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Present History: Carolingian Gospels and the Uses of Narrative

The category of "time-based media" was coined for art practices in thoroughly modern media, such as videos, slide shows, and animation. The term, however, acquires extraordinary power when applied in the pre-modern sphere, by naming temporal qualities fundamental to artworks in the Christian tradition. The notion that time itself may work as a component of artistic composition opens a particularly valuable perspective on early medieval religious art. In the eighth and ninth centuries, people crafted images and their media to define the place of the Church in time – including a vivid present tense. The ever-present cycle of liturgical time provided a foil to commemoration of the gospel history on which the Church was founded. The expectation of history's end shaped Christian eschatology. Narrative imagery – the depiction of actions in a sequential structure – represented a particularly complex form of Christian time. Called historia in contemporary sources, pictorial narrative was deemed the form that, by representing past events, could make history present again. Taking the notion of temporal presence as a formal challenge for artists, this book explores both canonical and little known examples to investigate how ninth-century pictorial narrative – especially in illuminated gospel books and on their splendid covers – harnessed the combination of sequence, depicted motion, historical subjects, and the forms of objects and spaces to define the relationship of Christian history to the present. In doing so, artists defined the function of images and their media within the Carolingian Church, forging a particular power for the presence of art itself.

Beatrice Kitzinger