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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Surveys
  • Historical and Cultural Contexts
  • Related Artistic Media
  • Early Studies
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Collection Catalogues
  • Historiography and Reception

Medieval Studies Ottonian Manuscript Illumination
Joshua O'Driscoll
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0268


After the collapse of the Carolingian empire in the 880s, the east Frankish kingdom (roughly equivalent to modern-day Germany with parts of Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands) experienced a period of pronounced instability in which political authority became largely decentralized in the hands of local dukes. Despite the challenges posed by crumbling political structures and repeated foreign incursions (Vikings from the north and Magyar attacks from the east), one such duke was particularly effective at building alliances and establishing stability in the region. This man, Henry I (also called Henry the Fowler), was a duke of Saxony, and his election as king of East Francia in 919 essentially established a new line of rulers that would continue to hold power in the region for more than a century. This dynasty, known as the Ottonians after their penchant for the name Otto, succeeded in transforming a kingdom into an empire by bringing northern Italy under their authority. This transformation was marked by the imperial coronation of Otto I, son of Henry I, which took place in 962 at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. As emperors, the Ottonians looked back not only to Imperial Rome, but also to the model established by the Carolingian empire. Just as Charlemagne and his successors cultivated learning and the production of manuscripts, so too did the Ottonians. The production of illuminated manuscripts, however, seems to have taken time to develop—picking up only toward the end of the 10th century. Unlike the Carolingians, there were never “court schools” of painting. Rather, illuminated manuscripts were produced at important monastic centers, many of which were closely tied to the imperial family. As an art-historical category, Ottonian manuscript illumination generally refers to book painting produced in the Holy Roman Empire from the mid-10th to late-11th centuries—that is, several decades after the end of the Ottonian dynasty proper, in 1024. The majority of these illuminated manuscripts are biblical or liturgical books, many of which were intended to function as gifts or as ceremonial objects to be used on high feast days. As such, painters often made extensive use of gold, purple, and other precious materials, which transformed the books into veritable treasures. Indeed, the finest examples of Ottonian illumination count among the most spectacular survivals of art from the entire Middle Ages. Traditionally, scholarly accounts of these objects have been written largely as histories of style. To a certain extent, this is due to the dearth of factual information about when and where so many of the manuscripts were created. Nevertheless, scholars have begun to approach the corpus from several different perspectives, and now that so many manuscripts have been digitized in their entirety and are freely available online, this splendid body of material is accessible to an extent that was never possible before.

General Overviews and Surveys

The most common and accessible introduction to the topic of Ottonian manuscript illumination in the Anglophone world is Mayr-Harting 1999. For different perspectives, which offer a discussion of the topic that is more broadly framed in the context of early medieval art, see Grabar and Nordenfalk 1957 and Dodwell 1993; a useful supplement to either of these more traditional histories is Diebold 2000, which takes a thematic approach to the topic. For a focused survey of art across Europe around the turn of the millennium, see Grodecki, et al. 1973. Beuckers, et al. 2002 offers a more in-depth introduction, with a series of thematic essays relating specifically to Ottonian art and history. Jantzen 1947 is the first monographic treatment of Ottonian art and, for better or worse, introduced some long-lasting conceptions about the nature of painting in this period. While not intended to be an introductory survey, Kuder and Beuckers 2018 treats the major aspects of Ottonian illumination at length and provides the only census of all the known manuscripts.

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

    An important and richly illustrated survey of Ottonian art and history, with a number of concise essays by established scholars in the field.

  • Diebold, William J. Word and Image: An Introduction to Early Medieval Art. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.

    A lucid and highly readable introduction to the topic of early medieval art, which is arranged thematically rather than the more traditional approach based on histories of style.

  • Dodwell, C. R. The Pictorial Arts of the West, 800–1200. Pelican History of Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

    A widely available introduction to early medieval manuscript illumination, as well as a variety of other “pictorial” media (e.g., mosaics, stained glass, textiles). The section on Ottonian painting focuses primarily on a few select centers of production. The author is highly skeptical of Reichenau’s traditional status as a major center of illumination.

  • Grabar, André, and Carl Nordenfalk. Early Medieval Painting from the Fourth to the Eleventh Century. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. The Great Centuries of Painting. New York: Skira, 1957.

    Grabar authored the first part on mosaics and mural painting, while Nordenfalk contributed an excellent survey of manuscript illumination from Late Antiquity through to the 11th century. The section on Ottonian manuscript illumination is particularly inspired and well worth reading. Unfortunately, the book is marred by a terrible translation, which is often inaccurate. Use the German or French editions of this text if possible.

  • Grodecki, Louis, Florentine Mütherich, Jean Taralon, and Francis Wormald. Le siècle de l’an mil. L’univers des formes. Paris: Gallimard, 1973.

    An important overview of 10th- and 11th-century art. Florentine Mütherich provides a solid account of manuscript illumination across a broad geographic range, including French, Flemish, and Spanish material that is often overlooked in such surveys. The appendix provides useful chronological timelines, building plans, and maps.

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

    As the first major survey of Ottonian art, Jantzen’s publication is useful today more for a historiographic perspective on the subject than as a source of information in its own right. He did, however, introduce some long-lasting concepts about the chief characteristics of Ottonian art, most notably his idea of the Gebärdefigur (gesturing figure).

  • Kuder, Ulrich, and Klaus Gereon Beuckers. Studien zur Ottonischen Buchmalerei. 2 vols. Kieler Kunsthistorische Studien N. F., 17. Kiel, Germany: Verlag Ludwig, 2018.

    Originally completed in 1989 as a Habilitationsshrift. Kuder’s monumental study—comprising well over sixteen hundred text pages and two thousand images in nine volumes—was formerly accessible in only two copies in Stuttgart and Munich. This study treats all aspects of Ottonian illumination, but most importantly it provides the only census of the roughly four hundred illuminated manuscripts that survive from the period. The entries are arranged by regional center and accompanied by references to relevant bibliography. The published edition lacks images.

  • Mayr-Harting, Henry. Ottonian Book Illumination: An Historical Study. 2d ed. London: Harvey Miller, 1999.

    For the Anglophone world, this is perhaps the most widely read introduction to Ottonian illumination. As the title suggests, Mayr-Harting was trained as an historian, and his approach to the topic often emphasizes the political dimensions of the manuscripts. The somewhat unusual organization of the text reflects the book’s origins as a series of lectures. On the whole, it is a useful introduction but not the most balanced treatment of the material.

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