Köln: art and culture


Köln’s cultural and artistic development during the early medieval ages reflects important political, economic, and religious changes of a highly dynamic world. During late Roman times, a wealth of material culture remains, and some visual art in the form of mosaics remains from the mid-Roman period provides a useful bookend for the beginning of the Early Medieval Period. In the Merovingian period, minimal visual art can be found, but material culture remains available as Köln continued to produce and exchange ceramics.

During the Carolingian period, the manuscript library of Köln expanded, showing evidence of interest in the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great. The burial of significant Carolingian religious figures in Köln contributed to an emphasis on building sites and architecture. Later evidence of manuscript culture and musical writings indicates a probable diffusion of some Carolingian techniques and artistic tropes during this time. In the Ottonian period, the religious growth of the city correlated with increased manuscript production and intellectual interaction. The patronage of Bruno of Köln led to additional architectural activity. Byzantine, Carolingian, and Roman artistic and intellectual influences can be seen in Köln’s later art. A more diverse cultural dialogue in this later period shows Köln’s emerging as an important hub for human activity as the city moved into the High Middle Ages.


Visual and Manuscript Art

Dionysus Mosaic of Köln found in an excavated Roman villa from first to third centuries [image 1].
The Dionysus Mosaic, once the floor of the main room of a Roman villa of the first to third centuries, shows Roman investment and cultural influence on early-antiquity Köln [1].

An early collection of Ottonian Manuscripts called the Eburant group was made at Lorsch during 950/970. The Gero Codex was the most well-decorated Gospel Lectionaries from this collection, and its likely destination was to the monk Gero of Köln. The mastery and value of this gift, combined with a marked stylistic shift from Carolingian to Ottonian shows Köln was a major participator in western political changes [2].

The Storm at Sea, from the Hitda Codex, made 1000-1020 [image 2].
Köln’s role as a mixing pot of artistic influences is seen in the Hitda Codex made from 1000-1020 for Hitda, abbess of the Westphalian nunnery of Meschede. The emergence of a special “Köln School” of painted manuscripts is shown one of the paintings in the set: The Storm at Sea. Unique characteristics of this style showed a more heavily painted, not preliminarily-sketched practice, that allowed the paint to run more and created a more “fluid” and “impressionistic” feeling. This individual style was seen as competing with both Carolingian and Byzantine conventions of painting in the Hitda Codex, as Byzantinian figure style is employed throughout and Carolingian ruffled-brush stroke is also utilized [3].

Other images in the Hitda manuscript reinforce this synthesis, depicting Carolingian and Byzantine tropes alongside novel depictions, some of which notably place women in a close proximity to Christ which is not paralleled in prior works [4]. The layout of the Hitda manuscript follows a formula laid out in a gospel book by the influential manuscript producer, the Gregory Master [5].

Another manuscript from Köln, the Sacramentary of St. Gereon, also illustrates scenes from the Gospels, and additionally contains an image honoring Pope Gregory the Great [6]. In both the Sacramentary of St. Gereon and the Hitda Codex, Gospel scenes are accompanied by full page titula, which consist of commentary written in golden lettering. This commentary often borrows liberally from the writings and sayings of Bede and Gregory the Great [7].

Intellectual Life

Intellectual life in Carolingian and Ottonian Köln was closely linked to religion. Beginning with the efforts of Archbishop Hildebald (?780s-819), the Köln cathedral library acquired manuscripts of the writings of figures such as Augustine and Pope Gregory the Great [8]. The importance of Gregory the Great increased during the Ottonian period [9].

In his Life of Bruno, Ruotger records that Archbishop Bruno of Köln had a strong liberal arts education, which allowed Bruno to navigate both religious and political spheres. Bruno also conducted discussions with Greek and Latin thinkers [10]. In Ottonian times, sites of education shifted from monastic to episcopal schools [11].


Hildebold, Archbishop of Köln, died in 818 and was the first Archbishop of Köln to choose to be buried at the Church of St. Gereon. This choice would see more attention brought to building sites in Köln [12].

By the mid 900s, Köln saw itself as the site for Bruno of Köln’s patronage, and his substantial renovations of a run-down former church built before 866. This newly-renovated Church of Pantaleon potentially borrowed church layout plans from other churches like the Basilica Virginium and the Basilica Apostolorum, both in Milan [13].

Archbishop Heribert founded a Benedictine Abbey in 1002 over the ruins of a Roman fort. Carolingian influences were seen in the ground plan, which was copied from the palace chapel at Aachen, and in the double dedication to the Virgin and the Savior [14].

