From the sixth through the eleventh centuries, power struggles raged between and among political and religious forces of Western and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This period began with great migrations. The Magyars and Huns swept into Western Europe, as the Vikings moved south from Scandinavia. The Muslims in the seventh and eighth centuries spread east to Asia and west to the Iberian Peninsula. In the eleventh century there was movement in other directions, as Christian armies launched the Reconquista in Spain and the Crusades in the East.
In the midst of these power struggles, the Franks steadily achieved greater political power in the West, beginning with Charlemagne and continuing through the Ottonians who would rule as Holy Roman Emperors. Faced with invasion from the Lombards in the eighth century, the pope requested aid from the Frankish king. In return for military protection, the pope sanctioned the Carolingian line. On Christmas Day 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Ruler of the Roman Empire. By allowing the secular title to be dependent on papal approval, the Carolingians set a precedent that would have serious consequences for church and state relations throughout the Middle Ages.
As the geographically separate spheres of Christendom developed, liturgical and theological differences emerged in the Greekspeaking East and the Latin-speaking West. The pope in Rome claimed primacy over patriarchs of the Eastern Church. Differing interpretations of church doctrine and liturgy led to the Great Schism of 1054. A key difference was the role of icons in religious practices.
The representation of religious subjects formed an important part of church decoration in the West and the East from the early Christian period. In the Byzantine church, however, icons or holy images came to be venerated as part of regular practice.
This attitude disturbed certain fundamental religious leaders as well as Byzantine emperors who felt threatened by this practice. The period of iconoclasm (726 to 843) saw the destruction of much religious art. Ultimately, the practice of venerating images was restored.
In the realm of art and culture, Charlemagne was keenly interested in reviving antiquity. Artists at his court actively copied late antique manuscripts and ivories, and his builders brought actual elements of late antique buildings from Rome and Ravenna to his palace in Aachen. There was much admiration in the West for the sumptuous luxury and lavish court rituals of the East. Artists of Byzantium were regarded as preservers of the classical artistic traditions.
In light of Charlemagne's concern with reviving antique learning and culture, his war against the Iberian Muslims is not without irony. The Muslims conserved and continued much of the Helleno-Roman philosophical and scientific heritage lost in Western Europe. Many antique texts were unknown in the West until they were translated late in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries from Arabic. Culture flourished in the Muslim cities. The Reconquista grew as a movement of the Christian kingdoms unified to reconquer the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim domination.
From the 1070s the Byzantine Empire suffered terrible defeats from the Muslims. This weakened position prompted them to summon Christians of Western Europe for assistance in reclaiming lost territory that included Christianity's most holy city, Jerusalem. When Pope Urban II rallied the First Crusade in 1095, a series of crusades followed that engaged Christian and Muslim armies over the next two centuries.
Leslie Bussis Tait, Ph.D.
Adjunct Professor, Art History
The Bard Graduate Center
for Studies in the Decorative Arts,
New York City