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13.01.19, Garrison, Ottonian Imperial Art

13.01.19, Garrison, Ottonian Imperial Art

Eliza Garrison has written an engaging and thoughtful analysis of the artistic patronage of the Holy Roman Emperors Otto III and Henry II. While the book has some problems, it will no doubt delight readers with its lucid presentation of some of the most complex and beautiful treasures to survive from the tenth and eleventh centuries. Highlights, to name just a few, include the Lothar Cross, the Gospels of Otto III, the Pericopes of Henry II, and the Bamberg Star Mantle; these works are often included in surveys, but too rarely discussed in depth. This new book is thus greatly welcome for two reasons: it engages with important objects that deserve more discussion, and it presents a well-written, up-to-date, yet accessible overview of scholarship on Ottonian treasury art. This undertaking is especially important because so much of the seminal literature on these famous objects has been written in German, placing it unfortunately beyond the reach of many beginning students. Garrison's work addresses key Ottonian monuments, provides a keen discussion of the art, history, and political climate surrounding Otto III and Henry II, and introduces many ideas and insights that will undoubtedly inspire students and specialists alike.

After an overview of the period (Chapter 1), Garrison provides a careful analysis of the donations made by Otto III to the treasury at Aachen (Chapter 2), by Henry II also to Aachen (Chapter 3), and by Henry to the newly-founded Bamberg Cathedral (Chapter 4). In each chapter, Garrison confirms a historical model that is too often taken for granted: the thesis that emperors, having reached the precarious heights of power, will grasp at acts of patronage to help anchor their position. That the Ottonian emperors turned to late antique and Carolingian predecessors for inspiration, and that their patronage forged a link between the sacred and secular realms, is hardly to be doubted. Garrison's book demonstrates these points with great effectiveness through the examination of a series of provocative examples. The intertwining of political purposes with spiritual aspirations is an important theme in the book, and the methods by which Otto III and Henry II established their presence through precious gifts to the ecclesiastical treasuries of Aachen and Bamberg are carefully evaluated, compared, and contrasted. Garrison also makes good use of the concept of the "spoliating imperative" that existed in the medieval Holy Roman Empire, a term that she defines specifically as "an artistic and cultural demand that was partially predicated on the representational demands of specific rulers" (27).

This project is deeply useful, as much for the questions it raises as for the issues it addresses. Of particular importance is the concluding chapter of the book, which gives a very helpful discussion of spolia and their role in the production of medieval art (Chapter 5). Nobody who has spent time in a medieval treasury could disagree that the creative reuse of precious materials from the past is a pervasive theme in this period, and throughout the volume Garrison gives many persuasive examples of how Otto III and Henry II used and reused ancient, Carolingian, and Byzantine materials to strengthen and exalt their own imperial status. In bringing the concept of spolia to bear on a diverse set of materials, Garrison's work also prompts the reader to consider whether all acts of spoliation carry the same kinds of associative weight. Paraphrasing Beat Brenk, Garrison asserts that "aesthetics and ideology indeed go hand in hand," and pushes against the proposition that "spolia were incorporated into artworks for purely aesthetic reasons" (168). Thus the process of architectural copying famously analyzed by Richard Krautheimer is presented as related to spoliation (27), as is the use of the Codex Aureus of Charles the Bald as a model for the Sacramentary of Henry II. In the latter case, Garrison argues that "the use of a Carolingian representational type belongs to the same category of cultural practice as the incorporation of spolia into precious objects. Like a reused antique cameo, the style of the Codex Aureus was itself precious, and...had come to bear political meaning" (138). It must be asked, then, where the line is to be drawn between use and reuse, or between using a thing and using its entire heritage. In this regard, Garrison's case for applying the concept of spolia so broadly could have been strengthened by engaging more closely with the work of Anthony Cutler and Dale Kinney, among others.

Garrison is similarly generous in her use of the term "portraiture," extending it to nearly all signifiers of individual identity, including abstract as well as pictorial representations of the two emperors. Particularly interesting is the idea that "artworks that incorporated spolia did so because spolia could complement and expand the representational functions of painted or sculpted imperial portraits" (166). In the case of the Golden Ambo of Aachen, for example, Garrison asserts that "dedication portraits...employed various means to emphasize that Henry II ruled due to the strength of his ancestry. In the absence of a carved or limned portrait, the 'treasures' on the front of the ambo helped [Henry II] make a very similar claim" (95). One cannot help but wish, however, that Garrison had explored in greater depth the ways in which the objects on the ambo were, in the end, rather different from actual portraits. In the case of the Aachen Golden Gospels, the reader is reminded that, "although this cover does not include a portrait of Henry II, such a scene would have nevertheless established an additional commemorative connection between Christ and the ruler" (102). While such statements are true, they highlight the conceptual problems that surround the notion of portraiture, not only for the Ottonian emperors but across the entire field of art history. Given that "portraiture" appears in the book's title, it is unfortunate that portraits are on the whole given less discussion than instances of spolia, and that more attention was not paid to the distinctions that exist between the different kinds of portraiture-- and the various applications of the term--that appear in this book.

