Libri Carolini

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Mosaic of the Ark of the Covenant, c. 806 from the oratory at Germigny-des-Prés was built by Bishop Theodulf of Orléans, the probable author of the work.

The Libri Carolini ("Charles' books"), Opus Caroli regis contra synodum ("The work of King Charles against the Synod"), also called Charlemagne's Books or simply the Carolines, are the work in four books composed on the command of Charlemagne, around 790, to refute the supposed conclusions of the Byzantine Second Council of Nicaea (787), particularly as regards its acts and decrees in the matter of sacred images. They are "much the fullest statement of the Western attitude to representational art that has been left to us by the Middle Ages".[1] The work appears to have been very largely a polemic based on a misunderstanding of the actual position taken by the Byzantine church, which was quietly archived when this was realized, probably in Rome.

The Libri Carolini were never promulgated at the time apart from being sent to Pope Adrian I who responded with a grandis et verbosa epistola (dignified and wordy letter),[2] and remained all but unknown until they were first printed in 1549, by Jean du Tillet, Bishop of Meaux, under the name of Eriphele.[3] They contain 120 objections against the Second Council of Nicaea, and are couched in harsh, reproachful terms, including the following: dementiam ("folly"), priscae Gentilitatis obsoletum errorem ("an old and outmoded pagan misunderstanding"), argumenta insanissima et absurdissima ("most insane and absurd reasoning"), derisione dignas naenias ("screeds worthy of derision"), etc.[2] The modern edition of this text, by Ann Freeman and Paul Meyvaert (Hannover 1998), is called Opus Caroli regis contra synodum ("The work of King Charles against the Synod"), and is based on the manuscript in the Vatican Library, which is now generally accepted as a Carolingian working manuscript "hastily finished up", when it became clear that the work was now redundant.[4]

When the work resurfaced during the Protestant Reformation, it caused a good deal of excitement and confusion. Despite its support of images, John Calvin refers to it approvingly in later editions of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book 1, Ch 11, section 14), and uses it in his argument against the veneration of images.[5]


The work begins, "In the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ beginneth the work of the most illustrious and glorious man Charles, by the will of God, king of the Franks, Gauls, Germany, Italy, neighboring provinces, with the assistance of the king, against the Synod which in Greek parts firmly and proudly decreed in favour of adoring (adorandis) images recklessly and arrogantly,"[6] followed immediately by what is called "Charlemagne's Preface". However, it is unlikely that Charlemagne wrote any of the books himself,[7] although the views expressed were influenced by him. He apparently did not accept that art had any advantages over books, a view not held by many of his advisers.

The preferred candidate as author of most modern scholars, following Anne Freeman, is Bishop Theodulf of Orleans,[8] a Spanish Visigoth in origin, of which traces can be detected in the Latin and the liturgical references in the work. The Vatican manuscript has an author, considered to be Theodulf, and a corrector. It is very likely that several clerics at the court contributed to discussions formulating a work to be issued in the Emperor's name, but it seems likely that Theodulf composed the text we have.[9]

In the past, some have attributed the writings to Angilram, Bishop of Metz or others of the bishops of France, alleging that Pope Adrian having sent Charlemagne the Acts of the Council in 790, he gave them to the French bishops for examination, and that the Libri Carolini was the answer they returned.[3] There is also evidence that the author was Alcuin; besides the English tradition that he had written such a book, there is also the remarkable similarity of his commentary on St. John (4, 5, et seqq.) to a passage in Liber IV., cap. vi., of the Libri Carolini.[7]


According to the Libri Carolini, images may be used as ecclesiastical ornaments, for purposes of instruction, and in memory of past events. It is foolish, however, to burn incense before them and to use lights, though it is quite wrong to cast them out of the churches and destroy them. Strong opposition is voiced to "adoration" of images, wrongly believing that the Second Council of Nicaea used this word, taken to mean the absolute adoration reserved for God alone, while only appropriate veneration is to be given to the saints and reverential honour to the Cross of Christ, Scripture, sacred vessels, and relics of the saints. The Greek word προσκύνησις that the Council in fact used means no more than reverence in a prostrate attitude.[10]

The Libri Carolini also blame the excessive reverence shown by the Greeks to their emperors, criticize unfavourably the elevation of Tarasius to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and find fault with the Scriptural and patristic exegesis of the Greeks. They confuse statements of the Second Council of Nicaea with those of the Iconoclastic conciliabulum of 754, frequently misrepresent the facts, and in general exhibit a strong anti-Greek bias.[10]

