Ottonian Art

The Ottonian Renaissance (951-1024) was a period of cultural and artistic achievement inspired by the revival of the Holy Roman Empire.


Learning Objectives

  • Describe the form, content, and context of key Ottonian works
  • Define critical terms in relation to Ottonian art
  • Compare and contrast Ottonian architecture with its Carolingian predecessor
  • Discuss how Ottonian metalwork distinguished itself from Carolingian metalwork
  • Identify the purpose and style of illustrated books in the Ottonian Renaissance

Sculpture and Painting

Originally a ducal family from Saxony, the Ottonians (named after their first King Otto I the Great) seized power after the collapse of Carolingian rule in Europe and re-established the Holy Roman Empire. Ottonian rule was accompanied by a renewed faith in the idea of imperium (Latin, roughly translated as “power to command”), referring to the sovereignty of the state over the individual). This coincided with a period of significant church reform. Both combined to create the Ottonian Renaissance (circa 951-1024), a period of heightened cultural and artistic fervour and achievement.

The Ottonian Dynasty desired to confirm a sacred Roman imperial lineage that connected them to the Christian rulers of Late Antiquity such as Theodoric and Justinian and to their Carolingian predecessors, particularly Charlemagne. Ottonian art reflected this desire, fusing traditions and influences from late Roman, Byzantine, and Carolingian art.

The style is generally grand and heavy, sometimes to excess, and initially less sophisticated than the Carolingian equivalents. Additionally, the Ottonian style exhibits no direct influence from Byzantine art and less understanding of its classical models. Surviving paintings from this period exist predominantly in illustrations from illuminated manuscripts and a small number of mural and fresco fragments. In fact, illuminated manuscripts are the best source of painted imperial portraiture from the Ottonian Renaissance.

Ruler Portraits

Ottonian ruler portraits usually combine ancient Roman elements with contemporary (medieval) ones. Portraits are most frequently found in the dedicatory prefaces of illuminated manuscripts. Ottonian art eschews naturalism for a more abstract style, focusing on symbolism to convey deeply philosophical and theological concepts.

A portrait of Otto II enthroned depicts the emperor wearing a bejewelled crown in lieu of a laurel wreath and a large disc bearing the cross in place of an imperial orb. However, his upright posture and general pose with one raised hand somewhat resembles the Colossus of Constantine, which sat in the Basilica Nova in the fourth century. Likewise, his attire slightly resembles a Roman toga, a sartorial mainstay among emperors and senators of ancient times. In a departure from classical art, however, Otto and the figures who flank him appear flat. Further, their scale is hierarchical, which organizes size in relation to importance. Otto is the largest of the five figures depicted. Lastly, the architectural space that surrounds the emperor fails to convey a sense of naturalistic recession into space.



Master of the Registrum Gregorii. Otto II Enthroned (c. 985): Ottonian art was created to confirm a direct Holy and Imperial lineage as a source of legitimized power linked from Constantine and Justinian.

Wall Paintings

Although it is clear from records that many churches were decorated with extensive wall painting, surviving examples are extremely rare, usually fragmentary, and in poor condition. As a result, their dates of production are uncertain, especially since many have been restored. Most surviving examples are clustered in south Germany, although there are also important examples from northern Italy. There is a record of bishop Gebhard of Constance hiring lay artists for a now-vanished cycle at his newly founded Petershausen Abbey (983). Laymen may have dominated the art of wall painting, perhaps basing their designs on monastic illuminations. The artists seem to have been nomadic, regularly moving throughout Europe.

The church of St. George at Oberzell on Reichenau Island has the best-known surviving example of wall paintings. However, much of the original work has been lost, and the remaining paintings to the sides of the nave have suffered from time and restoration. The largest scenes show the miracles of Christ in a style that shows both specific Byzantine elements and similarity with Reichenau manuscripts such as the Munich Gospels of Otto III. They are therefore usually dated around 980–1000. Indeed, the paintings are one of the foundations of the case for Reichenau Abbey as a major center of manuscript painting.



Jesus and the Gadarene Swine (tenth century): Nave fresco in St George, Oberzell, Reichenau Island.

Ottonian Architecture in the Early European Middle Ages

Ottonian architecture flourished in the 10th and 11th centuries and drew inspiration from Carolingian and Byzantine architecture.

Originally a ducal family from Saxony, the Ottonians (named after their first king Otto I the Great) seized power after the collapse of the Carolingian rule in Europe and re-established the Holy Roman Empire. Ottonian architecture first developed during the reign of Otto the Great (936–975 CE) and lasted until the mid-11th century. Surviving examples of this style of architecture are found today in Germany and Belgium.