Garrison clearly envisions Otto III and Henry II as patrons who played a major role in shaping the artworks that they commissioned, making decisions about which materials would be used and what appearances the final results would assume. Garrison is correct to assert that Otto III and Henry II would have had opportunities to visit monastic scriptoria at key sites including Reichenau and Regensburg (10). What is less clear, however, is the extent to which the rulers themselves were choosing models and determining iconographies for the artworks they commissioned. It is just as easy to think of other members of the imperial court, not to mention artists, who were quite capable of conceptualizing works of art that would fit the rulers' expectations. Sources from this period rarely permit this distinction to be made with much clarity, and Garrison's efforts to fill the gaps with well- grounded historical guesswork make a great deal of intuitive sense. It is certainly compelling to think that Henry II, in re-using many of the gifts that Otto III had given to his favorite treasury, deliberately "altered the material patterns of his predecessors' commemoration at Aachen," and that "this act was a pronouncement of the posthumous acquiescence of his his seizure of the crown" (91). Given the thinness of the sources, however, it remains difficult to know the true nature of Henry's deliberations, much less the extent to which his contemporaries would have appreciated the full significance of his symbolic actions.

This is not to say that Garrison's conclusions are wrong; indeed her claims are generally convincing. The problems that arise are primarily caused by focusing somewhat narrowly on the objects at hand. Throughout the text, many arguments could have been strengthened by addressing more textual sources, more visual details, and above all more comparative materials. For example, the exciting comparison between the architecture of the Palatine Chapel of Aachen and the forms in the Liuthar Gospels would have benefited from a wider survey of Ottonian manuscripts, and a demonstration of the ways in which the architectural frames in question are, in the end, unique (52). It is plausible that the images of the Crucifixion and the Holy Sepulcher on the cover of the Golden Gospels were conscious allusions to the relics and the architecture present at Aachen, but it is difficult to claim that these allusions are "certainly" and "doubtlessly" intended as such without a deeper examination of iconography, or at least mention of a few other examples where these popular subjects are treated differently (102). The suggestion that the Golden Altar at Aachen featured figures in contemporary clothing as a reference to the recent burial of Otto III could similarly have been expanded with detailed examination of the clothing in question, and a larger look at clothing styles in Ottonian art (105). The important observation that donation inscriptions written in present tense create an atmosphere in which the act of donation is eternal and ongoing should also be buttressed with comparison to other inscriptions from this period (94, 131). Without discussion of other examples, it is hard to know the extent to which these points, among others, are to be considered as unique to Otto III and Henry II, or as part of a larger phenomenon.

It is all too easy to wish that any book had included more material, and the purpose of this review is not to disagree with Garrison's findings. Still, having produced a detailed analysis of the activities of Otto III and Henry II, it would have helped Garrison's arguments to cast a somewhat broader net and give more information about other major patrons and artworks from this period. In the case of the Pericopes of Henry II, for example, it is quite likely that "the scenes on the cover evoke at once the beginning of Christian time and its end, and this dialectic of beginnings and endings is carried out in the miniature cycle," and it is of great interest that "such oppositions were in fact central to the meanings of the treasury and the cathedral [at Bamberg], and many of the other original treasury objects from the cathedral's dedication focus squarely on this combination" (126). The question that remains is whether this was limited to the objects Henry gave to Bamberg, or whether this pattern could be effectively compared to artworks given by other patrons to other churches--to the objects commissioned by Bernward of Hildesheim, for example, or by any one of the many powerful bishops who played pivotal roles in the formation of Ottonian art. Hildesheim is an especially unfortunate omission, given Bernward's role as the tutor of Otto III, the richness of its surviving treasury, and the wealth of recent scholarship that could have been brought to bear on Garrison's topic.

It is evident that the patronage of Otto III and Henry II had much in common with that of their imperial predecessors, as Garrison herself acknowledges (116). This point, too, could have been explored further. For example, how does it affect analysis of the Star Mantle of Henry II if we know (as is mentioned in passing) that earlier emperors including Charles the Bald and Otto III had possessed similar cloaks? (123) Shouldn't the decision of Henry II to move the Gospels of Otto III from Aachen to Bamberg be compared to the histories of other manuscripts, such as the Codex Aureus of Charles the Bald, which was taken from the treasury of St-Denis and given to the abbey of St. Emmeram of Regensburg by Arnulf of Carinthia? (127, 155) This could have been an ideal opportunity to examine further parallels between Henry's treasury redistribution work and Arnulf's. Instead, the provenance of the Codex Aureus is only mentioned in order to emphasize that Henry II probably saw the manuscript in Regensburg, where it served as a model for his magnificent Sacramentary. Finally, while the decision to focus exclusively on Aachen and Bamberg gives the book a pleasingly tight frame, it is surprising that key figures such as Theophanu and Kunigunde are scarcely mentioned, and that central artworks such as the Basel Antependium are also conspicuously absent.

Thus there are many moments when the book reveals avenues for further research, but these could be counted as strengths rather than flaws. An in-depth examination of the patronage of Otto III and Henry II is already a major undertaking, not least because of the dense historiography that accompanies many of the important works of art, particularly manuscripts, that are addressed in this book. It is to be hoped, however, that some of the editorial oversights in the current volume will be corrected in future editions: it was disheartening to see Reichenau well north of Lake Constance, and also to find repeated a mistake that occurs elsewhere in the literature--Sophie of Gandersheim listed as abbess of Quedlinburg (figs. 1, 3). Nevertheless, this is a welcome addition to the field of Ottonian art history, a subject that is finding increasing attention among North American scholars, and will do so even more thanks to the wonderful images, helpful bibliography, and engaging discussions presented in this book.