Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion?

You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Learn more

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Ottonian Art

The revival of culture instituted by Charlemagne continued throughout the ninth century, but the empire that he had founded slowly disintegrated. Yet just as Charlemagne had aspired to Roman glory, later German princes yearned to restore his northern Christian empire. By the early tenth century, a ducal family from Saxony (in northern Germany) had mustered the power to claim royal standing, and in 936, Otto I, known as Otto the Great, was crowned king at Aachen; in 962, the pope invested him with the imperial title. Under the reigns of Otto I (r. 936–73), and of his son and grandson, Otto II (r. 973–83) and Otto III (r. 983–1002), the Holy Roman Empire was revived, albeit with a different geography and a different character. The Ottonian empire encompassed the lands that now are Germany, Switzerland, northern and central Italy, but not the vast French territories that Charlemagne had held. The Ottonian emperors styled themselves the equals of the greatest rulers. They constructed a palace in Rome and spent long periods there near the pope, whose spiritual authority bolstered their claim to rule by God-given right. They also sought close ties with Byzantium, a power of much superior might and sophistication, and sealed a strategic alliance when the Byzantine princess Theophano married Otto II in 972. In addition to political advantage, the Ottonians gained exposure to works of art that glorified other empires, and they in turn trumpeted their own aspirations by promoting the visual arts.

The Ottonian revival coincided with a period of growth and reform in the church, and monasteries produced much of the finest Ottonian art, including magnificent illuminated manuscripts, churches and monastic buildings, and sumptuous luxury objects intended for church interiors and treasuries. Christian iconography predominated, but political imagery was often integrated with sacred scenes. For example, the cathedral of Magdeburg, founded by Otto I, counted among its treasures a set of ivories that adorned a piece of liturgical furniture. Most of these are carved with scenes from the life of Christ, but one (41.100.157) celebrates the partnership of the church and the Ottonian state, for it represents Christ receiving the cathedral from the hands of Otto I, who approaches with draped hands and an escort of saintly protectors.

Like their Carolingian forebears, Ottonian artists privileged late antique sources and appreciated their imperial pedigree while treating them with a distinctively northern touch. An ivory panel depicting the three women at the holy sepulcher (1993.19), for instance, employs the same poses and arrangement of figures found in Early Christian versions of the subject, but the Ottonian artist has modified the style of his model, translating it into a new idiom rather than slavishly repeating it. In particular, the lines of the drapery in the Ottonian piece are more decorative and less descriptive than in late antique work and reflect a Germanic taste for abstract pattern.

Ottonian artists worked in several different centers, each of which developed its own distinctive style, conditioned at least in part by the models available for imitation. The scriptorium at Fulda, for example, produced copies of manuscripts made in Charlemagne’s time; an example is the Widukind Gospels (now Deutsche Staatsbibliothek, Berlin), which feature portraits of the Evangelists majestically enthroned. Quite different is the image of Saint Mark on an ivory made in Cologne (17.190.36): here the Evangelist bends over his desk with the implements of a scribe in his outsized hands. At Hildesheim, the redoubtable Bishop Bernward, tutor and later advisor to Emperor Otto II, commissioned ambitious works in bronze, including a column adorned with a helical frieze and a set of church doors with biblical scenes in relief, forms based on ancient imperial and Early Christian monuments in Rome. The reliefs on Bernward’s bronzes are full of figures that are rather unlike anything in Roman art, attenuated, expressive, and engaged in scenes of wonderful narrative coherence. Other workshops developed styles based on Byzantine models, including the splendid imports that Otto II’s Byzantine wife brought with her from Constantinople. Around the year 1000, the turn of the millennium, widespread demand produced a varied series of apocalyptic images of Christ in glory. In a graceful example perhaps made at Fulda, Christ is frontally posed on a blocklike throne with delicate fluttering drapery and emblems of the Evangelists around him (17.190.51). In another ivory (41.100.169), the Evangelists are included with their symbols, and all the figures are vividly animated, including Christ, who seems at once seated and standing, his feet pressed against the mandorla surrounding him.

Ottonian craftsmen also excelled in fine metalwork and astonishing luxury objects. The court required brilliant ornaments to complement a splendid mode of dress and ceremonies magnified to match the pomp of Byzantium. Ottonian goldsmiths furnished jewels of all sorts, from imperial regalia to elaborate brooches (17.191.7) and rings (2004.274). This material displays the old Germanic love of geometric pattern, minute detail, and technical intricacy, but some pieces also integrate ancient gems (1988.15) and classical design elements. Goldsmiths applied a similarly eclectic style on larger objects made for churches, such as liturgical vessels, bindings for sacred books, and furnishings in precious metal. A particularly grand example is the altar frontal made for the cathedral at Basel around 1019 (now Musée Cluny, Paris), a vision of otherworldly splendor and august grace. Finally, Ottonian craftsmen lavished their art on containers for relics of the saints, which the faithful venerated with growing intensity. The simplest Ottonian reliquaries were small boxes meant for individuals to hold or to wear, but the most innovative were in fact three-dimensional statuary encasing sacred material, such as the gilded wooden figure of Christ on the Cross made for Cologne Cathedral around 970.