manuscripts purposefully intended for economic and evangelistic export. New directions for the exploration of Carolingian manuscript illumination, the full history of which nevertheless remains to be written, continue to explore the complicated collaborations of professional itinerant early-medieval artists who plied their trade following the work, rather than remaining linked forever to the monolithic mandates of an isolated school or scriptorium.

General Overviews

In two decrees of Charlemagne, the fundamental marching orders of the Carolingian reforms were explicitly conveyed to his “soldiers of the church.” This phrase, used by the king in the Epistola de litteris colendis (Letter on the Cultivation of Learning, 780–800), called for an educated populace better capable of advancing the renewal of classical learning along with eloquently proclaiming the evangelistic message of Christendom. Alongside this bellicose exhortation for church leaders to establish good examples through sound grammatical practice, the Admonitio Generalis (General Admonition, 23 March 789) called for the correction and emendation of the psalter, texts, songs, the computus, and the “libri catholici,” or the sacred Catholic (universal) books of the church. In general, the various surveys and appraisals of Carolingian manuscript illumination, which typically tend to canvas all of early medieval art, focus on each of these reform programs and by extension the spiritual mission of the Frankish scriptoria to varying degrees. At the more religious end of this spectrum, Schutz 2004 advocates for a comparative analysis of iconographic types, contextualizing illuminated manuscripts relative to the spiritual significance of Christian themes in other Carolingian artworks. Nearly contemporaneously, Caillet 2005 likewise attempts a holistic approach, and this work is to be celebrated for its encyclopedic inclusivity, superseding the earlier achievement of Beckwith 1969 and Holländer 1974. Caillet 2005 situates the Carolingian manuscript achievement alongside developments in architecture and other media, with an equal attentiveness both to secular political and sacred concerns. Whereas Beckwith 1969 and Holländer 1974 emphasize a stylistic catalogue of major monuments, Caillet 2005 and Nees 2002 alternatively adopt an iconological and thematic approach. Nees 2002 individually addresses the origins both of stylistic trends and the period ideas from discrete cultural traditions (Roman, pagan, Hiberno-Saxon, Byzantine, and early Christian), which gave rise to Carolingian artistic styles manifested by the book arts. Finally, three classic and accessible surveys provide the best overarching introductions to the taxonomic divisions of the various schools of Carolingian manuscript illumination for neophytes: Mütherich and Gaehde 1976, Nordenfalk 1957, and Porcher 1970.

  • Beckwith, John. Early Medieval Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1969.

    This is an invaluable introduction to the fundamental terms, schools of Carolingian manuscript illumination, and the most-important political events influencing the development of artistic trends, appropriate for undergraduate surveys. In addition to manuscript illumination, the book addresses diverse media in order to demonstrate the widespread artistic creativity of the fecund Carolingian era.

  • Caillet, Jean-Pierre. L’Art carolingien. Paris: Éditions Flammarion, 2005.

    Although unavailable in an English-language edition for students, this survey best contextualizes the Carolingian artworks discussed, while supplying excellent summaries of the state of research on each item adduced. Rather than attempting an adventurous synthesis of the philosophical ideas and discrete cultural precursors that gave rise to Carolingian books (as in Nees 2002), the achievement of this book lies in its expansive approach.

  • Holländer, Hans. Early Medieval. New York: Universe Books, 1974.

    Released in 1990 as a volume in the series The Universe History of Art and Architecture, this is a reprinting of a 1974 English translation from the original German, executed by the English firm of George Weidenfeld and Nicolson. The book contains a helpful introduction, which underscores the stylistic diversity of the Carolingian era, admonishing the reader to adopt a contextual approach. Manuscripts arise at the intersection of intellectual and aesthetic concerns, on the one hand, and economic or political exigencies on the other.

  • Mütherich, Florentine, and Joachim E. Gaehde. Carolingian Painting. New York: George Braziller, 1976.

    Excellent introduction to the standard divisions of illuminated manuscripts into court schools and monastic centers of production. Judiciously illustrated with good-quality plates for the 1970s and thoroughly introduced by the grand doyenne of Carolingian manuscript studies, Florentine Mütherich. The book offers an accessible and English-language summary of the information developed in the exhaustive series by Wilhelm Koehler and Florentine Mütherich, Die karolingischen Miniaturen (Koehler and Mütherich 1930–2009, cited under Reference Works).

  • Nees, Lawrence. Early Medieval Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Most comprehensive and methodologically sound overview of the development of a Carolingian pictorial system, from its roots in late Antiquity through to its full development in the 9th century, sensitively nuancing the contributions of non-Christian communities. The text enables the reader to grapple with essential art-historical debates: word and image, iconoclasm, heterodoxy vs. orthodoxy, artistic identity, tradition vs. innovation, and courtly vs. monastic artistic traditions.

  • Nordenfalk, Carl. Early Medieval Book Illumination. New York: Skira, 1957.

    Reprinted in a paperback edition of 1988. This edition is also useful for its account of pre-Carolingian manuscript illumination, including a succinct discussion of Merovingian contributions to the development of Carolingian book arts.

  • Porcher, Jean. “Book Painting.” In The Carolingian Renaissance. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. Edited by André Malraux, André Parrot, and Albert Beuret, 71–202. New York: George Braziller, 1970.

    Published as the Carolingian volume in the dated but ever-useful series of publications, The Arts of Mankind, under the editorial direction of André Malraux and André Parrot, supervised by managing editor-in-charge Albert Beuret. This text contains lackluster plates but supplied the definitive introduction to Carolingian manuscript illumination for a generation of scholars in the 1970s. Includes many well-researched names, dates, and historical events surrounding the manufacture of Carolingian codices.

  • Schutz, Herbert. The Carolingians in Central Europe, Their History, Arts and Architecture: A Cultural History of Central Europe, 750–900. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2004.

    Many university libraries provide electronic access to the e-book version of this text, making its current treatment of Carolingian manuscript illumination readily accessible. It fills an important void in many of the alternative accounts of the topic, by situating the study of book arts within and relative to a larger study of early medieval literary and textual traditions.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.