Cover image for A Saving Science: Capturing the Heavens in Carolingian Manuscripts By Eric M. Ramírez-Weaver

A Saving Science

Capturing the Heavens in Carolingian Manuscripts

Eric M. Ramírez-Weaver


$112.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-07126-8

Available as an e-book

312 pages
9" × 10"
35 color/75 b&w illustrations

A Saving Science

Capturing the Heavens in Carolingian Manuscripts

Eric M. Ramírez-Weaver

“[This book] provides some of the clearest writing on computus in English, a topic that eludes many writers. . . . This is one of the first extended discussions of this type of Carolingian manuscript and there is much to recommend in it.”


  • Description
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  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
In A Saving Science, Eric Ramírez-Weaver explores the significance of early medieval astronomy in the Frankish empire, using as his lens an astronomical masterpiece, the deluxe manuscript of the Handbook of 809, painted in roughly 830 for Bishop Drogo of Metz, one of Charlemagne’s sons. Created in an age in which careful study of the heavens served a liturgical purpose—to reckon Christian feast days and seasons accurately and thus reflect a “heavenly” order—the diagrams of celestial bodies in the Handbook of 809 are extraordinary signifiers of the intersection of Christian art and classical astronomy.

Ramírez-Weaver shows how, by studying this lavishly painted and carefully executed manuscript, we gain a unique understanding of early medieval astronomy and its cultural significance. In a time when the Frankish church sought to renew society through education, the Handbook of 809 presented a model in which study aided the spiritual reform of the cleric’s soul, and, by extension, enabled the spiritual care of his community.

An exciting new interpretation of Frankish painting, A Saving Science shows that constellations in books such as Drogo’s were not simple copies for posterity’s sake, but functional tools in the service of the rejuvenation of a creative Carolingian culture.

“[This book] provides some of the clearest writing on computus in English, a topic that eludes many writers. . . . This is one of the first extended discussions of this type of Carolingian manuscript and there is much to recommend in it.”
“This erudite book is not for the faint of heart. . . . The Carolingian period is not as widely studied as others, so any contribution of this order is welcome. However, this focused investigation will be most valuable for an audience seeking specific expertise, especially concerning manuscript illumination and medieval computistics or the period organization of the Christian calendar. In the course of discussion, Ramírez-Weaver probes the intersection and roles of science, religion, astronomy, and artistry in understanding the cosmos. The book has excellent illustrations (including many color plates) of obscure illuminated pages. The scholarly apparatus is exemplary. This will prove a useful resource for those investigating the intellect and art in the Carolingian period.”
“The pictures and texts in Drogo’s handbook created a cohesive, ordered presentation of the cosmos and an irreproachably Christian interpretation of the heavens. It will be interesting to see how scholars react to this dimension of Ramírez-Weaver’s work. I am persuaded.”
“I was most impressed by the last chapter because of the wealth of contemporary text sources selected to clarify the view of a ninth-century monk or bishop on the constellations and offering a (quasi-psychological) understanding of the study of Carolingian star pictures: preoccupation with a prominent area of the liberal arts as a means of personal sanctification.”
“Very useful indeed as a thorough, balanced, and nuanced study of a cultural product that deserves to be better known.”
“Eric Ramírez-Weaver’s A Saving Science adds depth and detail to our emerging appreciation of the role of science at the Carolingian court. The beauty, regularity, and order of the circling heavens were more than just flattering analogies of imperial power: they were the syntax of a visual language in which a new ideology of Christian kingship could be articulated. Ramírez-Weaver’s analysis initiates us into that language, its poetics and its politics, with insight and sympathy.”
“Ramírez-Weaver’s fine book focuses on the complex factors affecting the creation, function, and understanding of astronomical manuscripts and their illustrations produced during the Carolingian period. His deeply learned study offers a leap forward from an older view, especially prevalent in art-historical scholarship, that regarded these manuscripts as copies chiefly valuable as reflections of lost ancient materials, and/or looking forward to the ‘Renaissance,’ without placing them in a contemporary context.”

Eric M. Ramírez-Weaver is Associate Professor of Medieval Art History at the University of Virginia.


List of Illustrations


Introduction: Drogo and the Handbook of 809

Part One: Unveiling the Heavens over Carolingian Skies

Chapter One: Illuminating Science: Creating the Handbook of 809

Chapter Two: Drogo’s Copy of the Handbook of 809: A Simulacrum of Celestial Order

Part Two: Representing the Cosmos for Carolingian Hearts and Minds

Chapter Three: Revealing Astronomy: Itinerant Painters and Shifting Signs

Chapter Four: Restoring What Was Lost: Astronomy and Natural Astrology in the Carolingian Era




Introduction: Drogo and the Handbook of 809

In the year 809, a seven- or eight-year-old illegitimate son of Charlemagne by his concubine Regina, dubbed Drogo, was naturally a physical reminder of his father’s royal body. It was also believed at the time that Drogo, like everyone, represented in human form a harmonious reflection of the cosmos (fig. 1). This early medieval conceit, commonly identified as the microcosmic-macrocosmic symmetry, is perfectly portrayed within the interlocking arcs and concentric circles of the fifth wheel diagram, or rota, in Isidore of Seville’s highly influential Liber rotarum, otherwise referred to as the De natura rerum (On the nature of things) of 612–13. The ordered, intelligible, self-evident structure exemplified by such a diagram conveyed to a reader the ways that the individual person, Creation, and the cosmos shared in an interconnected ongoing revelation of being in time. As he looked upward and outward from Aachen toward the celestial sphere of the fixed stars on which the constellations turned daily about him, there is no way of knowing what little Drogo saw or wanted to see. Nor could anyone have anticipated that a comprehensive astronomical-computistical compilation in seven books, sometimes referred to as an encyclopedia but better labeled the Handbook of 809, would result from his father Charlemagne’s synod convened that year.

<insert figure 1 about here>

The synod of 809 was a royal event, involving some of the most important Frankish prelates who were adept at computus and who convened at Aachen, with Adalhard of Corbie (d. 826), Charlemagne’s cousin, playing a vital role. Apparently, a smaller cadre of computistically skilled churchmen profited from wintering in Aachen and withdrew from their theological discussions of the filioque (endorsement in the Frankish Christian creed of the Holy Ghost’s grace conferred by Father and Son) clause to probe the state of Frankish computus. They offered a record of their proceedings (referred to by the late Arno Borst as Das Aachener Verhör von 809). Under the probable direction of Adalhard, they took stock of Carolingian computistics, or serious study of the calendar with astronomical implications and mathematically verifiable results.