Material Culture and Utilitarian Art

Roman glass shards, from the Römisch-Germanisches Museum in Köln. Date unknown [image 3].
During the late Roman period, Köln was near a Roman glass production site in the Hambach forest which operated in the 4th and 5th centuries. This site produced a variety of utilitarian objects such as plates, bowls, drinking horns, and a variety of cups and glasses. The glasswork varied in color and sometimes featured diamond-shaped patterns [15]. Other glass artifacts from Köln include Germanic drinking horns, although some of these may predate the early medieval period [16]. Köln was near a network of other ceramic production sites in the Merovingian period [17]. Evidence of pottery has been found in excavations of Köln Cathedral [18].

Additional images of material culture from late Roman and Merovingian Köln can be found at the Römisch-Germanisches Museum Website.


Documentation regarding music in Köln is minimal. Archaelogical and artistic evidence has been found which indicates that, in the centuries prior to the early medieval period, a variety of musical instruments were present at Köln, including panpipes (fistula) and metal wind instruments [19]. The Carolingians attempted to standardize the musical practices in churches across the empire by introducing the Gregorian chant [20], but it is unclear to what extent these standardization efforts affected Köln. At some point in time, the Köln Cathedral library acquired a 10th century treatise on the early polyphonic theory of organum called De organo, which is often referred to as the “Cologne treatise,” (possibly to distinguish it from a different treatise from Paris which is also called De organo) although the authorship and origin are uncertain [21].


[1] Ginsberg-Klar, Maria E. “The Archaeology of Musical Instruments in Germany during the Roman Period.” World Archaeology 12, no. 3 (1981): 315. http://www.jstor.org/stable/124243.

[2] Dodwell, C. R. The Pictorial Arts of the West, 800-1200. Yale University Press Pelican History of Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993, 134.

[3] Dodwell, The Pictorial Arts of the West, 800-1200, 148-150.

[4] Mayr-Harting, Henry. Ottonian Book Illumination:A Historical Study, vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. 109-111.

[5] Mayr-Harting, Ottonian Book Illumination: A Historical Study, vol. 2, 99-101.

[6] Mayr-Harting, Ottonian Book Illumination: A Historical Study, vol. 2, 100.

[7] Mayr-Harting, Ottonian Book Illumination: A Historical Study, vol. 2, 101-106.

[8] Mayr-Harting, Henry. “Ruotger, the Life of Bruno and the Cologne Cathedral Library,” in Intellectual Life in the Middle Ages. London: Hambledon Press, 1992, 37-40, 47-48.

[9] Mayr-Harting, Ottonian Book Illumination: A Historical Study, vol. 2, 118.

[10] Mayr-Harting, “Ruotger, the Life of Bruno and the Cologne Cathedral Library,” 35-36.

[11] McKitterick, Rosamond. “The legacy of the Carolingians,” in Carolingian Culture: emulation and innovation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 321.

[12]  Dluhy, Deborah H. “Charlemagne and the First Archbishop of Cologne: A Thirteenth-Century Wall Painting at St. Gereon.” Gesta 17, no. 2 (1978): 33-36. doi:10.2307/766857.

[13] Sanderson, Warren. “The Sources and Significance of the Ottonian Church of Saint Pantaleon at Cologne.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 29, no. 2 (1970): 83-96. doi:10.2307/988643.

[14] Holladay, Joan A. “Cologne, Art.” In Medieval Germany : An Encyclopedia, edited by John M. Jeep. New York: Garland Pub., 2001. Pg. 134-137.

[15] Follmann-Schulz, Anna-Barbara. “THE HAMBACH GLASS PRODUCTION IN THE LATE ROMAN PERIOD.” In Glass of the Roman World, edited by Bayley Justine, Freestone Ian, and Jackson Caroline, 23-32. Oxbow Books, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt19893xf.9.

[16] Evison, Vera I. “GERMANIC GLASS DRINKING HORNS.” Journal of Glass Studies 17 (1975): 74-87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24188063.

[17] Wickham, Chris. The Inheritance of Rome : A History of Europe from 400 to 1000. New York: Viking, 2009, 220.

[18] Hurst, J. G. “Red-Painted and Glazed Pottery in Western Europe from the Eighth to the Twelfth Century.” Medieval Archaeology 13, no. 1 (1969): 123.

[19] Ginsberg-Klar, Maria E. “The Archaeology of Musical Instruments in Germany during the Roman Period.” World Archaeology 12, no. 3 (1981): 313-20. http://www.jstor.org/stable/124243.

[20] Rankin, Susan. “Carolingian music.” in Carolingian Culture: emulation and innovation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 278-279.

[21] Riemann, Hugo. History of Music Theory, Books I and II : Polyphonic Theory to the Sixteenth Century. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962, 12-13. (translated document and commentary)

Hughes, Anselm. Early Medieval Music, up to 1300. New Oxford History of Music ; v. 2. London, New York: Oxford University Press, 1954, 495-505. (additional commentary)

Image Citations

[1] Unknown artist. “Dionysus Mosaic.” From Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dionysosmosaik.JPG. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

[2] Unknown artist. “The Storm at Sea,” (or “Calming the Storm”). From Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HitdaMeschedeDarmstadtCod1640fol117r.jpg. This image is in the Public Domain.