Ottonian architecture chiefly drew its inspiration from Carolingian and Byzantine architecture and represents the absorption of classical Mediterranean and Christian architectural forms with Germanic styles. Some features foreshadow the development of Romanesque architecture, which emerged in the mid-11th century. Its balance and harmony are a remarkable reflection of the high regard in which the Ottonians held the mathematical sciences. This is evident in the modular planning, which bases the measurements of each component of the interior on a single square unit multiplied or divided accordingly.

Barring a few examples influenced by the octagonal Palatine Chapel built by Charlemagne in Aachen, Ottonian religious architecture tends to diverge from the model of the central-plan church, drawing inspiration instead from the Roman (Western) basilica. This typically consisted of a long central nave with an aisle at each side and an apse at one end. When adopted by early Christians, the basilica plan assumed a transept perpendicular to the nave, forming a cruciform shape to commemorate the Crucifixion.



Plan of the church. Arrow on left marks the entrance, followed by the Nave with an aisle on either side, followed by the Crossing with a transept on either side, followed by the Choir, Apse, Ambulatory, and finally the Chapels.
Plan of a typical Western basilican church: The arrow (left) marks the entrance to the church. Main seating for worshipers is located in the nave, while the aisles were originally used to accommodate large crowds on feast days. As churches began collecting relics (housed in the chapels) that attracted pilgrims, churches added the ambulatory. This connects the aisles to the chapels behind the choir, where clergy members perform their rituals.

The Ottonians adopted the Carolingian double-ended variation on the Roman basilica, featuring apses at the east and west ends of the church rather than just the east. Most Ottonian churches make generous use of the round arch, have flat ceilings, and insert massive rectangular piers between columns in regular patterns, as seen in St. Cyriakus at Gernrode and St. Michael’s at Hildesheim.



Plan of St. Cyriakus at Gernrode: This plan shows the apse at both the west and east ends of the church, with a single transept dividing the nave from the east apse. The black circles and rectangles between the nave and each aisle mark the alternating columns (circles) and piers (rectangles).

One of the finest surviving examples of Ottonian architecture is St. Cyriakus Church (960-965) in Gernrode, Germany. The central body of the church has a nave with two aisles flanked by two towers, characteristic of Carolingian architecture. However, it also displays novelties anticipating Romanesque architecture, including the alternation of pillars and columns (a common feature in later Saxon churches), semi-blind arcades in galleries on the nave, and column capitals decorated with stylized acanthus leaves and human heads.



Church of St. Cyriakus, Gernrode, exterior: St. Cyriakus is one of the few surviving examples of Ottonian architecture and combines Carolingian elements with innovations that anticipated Romanesque architecture.
St. Cyriakus, interior: The painted ceilings were added during the 19th-century renovation, which also lined most of the walls with cut stone panels. The original Ottonian walls featured rough quarry stone masonry.

St. Michael’s at Hildesheim (1010-1031) is one of the most important Ottonian churches, a double-choir basilica with two transepts and a square tower at each crossing. This layout can be seen from the exterior of the building. The west choir is emphasized by an ambulatory and a crypt. Adhering to the Ottonian appreciation for mathematics, the ground plan of the building follows a geometric concept in which the square of the transept crossing in the ground plan constitutes the key measuring unit for the entire church. The square units are defined by the alternation of columns and piers. Unlike St. Cyriakus, St. Michael’s lacks a second-story gallery. However, ample light enters through a row of clerestory windows placed above the arcades dividing the name from the aisles.



St. Michael’s Church at Hildesheim (1010-1031): Unlike the Romanesque churches that would follow, Ottonian churches like St. Michael’s had two apses (visible at the right and left ends of this photograph) and two transepts that divided each apse from the central nave area.
St. Michael’s at Hildesheim, interior facing east: Major differences between St. Michael’s and St. Cyriakus are the clerestory windows in place of galleries and one pier placed after each pair of columns. The round arches at the east end of the divide the nave from the crossing and the crossing from the apse.

Ottonian Metalwork in the Early European Middle Ages

Ottonian metalwork ranged from jewel-encrusted objects of precious metals to large-scale bronze reliefs of stylized yet dramatic figures. The Ottonians were renowned for their metalwork, producing bejewelled book covers and massive bronze church doors with relief carvings depicting biblical scenes, a process so complex that it would not be repeated until the Renaissance. Fine, small-scale metal sculpture flourished and exquisite book covers made of ivory and embellished with gems, enamels, crystals, and cameos were produced during this period.