Drogo (d. 855) would have been separated as a child from all the synodal proceedings, but he would have been reared in the intellectually rich fervor that followed the interrogation of such questions as when Jesus was crucified (reckoned to be March 25), how old Christ was at the time of his Passion (apparently 33 and a half), and when the vernal equinox transpired (assigned at the synod as March 21). And most importantly, of course, this group at the Aachen synod of 809 convened to review practical calendrical information required to reckon suitable dates for the floating feast of Easter. While their confreres at Aachen were debating dogma and defining doctrinal boundaries against Byzantine Orthodoxy, these learned men were simultaneously determining how well the Franks could put their contested faith into practice.

<1>Creating a Carolingian View on Astronomy

In fact, this complete interpenetration of spiritually sanctioned liturgical practice since Nicaea, Frankish liturgical and calendar reform, and pragmatic applications of the calendar for successful governance required that the early medieval Franks turn to the liberal art of astronomy in their study of computistics. As Brigitte Englisch has so aptly stated, “Every year thus appears like a mirror of heavenly activity, through the high feasts systematically structured by means of the holy feast days of the saints in accord with historical elements of time.” But that does not reduce the study of the constellations or fixed stars exclusively to computistical or liturgical concerns. On the contrary, the sphere of the fixed stars was an object of inquiry in its own right, and a Roman Latin literature derived from Greek precedents, such as the third century BCE Phaenomena of Aratus and the portions of Plato’s Timaeus rendered accessible to Latin readers through Calcidius’ fourth-century translation with commentary, were available to sustain meaningful ninth-century pedagogical dialogue.

Fundamental to this Latin discourse, however, is a set of passages from Books II and XVIII of Pliny’s first-century Naturalis historia (Natural history). These excerpts were originally believed to be Anglo-Saxon in origin, yet Vernon King and Bruce Eastwood have found that the astronomical passages instead supply a testimonial to the creative Carolingian engagement with the literature of antiquity, reinforcing Christian celebration of the liturgy in the present and laying the foundation for novel exegetical interpretative maneuvers in Frankish astronomical treatises in both text and illustration. These excerpts, routinely copied as a synthetic set, became a composite treated as a textual unity, and therefore found their way into the Handbook of 809, accompanied by a novel set of Carolingian diagrams created about 809–12, after the synod in Aachen.

<insert figure 2 about here>

Individual study of the liberal art of astronomy through both word and image was fundamental to the spiritual reform program of a young ecclesiast such as Drogo himself, who eventually acceded to the see of Metz in 823. In what follows, it will become clear that early medieval astronomy and computistics were a liberal art and an applied sister science. In tandem, they enabled the supervision of the Frankish kingdom and the proper conduct of an early medieval Christian church. The ecclesiastic hierarchy was linked to Rome, but for the religio christiana throughout the Carolingian empire, the work of the church was also synecdochically associated with the royal chapel, and eventually with Odo of Metz’s Cappella Palatina. Drogo must have attended Mass in many of his father’s chapels, and would have listened to the prescribed readings from the Godescalc Evangelistary (fig. 2), as a boy. It was certainly in Aachen, however, that Drogo and his father heard their royal Frankish scola cantorum melodiously give voice to the indigenous doctrinal preference for inclusion of the filioque clause in the creed that had drawn the clerical élite to the synod of 809 in the first place. Two important debates intertwined with the quadrivium (i.e., the advanced medieval liberal arts curriculum of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) were therefore advanced at Aachen in 809: (1) Carolingian liturgical music defiantly adapted the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, and (2) computistical misunderstanding gave rise to astronomical clarification through word and image.

A thorough cultural history of the Carolingian appropriation of the classical legacy for the study of computistics and the liberal art of astronomy cannot ignore the significance of star pictures in the development of early medieval intellectual traditions. Paul Dutton has argued that in one literary exchange (letter 121, ca. 797), Abbot Alcuin of Tours (d. 804) describes to Charlemagne (d. 814) what Dutton labels a “pedagogy of the stars.” Alcuin united an inquiry into the relative placement of the constellations on a celestial globe or on the concave surface of a domical interior, “as if painted on high in some great man’s house,” with study of the liberal art of grammar and a celebration of the “aged wine of ancient studies.” Indeed, the liberal art of astronomy was a joyous curiosity, accomplishing a sought-after spiritual transformation that renewed the intellect and restored the mind, with the assistance of scientifically apposite diagrams, schematics, and Frankish images of the constellations that were the beneficiaries of semiotic strategies of exegetical emendation.

Arno Borst’s texts remain widely influential resources to consult on Carolingian calendrical study even if his arguments meet with resistance in the details. On the issue of the imagery of the constellations in the Handbook of 809, he had this fairly standard disclaimer: “Foremost, the imagery on the rotating heavenly sphere of the fixed stars and their interdependence according to the ancient myths about the stars were described, with colorful pictures that are to a greater extent evidence of pictorial fantasy than astronomical precision.” This position reflects a common assessment of the significance and import of the images of the constellations, which with rare exception are considered to populate the ancillary portions of standard copies of the Handbook of 809 in Book V of seven books total. For this reason, interest in the Handbook of 809 typically divides between (1) historians of science in the majority,who study the computistical encyclopedia contained in Books I through IV plus the diagrams accompanying Book V, sections 3 through 6, and (2) art historians or students of mnemotechnics, who have tended to examine the classical iconographic properties or purely astronomical aspects of the star pictures in Book V, section 2, and their pedagogical utility for Frankish audiences.

Although Drogo’s copy of the Handbook of 809 has long been heralded as an example of Carolingian astronomical illustration alongside the Leiden Aratea (Leiden, Bibliotheek der Rijksuniversiteit, Ms. Voss. lat. Q79), Drogo’s book has never benefited from a rigorous art historical appraisal of its contents or its significance for the development of Carolingian painting. The present volume thus undertakes both tasks. In so doing, it will become evident that outmoded art-historical appraisals of early medieval manuscript illumination driven by traditional assignments of certain illustrated books to particular schools must shift in favor of a view that emphasizes the professional skills and mobility of individual artists.