[3] Unknown artist, Raddato, Carole (photographer/uploader). “Exhibition: Fragile Luxury – Cologne a glass-making centre in Antiquity, Romano-Germanic Museum, Cologne.” From Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Exhibition-_Fragile_Luxury_-_Cologne_a_glass-making_centre_in_Antiquity,_Romano-Germanic_Museum,_Cologne_(25384933879).jpg. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.



  1. smarta

    I’ve been compiling some sources and have decided to present a few regarding glass production in the Late Roman period. I haven’t dived incredibly deeply into some of these sources, but thought I would just point them out with some commentary regarding my first impressions of each article:

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/24190143 – Discusses two late Roman glass vessels. While the objects themselves are not from Köln, they are compared to other objects from Köln in the text, with some sources referenced which we might want to dive into.

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/24182706 – This is similar to the above article. It references some objects found in Köln, but it seems like the sources are in German so it might be a dead end.

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/24188540 – This source, like the previous two, only brings up Köln in comparison to the archaelogical finds it more directly addresses.

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/24188063 – This source directly addresses Germanic drinking horns found in Köln and as such seems very valuable.

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt19893xf.9 – This article/book chapter discusses the Roman glass production in the Hambach area near Köln. It may be out of the scope of our project, as it is not regarding Köln itself and might lean towards the economic side of things. It can also be found here: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/carleton-ebooks/reader.action?docID=4392661

    I will likely post another collection of sources on a different subtopic of the arts, namely music, in the near future. We should probably discuss the best way to structure and organize our page to accomodate both the different types of art and culture one might encounter (painting, architecture, sculpture, utilitarian art, music, literature, etc., if we do in fact find all of these various artistic forms) and also the different time periods in Köln.

    1. johnsont3

      Here is an overview of what we are planning to cover in our page, just so you guys have an idea of what is going on.
      There might be less information on some of these categories so they may be compressed or combined.
      Paintings and Drawings
      Sculptures and Carving
      Material Culture/Utilitarian Art
      Architecture (from an aesthetic viewpoint)
      Religion (minimally, more relating to sensibilities and beliefs)

      We plan to present our page separated by topic, as opposed to a larger integrated timeline. Thus, we can individually focus on certain topics.

    2. johnsont3

      Great, I will look into more sources.

      Do you think it will be okay to specialize about certain topics if there are a lot of evidence for such things. For example, if the vast majority of material culture we have of Köln is glasswork, we could just have a glasswork topic.

  2. johnsont3

    We had a discussion and decided to dive into two of our own subcategories each, and figure out what we had to work with by Wednesday.

    Material Culture

    Painting and Visual Art(maybe includes manuscript illuminations)

    We will see how this goes. By Wednesday, we might realize that we need to combine topics, or that we need to be more specific when defining topics.

  3. johnsont3


    Check out the museum Romano-Germanic Museum in Cologne.

    They specialize on Roman artifacts found in Cologne specifically. Good source for early Cologne.

  4. smarta

    A few notes:
    – Good job on unpacking the artistic influences in the Hitda manuscript. I have added a bit of content regarding that manuscript and another manuscript which I found in those two books on manuscript culture I checked out.

    – Regarding the image source for the picture at the sea: the source seems to be Mayr-Harting’s Ottonian Book Illumination, volume 2, which I have checked out from the library. This book has this particular image in full color. However, the pictures on Wikipedia are part of the Wikimedia Commons, which is a completely valid (and generally completely safe from copyright) source, so we should probably just cite that.

    – The content we have for the manuscripts seems to be distinct enough from the other visual art elements, so I have moved it to a separate header.

    – Our current word count is 1285, although this includes references and such (I haven’t gotten around to excluding the references, especially as they are in a lot of disparate places). This might indicate a need to slim down some of our commentary, notably in the section on manscripts (even though there is so much to say about these pieces of art), but for now more is better and we’ll look at slimming down some of the prose tomorrow evening when/if we meet.

  5. smarta

    Just a note for profs: some editing kerfuffle occured and thus we merged some versions of edits.

  6. smarta

    Current word count: 1567.
    581 of these words are the references, which gives us just shy of 1000 words for the main content.
    I think we’re at a good place in terms of content. Still might want to shorten anything that seems a bit clunky in prose (the overview seems just a bit long) and do some general edits.

    1. smarta

      Word count is slightly less because I found a paragraph which was accidentally duplicated in the aforementioned editing kerfuffle.


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