Germigny-des-Prés , Theodulf's Oratory

Era 8AD - 9AD
Location Route de Saint-Martin, 45110 Germigny-des-Prés, France

Germigny-des-Prés, near Orléans in modern France was a key bishopric in the eighth and ninth-century Frankish kingdom of Charlemagne. It is unexpected to find a medieval wall mosaic this far north. The mosaic was installed in the apse of his personal oratory (small chapel) by the Frankish bishop of Orléans, Theodulf, a significant intellectual and religious figure at Charlemagne’s court, and a key advisor to the king. Theodulf’s services to Charlemagne were rewarded with the bishopric of Orléans and the abbacy of Fleury, probably in 797 or 798. On becoming abbot, he converted the nearby villa at Germaniacus into his country residence, complete with oratory, though the mosaic is believed to have been commissioned after his return from Rome in 801.

The design of the image is unique among surviving mosaics. At its centre, the mosaic depicts a rectangular box with two poles running its length. Two small angels hover over the top of the chest, gesturing downwards; above them, two more, much larger angels motion towards it. A hand emerges between the heads of the two larger angels, displaying the stigmata of the risen Christ. An inscription around the bottom, whilst invoking the viewers’ prayers for Theodulf in a very traditional fashion, gives some clues as to how the image could be understood: ‘As you gaze upon the holy propitiatorium (inner sanctuary/mercy seat) and cherubim, beholder/And see the shimmering of the Ark of God’s covenant/Perceiving these things, and prepared to beset the Thunderer with prayers/Add, I beg you, Theodulf’s name to your invocations’. This makes it clear, to those who could read, that the odd-looking box should be recognised as the Ark of the Covenant described in Exodus; the four angels are the cherubim, surrounding and guarding it. But exactly what the cherubim are doing, whether gesturing towards Ark or altar, and whether the Ark was originally shown empty or not, and what difference these things might make, is unclear.

It is a very personal nature of the mosaic, a conscious set of choices made by Bishop Theodulf himself, which have been understood by us in terms of how we understand Theodulf himself.

Between 791 and 793, Theodulf wrote a book called Opus Caroli regis contra synodum, better-known (!) as the Libri Carolini. This was meant as a Carolingian response to Byzantine Iconoclasm (the destruction of religious images) and to the 767 Iconophile Council at Nikaea which restored the place of images in Byzantine religious worship. Working from a poor Latin translation of the Acts of the 767 Iconophile Council of Nicaea, Theodulf got hold of the wrong end of the stick and criticised it for supporting the adoration of religious art: the Council had actually condemned such adoration, making it clear that religious images could be venerated but not worshipped. Politically, in taking this position, the Franks also therefore – and seemingly by accident – set themselves up in opposition to the pope, Hadrian I, who had endorsed the Council. Consequently, it seems that the Libri Carolini was quietly shunted off into the royal archives. But, if the Libri Carolini actually did reflect Theodulf’s views on religious imagery, that he believed religious images were a Bad Thing, then presumably the mosaic also shared that position, despite the Libri’s, and so Theodulf’s, stated opposition to religious images on church walls. It is this paradox that has dominated interpretations of the mosaic image, leading to the message of the mosaic being perceived as highly symbolic.

So...The overall meaning has been interpreted as the reality of the New Testament (Christ, manifest below the mosaic on the actual altar, in the form of the bread and wine of the Eucharistic sacrifice) replacing the symbolism of the Old, shown as the image of the empty Ark of the Old Covenant. In this reading, the Ark, despite its centrality in the mosaic, actually appeared as an obsolete relic, superseded by the presence of Christ on the altar below. Small details are understood as carrying enormous weight, though whether such apparent minutiae were visible to those using the Oratory is another story. The cross which is depicted in the halo of the large angel to the viewer’s right of the mosaic, but absent in the halo of the one to the left, may be significant of the difference between the Christians and the Jews, for example. It is felt to be in line with the Libri Carolini’s views on religious images as a bad thing that neither Christ nor the Virgin were depicted. Instead, their presence has been identified through symbols: the Ark itself was a frequent reference point in the Libri, where it was justified as an object commissioned by God; it was also often interpreted as a reference to Mary.

But why in mosaic, which was not a medium very common in the Frankish world? In 799, the pope, Leo III, had fled for help to Charlemagne at Paderborn. Charlemagne had ensured the pope’s safe return to Rome and then had himself, accompanied by his army and counsellors, including Theodulf, visited Rome to preside over a synod. Immediately after the end of this synod, on Christmas Day 800, Pope Leo had crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor (of which it is said, not holy, nor Roman nor an Empire). Theodulf spent about two months in Rome. This time gave him ample opportunity to explore the city – and its churches – and it is surely no fluke that elements of his mosaic at Germigny evoke mosaics in Rome, for example S Maria Maggiore (the Ark of the Covenant) and SS Cosmas and Damien (the angels). Having seen mosaic in Rome, he may well have been fired with a spirit of emulation, perhaps of its splendours, perhaps because of its Early Christian connotations or its papal associations, or perhaps, simply, because mosaic was Roman. Charlemagne himself employed mosaic in his royal palace and chapel at Aachen, built between 790 and 800, perhaps nicking the tesserae from Ravenna. A letter from Pope Hadrian I survives, dated to 786/7, authorising Charlemagne to take building materials, including mosaics, from Theoderic’s Palace in Ravenna. There’s also a passage in Notker’s Life of Charlemagne says that materials from Ravenna meant for Aachen were stolen by a royal official, who was discovered and punished with death by God. Although this official has been identified as Theodulf, this is highly improbable, since Theodulf did not fall from Charlemagne’s favour, but from that of his son, Louis, and for apparent treachery, not theft. However, it is conceivable that, like Charlemagne’s, Theodulf’s materials were derived from Ravenna (or were even left over from Aachen).

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