Borst determined that the copy of the Handbook of 809 made for Drogo (Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, Ms. 3307; hereafter Madrid 3307)—although today the book is missing portions of its original seven books (Books I.1–2, I.5–9, VI.1–7, and most of VII.1)—formerly supplied to early medieval readers the definitive record of the intentions of Adalhard and his team of compilers who created this computistical and astronomical compendium. An overemphasis on either the computistical components or the astronomical aspects of the Handbook of 809 permits a reductionist focus on computus or the illustrations in Book V. The very nature of the medieval compilation permits such selective reading, since any medieval compilatio was created from diverse parts that can be read in meaningful semiotic dialogue with one another. Whether the hermeneutic significance of these juxtapositions between texts in a compilation was intentional or was only discerned after the fact by modern researchers is inconsequential. Anyone investigating the kinds of medieval books available in libraries for consultation during the eighth and ninth centuries needs to examine the treatises and texts that were collected and compiled together as unified sets, such as those contained within the Handbook of 809 itself.

This implicit dialogue among the various sections of an anthology, or set of books bound together, could derive from a desire for knowledge by accretion, from agreement between texts, or even from deliberate polemic between the sections of an anthology. In keeping with the general strategy of accuracy through accretion, the complete text of the De natura rerum composed by the Venerable Bede (d. 735) was appended to the end of the Handbook of 809 as Book VII. Borst considers this a meaningful maneuver in which an orthodox Christian cosmology could counteract any mythological or pagan sources that had found their way into the preceding texts. In other words, such problematic content would be polemically juxtaposed with a more standard view derived from Bede, and thereby neutralized when Anglo-Saxon discussions of time and cosmology laid a Christian groundwork for computus and normative Frankish praxis.

The culled, composed, and assembled texts (computistical or otherwise), together with the imagery in Drogo’s copy of the Handbook of 809, provide instead multiple primary sources documenting a particularly Frankish view of the heavens. This vision of the stars is built on the earlier teaching of Isidore of Seville (d. 636), who proclaimed at the end of Book III of his Etymologiarum (hereafter Etymologies) that all study of the stars and constellations achieves the early medieval goal of sacred study of the liberal arts, namely, to “draw minds tangled in secular wisdom away from earthly matters and set them in contemplation of what is above.”

The present volume endeavors to be the first serious appraisal of Drogo’s enigmatic copy of the Handbook of 809. Toward this end, his handbook is treated as the primary record of the collaborative participation of multiple creative Carolingian communities—scribes who penned Drogo’s copy of the Handbook of 809; four painters in Metz who filled it with lavish miniatures of the constellations and diagrams; intellectual teams under prelates such as Adalhard who formed a specific Christian Carolingian perspective on the liberal art of astronomy. Dynastic kinship ties gave rise to official copies for Carolingian princes in clerical service such as Drogo, Bishop of Metz (served 823–55). These Carolingian ecclesiasts used their books to advance pedagogy and to foster an intellectual brand of spiritual renewal through the study of the liberal art of astronomy, relying on the texts and miniatures in their handbooks. Ultimately, this is the story of Drogo and a cultural history of his copy of the Handbook of 809. The present volume addresses the scientia that was saved in the Handbook of 809. It also reveals the scientific soteriology that filled Drogo’s handbook with strategies for reckoning the liturgical calendar through computus and also for reforming the minds of individual readers.

The star pictures are more than elaborate decorative schemes intended to heighten the cultural impact of the calendrical portions of an encyclopedic compilation such as the Handbook of 809, or to reconstitute a vision of antiquity before Frankish eyes. Rather, the images of the constellations in discrete copies of the Handbook of 809 such as Drogo’s personal book (Madrid 3307, figs. 3–19) are vital records of Frankish engagement with the heavens, and of individual interventions of an overtly scientific, philological, and explanatory nature, as when Carolingian painters in places such as Metz made creative formal and iconographic decisions about the earthly appearances that their illustrations of the celestial bodies should take. The actual star pictures in Drogo’s personal copy of the Handbook of 809 (Madrid 3307, folios 54v–62v) filled Book V.2, the De ordine ac positione stellarum in signis (On the order and placement of the stars in the constellations; hereafter the De ordine) with an ordered manifestation of classical astronomy that had been specifically prepared for a Christian audience.

<insert figures 3–17 about here, facsimile of manuscript, full page images>

On each parchment folio, one of the four painters working on Drogo’s behalf in Metz made selections from or adapted classical precursors and image-types remaining from antiquity, which often harked back to the forms in illustrated books from Corbie or to images on astronomical devices such as celestial globes, lost due to the perishable materials often employed for their manufacture. The choices these illuminators made document a sophisticated process of looking at the extant samples remaining from the past, which were relics of classical astronomical science, and rereading their significance for eighth- and ninth-century Frankish Christian communities. The present volume emphasizes the astronomical illuminations in manuscripts precisely because it is on the painted folios of early medieval books of astronomy and cosmology that the legacy of these rich celestial forms can best be seen. In particular, in chapter 2.1 a complete historiographic review of Aratean recensions and the early medieval star pictures that illustrate them is offered the reader.

<insert figures 18–19 about here>

<1>Shifting Signs and Exegetical Emendation

The innovative compilation of image cycles in Carolingian astronomical compendia was neither a rote process nor a practical exigency resulting from lacunae in disparate Frankish models. On the contrary, in the pages that follow, the careful examination of certain star pictures, such as Hercules (fig. 4) or Chiron the Centaur (fig. 18), and their corresponding texts in Drogo’s personal copy of the De ordine from the Handbook of 809 reveal a rich and ongoing intellectual engagement with the visual models for the star pictures that had survived the ravages of late antiquity, and that were then realized in the lavish but diverse cycles of early medieval illuminated astronomical manuscripts.

