Carolingian Art Research Paper
A Carolingian painting from Charlemagne’s Coronation Gospels, created around the year 800 in Germany, features Saint Matthew sitting and writing a script with a simple yet elegant background. (Gardner's Art through the Ages). Legend says that the Vienna Coronation Gospels were not discovered until approximately 200 years after they were created, in the year of 1000, by Otto III in Charlemagne’s tomb within the Palatine Chapel (Freeman). This painting of Saint Matthew was made from ink and water-based paint on a full paged vellum paper with dimensions of one foot and three-fourths inches by ten inches (Gardner's Art through the Ages). This piece seems to bring artistic reassurance, which not only makes it valued but makes it even more extraordinary. The different aspects of this piece of artwork such as the captivating use of color, shade, and the unique perspectives fully implement the legacy of Saint Matthew and classical art and may exist as a symbol of the importance of the Coronation Gospels in those times.
This painting is the older one of two versions that are very different, both from the Carolingian Era but one made 5-30 years after this one, of Saint Matthew in a chair writing his famous gospel with an eye-catching background. Every aspect in this piece of art, from the most obvious things portrayed such as St. Matthew sitting and writing to the minor details such as the brushwork and use of light, proves how truly exceptional it is. What can be initially observed from this piece is a classical style of St. Matthew in profile view seated and writing. However, looking deeper at details and characteristics will allow one’s eyes to help tell the story of it. There are many warm colors in this painting which makes it seem very tranquil, with a simple landscape and sun setting in the background. The comfortable posture he sits in with an arched back, legs spread out and one foot resting on the lectern also suggests calmness, he is somewhat slouched and does not seem distressed or in a hurry at all. This could be what the artist intended, to show that St. Matthew’s best-selling gospel was written while he was comfortable, under no duress, and in a peaceful environment. What also suggests this, being an object that attracts a lot of attention, is the elaborately designed lectern which his scripts were resting on, which can signify the value of the gospel. All qualities of this piece of art seem very well balanced. However, because of the warm colors, especially in the background, Matthew’s white robe and script stand out (Lane). Even the light reflection from the side of St. Matthew’s face stands our and draws attention to the eye. The simple things such as warm colors, posture, the view/the calming landscape, and the activity in the painting itself all provide a peaceful environment that radiates from the painting.
Much of the individuality of this piece of art is due to the illusions in the painting created by the artist with the combination of particular shading, color, and the artist’s perspective. What is truly fascinating of the creation of this painting is that the shapes, such as the round sun featured behind Matthew’s head, were not created with lines but rather with colors and the deviation of light. This characteristic is surprising and alone it magnifies the uniqueness of the painting. This was also used, along with illusionistic brushwork, to create the draping effect of the white robe that St. Matthew is wearing (Gardner's Art through the Ages). All of these variations combined with perspective of the artist are what created the three-dimensional illusion in this artwork, which is rather impressive.
The nature of the Saint Matthew Coronation Gospel painting has many indicators of the significance of not only St. Matthew himself but what he is working on in the painting as well- his gospel. The colors, perspectives, brushwork, light use, small details, and shading all work together to enforce this significance. St. Matthew took high risks by the claims he made in his gospels of Jesus, religion, politics, etc., knowing that he may receive hate for straying the straight and narrow path (Nido). However, he did this in the importance of faith and the truth and all the characteristics in this art combine to enforce that. He was sometimes referred to as St. Matthew the Evangelist or St. Matthew the Apostle, sometimes portrayed with an angel over him offering encouragement in his gospels, which explains why he took the risk to do what he felt was right with the gospel. The painting is not just about St. Matthew sitting and writing, it represents so much more. It seems to be a symbol of the reality of what was occurring in this time frame, as well as showing the importance of these gospels. Perhaps the gospels were not just gospels to them but rather figurative tokens that provided not only faith but comfort in the present as well as hope of improvement and evolution for the future. To understand complex and unique art like this, we must look deeper than the main idea of what is going on. Simple details of artistic features and knowledge of the historical context of the Coronation Gospel and St. Matthew will allow a viewer to make these interpretations.