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The Libri Carolini was drawn up by Theodulf of Orléans (c.760-821)—one of the key theologians of the Carolingian church and the author of the well-known hymn “All glory, laud, and honour”—in 790–793 and then later revised by him with the help of, among others, Alcuin of York (c.732–804)—the private tutor to Charlemagne and the head of the palace school at Aachen. It was a well-argued response by the Latin-speaking Carolingian Church to the iconodulist decrees of the Second Council of Nicaea (787).

In essence, the Libri Carolini sought to refute this council’s advocacy of the use of icons as vehicles of worship and that such icons deserved the identical adoration as due to God. In light of recent discussions about worship and the so-called contemporary inability to primarily use words—notably the sermon—as a vehicle for worship, it has some interesting observations to add to these discussions.

Theodulf was a Visigothic churchman who was deeply influenced by the writings of Augustine, particularly the latter’s De doctrina christiana. This Augustinian work, which deals broadly with hermeneutics and was often treated as a manual for preachers in the early Middle Ages, provided Theodulf with the resources to argue that the Bible alone is “the material object to which the Christian can turn to gain knowledge of the spiritual realm, because it was granted by God for this purpose” (Celia Chazelle, “ ‘Not in Painting but in Writing’: Augustine and the Supremacy of the Word in the Libri Carolini” in Edward D. English, ed., Reading and Wisdom. The De Doctrina Christiana of Augustine in the Middle Ages [Notre Dame/London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995], 7).

Augustine was fairly severe on artistic representation. He argued that it was a “useless institution” that the serious student of Scripture needed to avoid. Relying on this Augustinian work, Theodulf was thus convinced that the Greek Orthodox advocacy of icons was due to their poor understanding of the beauty and riches of Scripture. The latter has all that a believer needs.

Celia Chazelle, in the above-cited article, notes that Theodulf’s critique is also tied up with “the concept that writing in general has greater merit as an instrument of communication than does artistic depiction” (“Not in Painting but in Writing” in  English, ed., Reading and Wisdom, 7). A picture, since it is material, does not partake of the spiritual realm. By definition, it must resemble that to which it refers and thus it cannot really inform its viewers about the realm of the Spirit. Words, on the other hand, are not so limited, for words are signs that do not have to resemble their subjects. And going along with this powerful advocacy of the written word and the supremacy of Scripture was an attempt to make Carolingian society an increasingly literate culture.

Summing up the thrust of the argument of the Libri Carolini and its similarity to Augustine’s De doctrina christiana, Chazelle states:

Both treatises insist on the supremacy of words as signs over all other forms of communication accessible to humans; both stress the difficulty, subtlety, and richness of written language, especially Scripture, and both maintain that the Christian who does not investigate the Bible’s language carefully or with sufficient grasp of the rules governing written language runs the danger of misinterpreting Scripture’s message. Both treatises make it clear that interest in artistic representations is incompatible with study of the Bible… (“Not in Painting but in Writing” in English, ed., Reading and Wisdom, 12).

There is much wisdom here and again a good reminder that there is nothing new under the sun.


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