<insert figure 20 about here>

It is important to pause here to underscore a methodological point of great significance. Each created copy of a medieval manuscript is an opportunity for reconsideration, inflection, and exegesis, as argued with respect to computistical treatises, including Drogo’s copy of the Handbook of 809, by Richard Corradini. In his essay “The Rhetoric of Crisis,” Corradini emphasizes the significant ways that annals, calendars, and computistical texts work together to fashion a Christian Carolingian identity, for “computus, as a framework for memorial thought, was more than a means of reckoning time; it was a reckoning with and on time, and formed the basis for experience-based history in both the past and the future.” Carolingian artists were participants in their society, and their mores, fears, doctrines, and aspirations all informed their iconographic decisions about the forms their star pictures could take in a projection of the individual onto even official records of period science. Such a strong endorsement of the creative capabilities of early medieval authors and artists has not always been supported by researchers investigating premodern or early modern star pictures. Bruce Eastwood’s studies of Carolingian diagrams, created and then modified for readability to accompany the aforementioned Plinian excerpts included in Book V of the Handbook of 809, are but one more important exception (figs. 20–23).

<insert figures 21–23 about here>

This volume corrects a failure of focus: in the past, the computistical texts or astronomical pictures have been treated without suitable integration. An equal celebration of the text and the imagery in the Handbook of 809 permits new opportunities for discovery. Since the good work in the past treating the Handbook of 809 has focused on the computistical portions of the compilation and its diagrams, the present volume assesses in great detail the classical traditions and early medieval Christian interventions that account for the astronomical illustrations in Drogo’s copy. An endorsement of Carolingian creativity has recently received additional support from a collective effort by Dieter Blume, Mechthild Haffner, and Wolfgang Metzger, who in Sternbilder des Mittelalters advocate for the kind of creative astronomical intervention during the Frankish period called for here: “But, one does not only augment the pictorial effect through illusionistic painting, rather at the same time one turns the picture into a bearer of scientific information, which the accompanying text does not contain.”

<insert figure 24 about here>

One important result of this approach is the need to support the intellectually refined observational and artistic practices employed by early medieval artists. This attentive aspect of Frankish poiesis informed the processes of selection that omitted the traditional Tree of the Hesperides (visible, for example, in figs. 24–25) from the image of Hercules, as explained in chapter 2, and rendered the Centaur Chiron the teacher of Achilles, as explained in chapter 4. These techniques for interpreting imagery through the artistic transformation of pictorial details modify the meaning of classical precedents. Through this process, termed here exegetical emendation, Frankish painters worked in conjunction with the scribes and compilers who assembled an anthology such as the Handbook of 809, creating through textual and visual strategies of meaning a lasting record of their astronomical science. This does not mean that new forms became necessarily hegemonic, precluding further reinterpretation and reinvigoration. In fact, some forms did persist and recur across copies of the Handbook of 809, indicating their widespread and celebrated acceptability for Carolingian audiences. But every new codex was an opportunity for the creative decision-making process to renew itself, and in each copy Carolingian painters determined for their own reasons which forms to emend.

<insert figure 25 about here>

Artistic expression must, however, be considered alongside other rhetorical and hermeneutic strategies of interpretation in the formation of a compilation such as the Handbook of 809. Since the visual components of the compilation were built on the nonmathematical applications of computistics and the liberal art of astronomy, the present volume delves deeply into the philological and visual traditions that contributed to the creation of Drogo’s copy of the Handbook of 809. It is this material alone that has not been thoroughly contextualized for cultural historians in the extant literature, and a novel focus on the compilation of the Handbook of 809 from the standpoint of the art historian, looking outward from the astronomical pictorial program at the remaining contents of the anthology, therefore sheds new light on the pedagogical utility and purpose of the Handbook of 809.

To take full advantage of this perspectival inversion, certain limitations must be imposed. Rather than revisit the established literature pertaining to computus (by Arno Borst, Bruce Eastwood, Brigitte Englisch, Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Kerstin Springsfeld, Faith Wallis, and Immo Warntjes, inter alia) for its own sake, only concepts relevant to the pictorial program in the Handbook of 809 and its legacy are addressed. Similarly, this is not a book about the textual transmission of classical mythology to Renaissance audiences. Aspects of this important philological work have been undertaken already, with vital contributions by Jane Chance and Hubert Le Bourdellès, reforming and building upon aspects of the foundational work supplied by Ernst Maas and Jean Martin. The Aratean textual traditions are, however, compared critically in chapter 2.1. The iconographic analysis of the Aratean image cycle in chapter 2.2–3 necessarily draws upon the work of Mechthild Haffner and Florentine Mütherich, paying particular attention to the relative degrees of continuity and creative intervention, or exegetical emendation, to be found throughout Drogo’s pictorial program. The Handbook of 809 was truly a princely book treating astronomy and computistics with a particularly Frankish agenda. It was created to encourage both (1) spiritual renewal of the mind of its Carolingian reader and (2) implementation of the clerical calendar which would ensure that that reader attained eternal salvation at the End of Days. Thus far, this discussion has reassessed the historic synod of 809, and the creative engagement with classical Aratean tradition that resulted in the Handbook of 809. At this point, it is useful to review the conceptual framework in which earlier historiographic discussions of the star pictures took place and the institutions that fostered such activity.

<1>Study of the Heavens: The Warburg Institute, Saxl and Panofsky

Aby Warburg (d. 1929) and his Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (or KBW, relocated to London in 1933) have played a seminal role in our understanding of medieval and Renaissance astronomy and astrology, and the institute which bears his name remains at the forefront of new scholarly approaches to the study of such material. In some ways, it is the Nachleben of Warburg’s devotion to the intertwining effects of fate and feeling upon discrete historical contexts that supplies his most important legacy to the present project. As Matthew Rampley has rightly noted, “It is perhaps not too bold to suggest that [Warburg’s] interpretation of Northern realism can be extended to form a more general theory of pre-Renaissance representation, a theory following which the medieval veneration of images, for example, would testify to the power of symbolic magical-associative representation.” Yet Warburg’s Renaissance was a fecund era imbued with dissonance, according to Rampley. An opposition arises between the medieval fetishization of the sacred symbol and a modernizing tendency toward allegory, resulting in a dissociative rupture between the sign and its referent, overcome solely through empathic connection to the object of mimetic representation. For Rampley’s Warburg, this outpouring of empathy infused Renaissance Florentine artists and their patrons with an alleged ability to record, through art, a realist expression of their objects of representation and to identify straightforwardly with both the thing depicted and the depiction of the thing. This emotive mutability fostered the fertile environment requisite for the efflorescence of Florentine expression in the Quattrocento.

