The third installment of Medieval Materiality tracks Italian materials on their journey away from Italy as they become reappropriated into artworks in other medieval cultural milieus. This process, known as spoliation, whereby, in this case, Roman – and Italian – materials were taken from their sites in situ and moved to other kingdoms before they became reused in new artworks, was common across the medieval world. By incorporating pieces from prior civilizations, patrons hoped to present themselves through the lens and glory of previously successful rulers. This mentality can be see in two of the most famous artworks to incorporate spolia, which were produced during the Carolingian and Ottonian eras, respectively: Charlemagne’s imperial chapel at Aachen (d. 805) and Henry II’s Golden Ambo (early 11th century), which was, perhaps not so coincidentally, installed in Charlemagne’s chapel at Aachen.
Charlemagne wanted to look back to the glory of the ancient Romans as he built a new empire, the Carolingian Empire, under the model of the Roman imperial glory. By taking the physical materials that had once housed those great leaders, Charlemagne was physically continuing their tradition. Similarly, Henry II looked back to the glory of the Carolingian Empire two hundred years later by not only mimicking Charlemagne’s reappropriation of Roman materials, and thus the Roman Empire, but by also placing his illustrious ambo in the chapel of the great Charlemagne, whose glory he hoped to espouse.
Garrison, Eliza. Ottonian Imperial Art and Portraiture, The Artistic Patronage of Otto III and Henry II (Florence: Taylor & Francis, 2012).
Aachen Chapel, Aachen, Germany, d. 805, roman columns.
Golden Ambo of Henry II, early 11th century, mixed media, using Roman spolia.