The Cross of Lothair

Many of the finest examples of the crux gemmata (jewelled cross) date from Ottonian rule. These wooden crosses were encased in carved gold and silver and encrusted with jewels and engraved gems. Arguably the finest of these Ottonian jewelled crosses is the Cross of Lothair, dating from around 1,000 and housed in the Aachen Cathedral. The cross takes its name from the large engraved green rock crystal seal near its base, which bears the portrait and name of the Carolingian ruler Lothair II, King of Lotharingia (835-869). The cross was actually commissioned over a century later for Otto III, the Holy Roman Emperor. The cross bears a cameo of the great Roman emperor Augustus Caesar on one side and an engraving of the crucifixion of Jesus on the other. The cross thus represents both church and state in keeping with the Ottonian agenda and connects the Ottonian emperors to the original Roman emperors. The elaborate form also depicts the Hand of God holding a wreath containing a dove representing the Holy Spirit in the crucifixion scene. This is the earliest-known appearance of the dove motif and the introduction of the entire Trinity into the crucifixion, iconography that has been repeated for centuries.



The Cross of Lothair (c. 1000): An example of the prestigious metalwork of the time. The front shows a cameo of the emperor Augustus.

The Codex Aureus of Echternach

Ottonian relief figures from treasure bindings and cast sculptures are often more stylized yet more dramatic than their restrained Carolingian counterparts. The cover of the Codex Aureus of Echternach (1030-1050) dates from about 50 years before the manuscript. The metalwork is attributed to the Trier workshop set up by Egbert, Archbishop of Trier. It centers on an ivory plaque showing the Crucifixion. Surrounding the ivory plaque are panels with figures in repoussé gold relief. The style of the metal reliefs differs significantly from the central plaque. These panels are set in a framework with larger elements made up of alternating units of gold filigree set with gems and cloisonné enamel with stylized plant motifs. Thinner gold bands set with small pearls run along the diagonal axes, further separating the relief images into compartments and creating an “X” that may stand for “Christ.” The figures are produced in an elegant elongated style that contrasts strongly with the forceful and slightly squat figures of the ivory.



Codex Aureus of Echternach (c. 980s): Front cover of the Codex.

Bronze Sculptures in Hildesheim

Ottonian metalwork also includes objects produced from non-precious metals. The most famous of these is the pair of church doors, the Bernward Doors, commissioned by Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim. They contain biblical scenes from the Gospels and the Book of Genesis in bronze relief, each cast in a single piece. These powerfully simple compositions convey their meanings by emphatic gestures, a hallmark of the Ottonian style.



Bernward Doors, St. Mary’s Cathedral at Hildesheim (c. 1015): These bronze doors bear relief sculptures depicting the history of humanity from Adam to Christ.

The figures on the Bernward Doors feature a progressive style of relief, leaning out from the background instead of extending a uniform distance. A particularly apt example of this is the figure of Mary with the baby Jesus in the depiction of the Adoration of the Magi. While her lower body is still in low relief, her upper body and Christ project out further and her head and shoulders are cast in the round. This unusual style was used for artistic reasons, not because of technical limitations.

Another striking Ottonian metal sculpture is the Bernward Column (c. 1000), named for the same patron as the Bernward Doors. Produced for St. Michael’s Cathedral in Hildesheim, the column depicts images from the life of Jesus arranged in a helix similar to Trajan’s Column. Just as Roman victory columns depict the military deeds of the Emperor in an upward spiralling frieze, the Bernward Column depicts the peaceful deeds of Christ from his baptism at the Jordan to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.



Bernward Column (c. 1000): Bernward had this victory column cast from bronze in conscious imitation of Trajan’s column and the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome.

The column is significant for the vitality of the figural relief, which is unusual for its time. The relief complements the Bernward Doors. Both artworks reflect Bernward’s efforts to put his seat in the position of northern Rome in the context of the Ottonian Dynasty’s renewed Christian Roman Empire. They also emphasize Christ as a model of just and godly kingship for the rulers. For this reason, the execution of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas is given a great deal of space.

Ottonian Illustrated Books in the Early European Middle Ages

Ottonian monasteries produced lavishly illuminated manuscripts under the sponsorship of emperors, bishops, and other wealthy patrons. The Ottonian Renaissance (circa 951 – 1024 BCE) coincided with a period of reform and growth in the church, providing an impetus for the production of religious art.

One of the most important art forms of the period was the illuminated manuscript, one in which the text is supplemented by ornamentation in the form of coloured initials, decorative borders, and miniature illustrations, sometimes with the addition of gold and silver leaf. Ottonian monasteries produced some of the most magnificent medieval illuminated manuscripts, working with the best equipment and talent under the direct sponsorship of emperors, bishops, and other wealthy patrons.

The manuscripts produced by Ottonian scriptoria (monastic centers for copying texts) provide invaluable documentation of contemporary, religious, and political customs as well as the stylistic preferences of the period. The most richly illuminated manuscripts were used for display and were most liturgical books, including psalters, gospel books, and large, complete Bibles. These lavish manuscripts sometimes include a dedication portrait commemorating the book’s creation in which the patron is usually depicted presenting the book to the chosen saint. Coloured initials, borders, and marginalia also contain miniature portraits and other decorative emblems and motifs. Illuminated manuscripts were enclosed in ornate metal book covers decorated with gems and ivory carvings.