On the one hand, it is important to underscore that Warburg would never have applied his considerations to Carolingian star pictures. On the other hand, the possibilities for redefinition that emerge in seemingly incongruous artistic citations of the classical Roman past permit the chief proponents of the iconological method, such as Erwin Panofsky in his Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (1960), to formulate a straightforward critique of the Carolingian Renaissance. Ironically, Warburg’s presentation of the Florentine Renaissance (beginning with his dissertation on Sandro Botticelli, published in 1893) as an expressive age of transition between the medieval and early modern period allows his self-critical appraisal of cultural appropriation troubled by empathy. And by extension, Warburg’s view therefore possibly enables an empathic resonance to be felt with premodern cultural periods of transition as well. This arguably makes Warburg’s perspective more useful for scholars of Carolingian cultural history than the perspective of scholars such as Panofsky, who nonetheless believed that he had built his discussion of successive periods of renewal on a solid Warburgian foundation.

One of the most important names in any historiographic review of the development of medieval and Renaissance presentations of the heavens is Fritz Saxl (1890–1948), who arranged for the relocation of the KBW from Hamburg to London in 1933. Even though Saxl originally considered the idiosyncratic acquisition and shelving practices of the library “baffling,” he became one of the KBW’s greatest benefactors, beginning with his efforts as Warburg’s assistant in 1913. After Franz Boll (1867–1924), who drafted the seminal text Sphaera in 1903, Saxl’s catalogues of astronomical and astrological manuscripts, the Verzeichnis astrologischer und mythologischer illustrierter Handschriften des lateinischen Mittelalters (Catalogue of astrological and mythological illustrated manuscripts of the Latin Middle Ages) have enabled all subsequent study. In 1915, Saxl devoted the first installment of the four-part series to Roman libraries, followed by a volume on the Viennese celestial codices in 1927. The third catalogue attests to the relocation of the Warburg Institute to English soil, since the volume appearing in 1953 bears its imprimatur and Saxl inventoried the holdings of English libraries in conjunction with Hans Meier. Finally, catalogue four documents the passage of the mantle to Patrick McGurk, who compiled the catalogue devoted to libraries in Italy outside Rome.

In 1933, Saxl joined with Erwin Panofsky to identify salient historical and cross-cultural contextual considerations that permitted the diachronic evolution of medieval and Renaissance star pictures. In “Classical Mythology in Mediaeval Art,” Panofsky and Saxl argued for the inability of early Christian or Carolingian artists and compilers to celebrate the venerable alterity of antiquity with an apposite respect for the normative codes of life that informed Greco-Roman poetry and painting. Building expressly upon Warburg’s foundation, Panofsky and Saxl attempted to trace “the way in which classical thought continued through the postclassical era.” For Panofsky and Saxl, the Carolingian artists of the eighth and ninth century were preservationists who ensured the survival of Horace, Ovid, Pliny, Vitruvius, and Aratus. In their words, “In the same spirit the Carolingian illuminators endeavored to copy the illustrations in the ancient astronomical picture books…. They conscientiously, and sometimes most successfully, imitated their prototypes in style and technique as well as in mythological subject matter.” More will be said about the Carolingian negotiation with classical form and content in chapter 2. For now, it suffices to underscore that according to Panofsky and Saxl, “during the Middle Ages in the western European countries it was inconceivable that a classical mythological subject should be represented within the limits of the classical style.”

Panofsky developed this thesis further in his highly important book, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art. The Italian Renaissance owed an inexhaustible debt to the scribes and illuminators of the Carolingian renewal, who preserved models of classical pictorial forms, such as the images of the constellations in Drogo’s copy of the Handbook of 809, for later generations. The legacy to Western cultural historians of those Carolingian painters, according to Panofsky, was precisely their lack of creativity: “And the classical values—artistic as well as literary—were salvaged but not ‘reactivated’ (as we have seen, no effort was made either to reinterpret classical images or to illustrate classical texts de novo).”

In contrast, one chief thesis and methodological bias of the present volume results from shifting the focus of analysis away from the computistical import of the Handbook of 809 and onto the creative aspects of the annals, the development of certain astronomical concepts related to lunar-solar motion, and the interpretation of the star pictures found in Book V. To achieve this intellectual repositioning, the images of the constellations are a serious point of departure. It thereby becomes clear that the Carolingian compilers of the Handbook of 809 performed a task similar to that of the painters who examined alternative visual examples of a constellation such as Hercules (figs. 4, 24–25). In both cases, the compilers under the supervision of Adalhard and the painters in Drogo’s Metz made deliberate decisions about the form their anthology or visual representation would take.

Moments of interpretative intervention in any act of creation permit exegetical emendation. Images of the constellations permit novel reinvestment of classically inherited forms with current Carolingian meaning precisely because the constellation pictures operate simultaneously as mnemotechnic tools, conceits requisite for the liberal art of astronomy, and visual summaries of the iconographic traditions that gave rise to them. Just as the texts compiled into the Handbook of 809 expanded the semiotic potential of the anthology through juxtaposition and recombination, so the various pictorial elements assembled into Frankish images of the constellations such as Hercules document a skilled, and not haphazard, engagement with the classical past that made possible the creation of a specific eighth- and ninth-century Christian perspective examined in this book. The images of the constellations, the diagrams, and the remainder of the compilation all participate in the creation of meaning within the Handbook of 809 through multiple hermeneutic strategies that multiply in complexity and defy a reductionist reading of the book. Only through an integrated reevaluation of the coeval complementary status of the texts in the Handbook of 809 and their corresponding images can a fuller appreciation of the import of Drogo’s copy be achieved.

<1>The Handbook of 809 (the Aachener Enzyklopädie)

In order to examine the Carolingian significance of the Handbook of 809, it is important to index the contents of a standard copy. It was Fritz Saxl, again in the Verzeichnis, who undertook the seminal research, establishing the normative cycle of texts included within the table of contents of the seven-book “Mammutwerk,” as it has been labeled by Borst. Borst dubbed this nameless anthology the Libri computi and the Aachener Enzyklopädie von 809, but confessed to dissatisfaction with his own titles, since the compilation defies facile classification into existing genres. As Borst rightly notes, the Aachener Enzyklopädie does not encompass the same range of topics covered, for example, in Isidore’s Etymologies, yet neither is it exclusively a pedagogically oriented computistical treatise such as the De temporum ratione (On the reckoning of time) of the Venerable Bede.

