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27 Jul

Pre-Romanesque Art and Architecture

A photo of the Baptistery of the Frejus Cathedral, France, 5th century

Baptistery of the Frejus Cathedral, France

Pre-Romanesque art and architecture marked the period from the early 6th to the early 11th century. The period of instability and turmoils of the Migration Period was followed by the emergence of numerous short-lived states, while the powerful nobles struggled with each other for territory and power. Besides inner instability the period from the early 6th to the early 11th century also saw the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula and Southern Italy, Viking raids in the British isles and western France, and Magyar invasions in Central Europe. Except for religious buildings, predominantly baptisteries no major constructions were built nor planned from the 5th to the 8th century.

A photo of the Galarus Oratory in Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry, Ireland

Galarus Oratory, Ireland

Religious architecture also dominated in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Anglo-Saxon buildings were generally simple and modest, while the oratories and churches in Ireland from 6th and 7th centuries were distinctive for their shape resembling an upturned boat.

Anglo-Saxon art and architecture fell under influence of the Continental Europe after the middle of the 7th century. Thus the basilican plan with two or three naves became predominant architectural style in the British isles after the middle of 7th century.

Detail from the Visigothic Church of Santa Maria de Lara (Ermita), Quintanilla de las Vinas, Spain, 7th century

Visigothic decoration, Church of Santa Maria de Lara, Spain

The Iberian Peninsula was dominated by the Visigothic art and architecture characterized by horse-shoe arches and animal or plant motifs until the Muslim conquest in the first half of the 8th century.

Plan of the Mausoleum of Theodoric, Ravenna, Italy, 6th century

Plan of the Mausoleum of Theodoric, Ravenna, Italy, 6th century

Italy was greatly influenced by the Byzantine as well as by the Early Christian art and architecture in period from 6th to the 8th century. However, the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy (493-553) and invasion and conquest of Italy by the Lombards in 568 also left their mark on Pre-Romanesque art and architecture in Italy. The finest examples of the Byzantine art and architecture can be seen in Ravenna (the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Basilica of San Vitale) where can be also found the Mausoleum of Theodoric built by Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great (454-526) in 520. The Mausoleum of Theodoric features some Roman architectural elements but its massive and crude structure reveals the “barbarian” construction. Most of the Lombard constructions in Italy were rebuilt and refurbished in later centuries.

The first greater change in the period of Pre-Romanesque art and architecture occurred during the reign of Charlemagne (768-814) whose empire incorporated much of Western and Central Europe. Charlemagne and his immediate successors initiated the Carolingian Renaissance in the late 8th and 9th centuries which promoted the Classical Roman art and architecture.

Floor plan of the Palatine Chapel of Aachen, France

Floor plan of Palatine Chapel of Aachen

The Palatine Chapel in Aachen which was built on Charlemagne’s order represents the central monument of the Carolingian Renaissance. It was built in Byzantine style with octagonal central dome encircling the sixteen-sided aisle greatly resembling the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Charlemagne also ordered the construction of the Palace of Aachen which unfortunately is not preserved.

A photo of westworks of the Corvey Abbey on the River Weser at Hoexter, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, 9th century

Westworks of the Corvey Abbey

Later Carolingian architecture was marked by some innovations such as the ambulatory behind the apse (the earliest known example can be seen in the Benedictine monastery of Fulda, Germany) and introduction of crypts which usually contained sarcophagi, coffins or relicts of important peoples and saints. The most notable innovation of the later Carolingian architecture was probably the westworks, a monumental west-facing entrance section.

Illumination of Saint Mark from the Ebo Gospels, before 835

Illumination of Saint Mark, early 9th century

Manuscript illuminations or miniatures, colored and gilded pictures represent the greatest achievement of the Carolingian art. Monasteries throughout the Carolingian Empire also known as the ateliers were (besides the imperial court in Aachen) the centers of Carolingian art. Each atelier developed its own style, while the characteristics of manuscript illuminations of the Carolingian period greatly depended on location of their creation. However, all ateliers were strongly influenced by the Late Antiquity and Byzantine illustrations and motifs. Classical motifs were also reflected in metal works and ivory carvings, mostly created as book covers.

The 10th century was marked by the decline of the Carolingian Empire and establishment of the Holy Roman Empire under Ottonian dynasty. Thus the period from 10th to the middle 11th century in Germany is commonly referred as the Ottonian art and architecture or Ottonian Renaissance.

A photo of the Church of Saint Michael, Hildesheim, Germany, 11th century

Church of St. Michael

Ottonian architecture was a continuation of the Carolingian and Byzantine styles but combined both architectural styles with distinctive German forms. One of the finest examples of Ottonian architecture is the Church of St. Michael in Hildesheim, Germany, which was built in the early 11th century and follows a geometrical conception.

Fine examples of Carolingian and Ottonian architecture can be also found in northern Italy where also flourished the Lombard architecture. The Carolingian elements such as ambulatory round the apse can be seen in the Cathedral of Ivrea and the Church of San Stefano in Verona, while the three apses decorated with small arches and pilaster strips in the Cathedral of Prato represent one of the finest examples of the Lombard architecture.

A photo of the interior of the Mezquita, Cordoba, Spain, 8th century

Interior of Mezquita

Pre-Romanesque art and architecture in the Iberian Peninsula was reduced to the Christian kingdoms of northern Iberia after the Muslim conquest, while the territory under Moorish rule was dominated by the Islamic art and architecture. The most splendid example of Islamic art and architecture of the Iberian Peninsula is definitely the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain. It was built as the second-largest mosque in the world but it was transformed into a Roman Catholic cathedral after the Reconquista.

Mozarabic arches, churhc of San Baudelio de Berlanga, Soria, Spain, 11th century

Mozarabic arches, churhc of San Baudelio de Berlanga, Soria, Spain, 11th century

The influence of Islamic art and architecture can be also noticed in the Christian art and architecture under Moorish rule, while the style came to be known as the Mozarabic art and architecture characterized by the use of horseshoe-shaped arches and ribbed domes.

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