Presentation Portraits

Following late Carolingian styles, presentation portraits of the patrons of manuscripts are very prominent in Ottonian art. Much Ottonian art reflected the dynasty’s desire to establish a visual link to the Christian rulers of Late Antiquity such as Theodoric and Justinian as well as to their Carolingian predecessors, particularly Charlemagne. For example, Ottonian ruler portraits typically include elements with a long imperial history as iconographies, such as province personifications, or representatives of the military and the Church flanking the emperor.



Master of the Reichenau School. Munich Gospels of Otto III (c. 1000): Depiction of Roma, Gallia, Germania, and Sclavinia paying homage to Otto III, from the Munich Gospels of Otto III, one of the Liuthar Group.

Famous Artists and Scriptoria

Among the greatest artists of the Ottonian period was the anonymous Master of the Registrum Gregorii, who worked chiefly in Trier in the 970s to 980s. He derived his title from the miniatures in the Registrum Gregorii (a collection of letters by Pope Gregory the Great) and the Codex Egberti, a famous gospel lectionary manuscript, both for Archbishop Egbert of Trier (circa 950-993). However, most of the 51 images in the Codex Egberti, which represented events in the life of Christ, were made by two monks in the Benedictine monastery on the island of Reichenau on Lake Constance. Reichenau housed a scriptorium and artists’ workshop that was one of the largest and most influential in Europe during the late 10th and early 11th centuries. It became famous for its style of gospel illustration in liturgical books. Other famous scriptoria of the Ottonian age were found at the monasteries of Corvey, Hildesheim, and Regensburg, and the cathedral cities of Trier and Cologne.



Codex Egberti: The dedicatory page of the Codex Egberti. The portrait is done in purple and gold and says “Egbertus” on top.

The Pericopes of Henry II (1002-1012) is a luxurious medieval illuminated manuscript made for Henry II, the last Ottonian Holy Roman Emperor. The manuscript is a product of the Liuthar Circle of illuminators, who worked in the monastery at Reichenau. The style of the Liuthar Group departs further from classical traditions. Its figures are flattened, stylized, and have exaggerated gestures. Backgrounds are often composed of bands of colour with a symbolic rather than naturalistic rationale. As with depictions of Otto II and Otto III, figures’ scale is relative to importance, not based on reality. For example, the Annunciation to the Shepherds depicts the angel as the largest and thus most important figure, followed by humans and animals, as was the commonly accepted belief in Christendom at the time. Manuscripts from the Liuthar Group introduced the gold background to Western illumination, a characteristic that would remain common until the Italian Renaissance.

Master of the Reichenau School, Annunciation to the Shepherds: From the Pericopes of Henry II, Liuthar Group of the Reichenau School.


  • Ottonian illuminated manuscripts were used for display and most commonly consisted of liturgical books, including psalters, gospel books, and complete Bibles.
  • Much Ottonian art reflected the dynasty’s desire to establish a visual link to the Christian rulers of Late Antiquity and their Carolingian predecessors.
  • Ottonian art reflects the Ottonians’ desire to confirm a holy Roman imperial lineage connecting them with the Roman emperors and their Carolingian predecessors. It fuses traditions and influences from late Roman, Byzantine, and Carolingian art.
  • Ottonian ruler portraits are usually found in illuminated manuscripts and include motifs commonly found in ancient Roman iconography. Unlike classical art, however, these portraits lack a sense of naturalism, relying instead on iconography and hierarchical scale.
  • The Ottonians were renowned for their metalwork in precious and non-precious materials.
  • Ottonian metalwork use subject matter and iconography to refer to deep theological and philosophical concepts, as seen in the Bernward Doors and Column.
  • Ottonian architecture first developed during the reign of Otto the Great (936-975) and lasted until the mid-11th century. Surviving examples of this style of architecture are found in Germany and Belgium.
  • Ottonian architecture was inspired by Carolingian and Byzantine architecture and foreshadows Romanesque architecture in some features, including alternating columns and piers in regular patterns.
  • Ottonian religious architecture diverges from the model of the central-plan church, drawing inspiration instead from the longitudinally oriented Roman basilica.
  • The Ottonians adopted the Carolingian double-ended variation on the Roman basilica, featuring apses at both ends of the nave rather than just one. Churches make generous use of the round arch, have flat ceilings, and display the Ottonian appreciation of mathematical harmony by using modular planning.

Adapted from “Boundless Art History” LicenseCC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike



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Art and Visual Culture: Prehistory to Renaissance Copyright © by Alena Buis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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