Previous scholarly work has tended to gloss over the cycle of imagery in the Libri computi. Bruce Eastwood has supplied the most important corrective, evaluating the creative ways that Frankish artists appended new diagrams to the Plinian excerpts belonging to Book V of the compilation. Eastwood terms the Libri computi the “Seven Book Computus,” emphasizing the aspects of the compilation that are of importance to the history of science, and in so doing follows the good example of Kerstin Springsfeld. Springsfeld, however, also points the way to a compromise, considering the compendium from Aachen (that is, the Libri computi) to contain enough information to supply a computistical handbook for its owner. This perspective has the advantage of focusing on the normative Christian presentation of a cosmology recombined with an applied computistical conceptual framework that constituted the fundamental structure of the Libri computi. The compilation was never fully a computus, but was also necessarily limited in scope by the nature of its table of contents. Still, like a classical handbook, in its concise authoritative presentation, the Libri computi was intended to encourage pedagogical instruction while quelling dissent.

As Brigitte Englisch has masterfully argued with respect to Cassiodorus’ engagement with classical arithmetic, Cassiodorus sought to reclaim for a Christian audience the logical parameters in which a meaningful discussion of ciphers and operations could take place. In the same way, akin to an early medieval handbook, the vast array of topics covered in the Libri computi recalls a conscientious effort at creating in text and image a ninth-century authoritative compilation that would set the agenda for further topics of discussion on natural history, cosmology, and computus. But the organization of the compiled texts and images in the Libri computi is even more significant.

To better understand just how meaningful the structure of the compilation happens to be, it is helpful to review a further point raised by Englisch vis-à-vis the use of finger reckoning (de loquela digitorum) in Bede’s De temporum ratione. By combining one traditional means for counting according to long-standing schemes of calculation (linked to the arithmetical liberal arts of the quadrivium) with the praxis-oriented problem-solving aspects of computus, Bede achieved a new intellectual hybrid. In other words, the early medieval predilection for authoritative ideas originating in antiquity was marshaled in service of the celebration of the Christian liturgy. Temporal reckoning in a Christian world, thereby drew upon ancient practice, creating a ratiocinative problem-solving method aimed ultimately at achieving verifiable computistical results.

In the present volume, I contend that Adalhard of Corbie and the subsequent copyists, such as those who manufactured Drogo’s Handbook of 809 (Libri computi), performed a similar hermeneutic maneuver. By introducing the innovative pictorial program of the constellations and four original diagrams into their definitive statement of computus and the liberal art of astronomy, the compilers and copyists of the Libri computi created a novel holistic presentation of the cosmos for early medieval Christian eyes. Visual precursors had remained in Italy and throughout Rhenish Frankish villages since Roman times, but as a text and image composite, the complete compilation contained within the Libri computi presented an integrated official presentation of the classical and computistical traditions that were the origins of Frankish astronomy. This textual and visual praxis-oriented hybrid with authority, known as the Libri computi, is better labeled an up-to-date Carolingian version of a handbook, and is therefore called here the Handbook of 809 on these methodological and cultural historical grounds.

Before turning to a discussion of the significance of the Handbook of 809, a brief guide to its scope and size follows. Any such reconstruction benefits from the early efforts of Fritz Saxl. He identified the original seven books of the Handbook of 809 because he edited the complete table of contents included within a second copy of the Handbook of 809 presently in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. lat. 309 (on fols. 4v–6r), and an incomplete version of the table of contents in a third copy of the Handbook of 809, likewise in the Vatican, Vat. lat. 645 (on fols. 1r–2v).

Book I oriented all that followed relative to the annual cycle of liturgical feasts, with a rota and a martyrology followed by the nineteen-year computistical tables—explained for art historians, with an introductory user’s manual, in chapter 1 below. Students of computus will also find there additional references signaling places where more advanced information can be gathered.

In Book II computistical references to the year 4761 ab initio mundi recurred, indicating the date for the commencement of work on the Handbook, namely, 809. Book II treats essential computistical concepts such as epacts, indiction numbers, and concurrentes, relying upon them for calendrical calculations of note (all of which are explained in the present volume in chapter 1.4). Englisch’s point mentioned above, highlighting the intersection of computistical acumen and learned appreciation of a liberal mathematical art such as astronomy, is also relevant here. Fundamental cosmological truths such as the age of the world emerged from these rudimentary computistical exercises. These arithmetical operations permitted the Carolingian reader further access into the hidden biblical history of the world in need of perfection.

Book III addresses the annual course of the sun, while Book IV moved on to lunar movement and the period defined by a lunar month (or lunation). This prepared the reader to examine the pivotal calendrical issue of correlating lunar and solar orbits in order to reckon accurately the feast of Easter, according to a geocentric model of the solar system. In other words, the preliminary portions of the Handbook of 809 underscored the importance of the liturgical calendar and the floating feast of Easter. In keeping with standard Christian tradition, these were the antidote for the historic spiritual problems facing Creation.

Book V introduced the pictorial program into this dialogue. Both the pictures of constellations and the diagrams for Plinian excerpts were added to the Handbook of 809 as additional complementary data sets informing the reader about their classical legacy in novel ways. In addition, the entire pictorial program participated in the pragmatic soteriological agenda established by the preceding four books. Computus and crafted visualizations of the heavens were equally essential, but performed alternate modes of psychical labor within the Handbook of 809. Computus enabled the appropriately trained cleric to reckon the feasts of the liturgical year in community with the fellowship of saints, present and past. The image cycle continued that labor within the individual in a more specialized personal or educational context. The immediacy of the presented constellations and diagrams enhanced the effective pedagogical and devotional import of the Handbook of 809, enabling the reader to connect with the celestial realm and to benefit from the spiritual renewal such study promised, as explained in chapter 4 below.

Book VI of the Handbook of 809 discussed pragmatic concerns such as weights and measures, before (as mentioned already) the Handbook of 809 concluded with Bede’s De natura rerum in Book VII.

<1>Communities of Faith and Knowledge

Derived from the Aachen synod of 809, the full impact and import of the pictorial program in the Handbook 809 can only be assessed relative to the intersection of temporal concerns and the administration of power throughout the Frankish kingdoms. One aspect of this multifaceted issue was the call for educational reform contained within Charlemagne’s Admonitio generalis (General admonition), compiled and promulgated 23 March 789. In the relevant section of this capitulary, Charlemagne focused on the intertwining spiritual and social responsibilities of pedagogical reform that confronted the generation of ecclesiasts such as Adalhard, who rose above his kindred sacerdotes.The king appealed to high-ranking clerics such as bishops, given the use of the term vestram almitatem (your benignity) in the opening line of the passage. The clergy were exhorted to lead by example, which meant that the education of children required first an erudite assembly of elders. Leading by example required the serious supervision of schools, intended for the practical aims of reading and correcting lacunae (emendatio). This is the cultural and scholarly approach to the Christian transformation of classical forms that likewise influenced Carolingian painterly practices of exegetical emendation in the formation of novel visualizations of heavenly forms:

And let schools be established in which boys may learn to read. Correct carefully the Psalms, the signs in writing [notas], the songs, the calendar [compotum], the grammar, in each monastery or bishopric, and the catholic books; because often some desire to pray to God properly, but they pray badly because of the incorrect books. And do not permit your boys to corrupt [the books] in [the process of] reading or writing them. If there is need of writing the Gospel, Psalter, and Missal, let men of mature age do the writing with all diligence.

This Carolingian stipulation made education accessible to the servile and free classes and emphasized the universal applicability of the educational reform initiatives. All of the boys needed to learn to read as the gateway to further study in the liberal arts. Reading was also the basic skill that would enable novices to enter meaningfully into the monastic life.

I have already suggested the interpenetration of spiritual goals with training in the liberal arts established the basis for a scientific soteriology that involved study of the liberal art of astronomy. In fact, as John Contreni has expertly argued:

When Carolingians wrote about schooling they invariably described its goal in spiritual terms. It was not only that the study of the arts would provide some technical assistance in comprehending the sacred texts, but also that the arts themselves had value as conduits to the knowledge of God…. But philosophy and theology were not the only beneficiaries of the Carolingian reform programme. The process of governing increasingly buttressed traditional sources of power with its own literary forms.

The educational reform of study of the liberal art of astronomy and the related applied science of computistics were just one example of the intersection of political, spiritual, and astronomical concerns in Charlemagne’s Frankish realms. Control of the spiritual and administrative aspects of the calendar was another, discussed at length by Arno Borst throughout his distinguished career. Borst emphasized in his numerous publications that Charlemagne’s interest in educational reform and calendrical study (or computus) transcended the pragmatic clerical and administrative requirements of dutiful service and became a pellucid strategy for the imperial consolidation of authority.

The quintessential product and outcome of authoritarian calendrical reform, according to Borst, was therefore the Lorsch calendar of 789 that recombined celestial observation and sacral veneration of the liturgical feasts throughout the Frankish kingdom with computistical erudition as a creative compilation effort in its own right, or at the very least including preestablished components into a cohesive suitable format. This calendar supplied the basis for the initial wheel diagram in Book I.1 of the Handbook of 809, called the Rota quae continet natalicia sanctorum, but was not the model for the martyrology that followed in Book I.3. This highlights the nonhegemonic or at least nonexclusive status (and these are not the same) of the Lorsch prototypical calendar. It was but one important early medieval record of calendrical reckoning among an expanding set of divergent and site-specific alternatives aimed at solving real computistical problems, at least since the synod of Soissons in 744, as argued perspicaciously by Englisch. This kind of “creativity” qua computistical intervention from the mid-eighth century has also been documented by James Palmer as evidence of a prescient politically engaged effort aimed at perfecting Easter reckoning, and anticipating a scenario parallel to the one in 809 under discussion in this book.

The creative confrontation of Carolingian artists and scholars with computus and with the classical legacy of the constellations gave rise to a series of astronomical-computistical-pedagogical handbooks, discussed in chapter 1 of the present volume. There, the art-historical significance of Drogo’s copy of the Handbook of 809 is thoroughly situated within the modern literature, resolving long-standing questions concerning the reason for the creation of lavish copies of the Handbook of 809, the origin of Drogo’s book in Metz, and its subsequent history.

Chapter 2 offers an iconographic history of celestial iconography as it pertains to Drogo’s copy of the Handbook of 809 as a resource for art historians.

Chapter 3 reinterprets the relationship between painters working in Metz and the formation of Drogo’s copy of the Handbook of 809, presenting evidence in support of itinerant teams of traveling painters working during the early medieval period.

Finally, chapter 4 confronts two important philosophical issues: (1) its discussion of the Carolingian image debate includes a proposal for a theory of Carolingian aesthetics, and (2) the ways that the Carolingians conceived of the spiritual benefits awaiting students of the Handbook of 809 and other such celestial compilations reveal the importance of the handbook’s texts, computistical underpinnings, and corresponding informative cycle of illustration for Carolingian readers.

In other words, the present volume moves from a comprehensive history of Drogo’s copy of the Handbook of 809 to a discussion of its imagery. It then considers the significance of the handbook’s paintings for the history of art and early medieval Metz, followed by an appraisal of the significance of these images of the constellations relative to Carolingian ideological justifications for imagery in the service of individual spiritual reforms.

The society of trained and skilled participants in the Frankish debates about the liberal arts contributed to the creation of a culture and not just an empire through study of the heavens, computus, and the liturgical calendar. This company included those close to Charlemagne’s shifting band of itinerant courtiers that was eventually affiliated to varying degrees with Aachen (after 794), such as Alcuin, Einhard (beginning 791–92), Paulinus of Aquileia (departing before 787), Paul the Deacon (until 786), and Peter of Pisa (leaving before 791), as well as an extended network at a great remove from this coterie, such as Adalhard (Corbie), Alcuin again (posted to Tours in 796), Arn (Saint Amand and Salzburg), Dungal (Paris), Hrabanus Maurus (Fulda and Mainz), and Theodulf (Fleury and Orléans). Granted, these luminaries had weakenesses and at times possessed incompatible perspectives, but it is precisely these differences that encouraged the creative problem-solving spirit throughout the Carolingian era that fostered an environment appropriate for the creation of Drogo’s copy of the Handbook of 809.

Although Charlemagne was geographically mobile until late in life, his intellectual community established a centrally authorized network of administrative centers for the relocation and distribution of texts and the dissemination of ideas. Period philosophical treatises and the evidence from illustrated astronomical manuscripts indicate that pedagogy and study of the liberal art of astronomy participated in Carolingian strategies for the individual restoration of the soul in keeping with Christian doctrine. This theme is treated in chapter 4.

In so doing, the Carolingian teachers created within the schools sites of pedagogy yielding a form of doctrinal conformity, as education worked in tandem with ideals of sanctification for the edification of the empire. In other words, study of the liberal art of astronomy was a pathway to individual salvation, and throughout the Carolingian empire, astronomy became a saving science. Astronomy was a tool for individual renewal, one educated member of the empire at a time; hence the textual and visual traditions belonging to Carolingian study of the liberal art of astronomy were slated for preservation. The creation of a doctrinally informed, intellectually renewed and fortified populace was itself a form of political fashioning through the cultivation of knowledge. As each person mastered himself, he became prepared to train others and to participate in a well-formed community of scholars or prelates. Johannes Fried has labeled this aspect of the Carolingian empire a Wissensgesellschaft, or community based on its shared scientia, a politico-economic realm with a technology of Christian knowledge formation at its core. As Rosamond McKitterick has emphasized concerning the Frankish administration of the realm and its knowledge(s), “the Admonitio generalis needs to be seen in the context of… the integration of the Christian faith within the institutional and political framework of the Frankish realm,” and “the concept of correctio, the acquisition of knowledge and the exercise of power were yoked together.”

In this fertile and protean context, it is unsurprising to learn that artists, too, moved about and drew upon diverse models in discrete locations, varying their finished products in accord with the general expectations that unified the widespread Carolingian milieu, but with individual inflections for specific patrons and audiences. As the painters moved about, so did their forms, and thus the varied presentations of the constellations benefited from this permissible mutability. Although hardly an isolated early medieval phenomenon, it was precisely this creative diversity of forms that permitted a novel Christian presentation of the star pictures throughout the Frankish realms, drawing upon classical Roman and autochthonous iconographic traditions in a process of exegetical emendation.

<1>Centers and Wandering Painters: Four Men in Metz

No one has laid the foundation for this novel reinterpretation of the star pictures found in Drogo’s copy of the Handbook of 809 more than Lawrence Nees. In his groundbreaking 2001 essay “On Carolingian Book Painters: The Ottoboni Gospels and Its Transfiguration Master,” Nees demonstrated with careful description, buttressed by thick art-historical contextualization of mid-ninth-century painterly styles and codicological considerations pertaining to Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Cod. Ottobonianus, lat. 79, that “Carolingian patrons may have… [used] local or in-house talent for some jobs… seeking distinguished outside assistance when available, or for special purposes.” In particular, Nees adopts an artist-centered perspective that reconsiders the impact of specific artists on regional styles. The so-called Transfiguration Master thus comes to be understood as a renowned and much sought-after artist who plied his trade as an itinerant illuminator in the same regions under discussion in this book. Historic connections between the Frankish cities of Metz and Reims fostered the communication of pictorial information along traditional lines of cultural exchange that can also be traced using art-historical methods. Working in a conventional Franco-Saxon style during the ninth century, the Transfiguration Master made his way through the regional centers of Neustria and Austrasia, learning and adapting his craft as he proceeded from one commission to the next. What is of vital significance for the present book in the model supplied by Nees is its rich potential for constant exchange: an itinerant painter wandered or was reassigned to new sites after successful completion of work undertaken, and continued to acquire new iconographic ideas—and to master new painterly approaches to the resolution of pictorial problems—while fulfilling a variety of commissions throughout his professional life.

Nees’ paradigm undermines the traditional approach to Carolingian painting, which sought to isolate Frankish production according to monolithic ateliers. Wilhelm Koehler and Florentine Mütherich created monumental and invaluable catalogues Die karolingischen Miniaturen, which taxonomically cluster illuminated manuscripts according to putative court schools and monastic or Episcopal scriptoria. The catalogues also, however, established hegemonic categories of difference that cannot account for the creative modalities of exegetical emendation found in the books contained within or left out of those exhaustive catalogues. Nees’ model supplies a suitable, synchronic corrective, analyzing specific books with an attentive interest to the specific parameters that affected an individual commission at a particular time and in a specific place.

It therefore is also problematic to assume that all iconographic details copy an earlier source, fabricating unnecessary lost models for the evidence that remains and, arguably, preferring what is missing to the codices at hand. In order to track the precise diachronic links that permitted exegetical emendations in the eighth and ninth centuries, a middle ground is required. In a case such as Drogo’s copy of the Handbook of 809, this middle ground must take into account the classical Greco-Roman iconography of the star pictures, countervailing Carolingian presentations of the constellations or planets, and the subsequent reinterpretation of those celestial forms in Metz by a band of four traveling painters. Since the extensive astronomical material is in need of explanation, this volume has limited itself to a focused study of early medieval astronomical manuscript illumination. Fluid Frankish practices for forming image cycles, however, would never have precluded simultaneous consideration of stellar representations in plastic media, and for that reason the manuscript records of lost celestial globes are also assessed in what follows.

Mindful of these concerns, the present volume focuses on the aspects of Carolingian manuscript illumination that were of import for Drogo’s copy of the Handbook of 809. Books traditionally believed to come from Reims and Metz influenced its manufacture or were influenced by it. Because the imagery in the Handbook of 809 was of primary importance for the subsequent transformation of western European star pictures and cosmological Plinian diagrams, as discussed above, this art-historical study is overdue.

Two master painters and their assistants in early medieval Metz realized the expectations of their patron and created a glorious copy of the Handbook of 809. Drogo’s book remains, however, but one copy, and the differences between its cycle of illustration and other princely examples define the significance of its pictorial program. In closing, it is essential to state that Bishop Drogo would have valued his book first for enabling him to perform his spiritual service. Having mastered its contents, Drogo did more than reckon the feast of Easter with accuracy and participate in Carolingian clerical reform, however. Through the folios of his copy of the Handbook of 809, Drogo also passed through a personal intellectual portal revealed to him by his star pictures and diagrams and, in Isidore’s words, set his mind “in contemplation of what is above.”