Various iconodule arguments for the use of images are dismissed. The reverence shown to the Ark of the Covenant in the Hebrew Bible is not accepted as an analogy for the attitude due to art, as the Ark was made on the direct instructions and to the designs of God himself. That Theodulf's oratory has a mosaic on this very subject, otherwise unknown at this scale, is itself taken as an argument for his authorship of the work.[11]

The contents were interpreted by Calvin and other iconoclast writers during the Protestant Reformation as support for their attitude. They were also put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, where they remained until 1900, either because of their iconoclastic arguments or because seen as interference by a civil authority in matters of Church doctrine.[12][13]


According to the Catholic Encyclopedia the editions of the Libri Carolini that have been in print are not those that were sent to Pope Adrian by Charlemagne, to which the Pope designed to write a refutation. This has been shown by Hefele, who notes that those sent to the Pope treated the matter in an entirely different order; and that they contained only 85 chapters,[10] while the printed books have 120, or 121 if the authenticity of the last chapter is granted. Moreover, the quotations made in Adrian's reply do not occur verbatim in the Libri Carolini, but are in some cases lengthened, in others abbreviated.[7]

Petavius thinks that what Adrian received were extracts from the Libri Carolini, made by the Council of Frankfort (794). Hefele arrives at a directly opposite conclusion, viz., that the Libri Carolini are an expansion of the Capitula sent to the Pope, and that this expansion was made at the bidding of Charlemagne. Baronius, Bellarmine, Binius, and Surius all questioned the authenticity of the Libri Carolini altogether. However, this extreme position seems to be refuted by the fact that certain quotations made by Hincmar are found in the modern printed books,[7] and may have been influenced by their use by Protestant writers during the Reformation. It is now generally accepted that the books are authentic, and the original Carolingian manuscript, as published by Freeman, was rediscovered in the 20th century.

All a misunderstanding[edit]

The work was refuting a bad copy of a very incompetent translation of the Byzantine decrees. In particular it seems clear that at least one negative was omitted, reversing the sense of the Greek, and that the Greek word proskynesis was mistranslated as "adoration", for which the Greek word is latria, which the Council had stated, in the invariable position shared by Catholics and Orthodox, was due only to the persons of the Trinity.[14]

(1728 Cyclopedia) It seems that the authors of these books had never read the acts nor decrees of the Second Council of Nicaea, or only in a very poor translation. Further, they seemed ignorant of what took place at the Second Council of Constantinople in 754. As an example, in Book IV., Chapter xiv., and also in Chapter xx., (Migne's ed., col. 1213 and col. 1226), the charge is made that the Second Council of Nicaea, specifically Gregory, the bishop of Neocaesarea, unduly flattered the Empress. However, these remarks were made at the Conciliabulum of 754, and not at the Second Council of Nicaea; also, they were not made by Gregory of Neocaesarea at all, and the reason they are attributed to him is because he read them in the proceedings of that pseudo-council to the true council of 787.[7]

The most famous example of incongruity in these books occurs in Book III., Chapter xvii., in which it is attributed to Constantius, the bishop of Cyprus, the statement that the sacred images were to be given supreme adoration due to the Holy Trinity. Sir William Palmer, and most modern scholars, attribute all of these mistakes to the books' authors using a mistranslated version of the acts and decrees of the Second Council of Nicaea. Of this translation, Anastasius Bibliothetius says, "The translator both misunderstood the genius of the Greek language as well as that of the Latin, and has merely translated word for word; and in such a fashion that it is scarcely ever possible to know (aut vix aut nunquam) what it means; moreover nobody ever reads this translation and no copies of it are made."[7]

Following are select false statements made in the text:

  • In the Preface, it states that the Conciliabulum was "held in Bithynia;" however, they were held in Constantinople.
  • In Book I, chapter i. are quoted certain words said to occur in the letters of the Empress and her son. On this Hefele remarks: "One cannot find the words in either of the two letters of these sovereigns, which are preserved in the acts of the Council of Nicaea."
  • In the Second Book, chapter xxvii., the council is charged with saying, "Just as the Lord's body and blood pass over from fruits of the earth to a notable mystery, so also the images, made by the skill of the artificers, pass over to the veneration of those persons whose images they bear." Now this was never said nor taught by the Nicene Synod, but something like it was taught by the Constantinopolitan conciliabulum of 754. These exact words cited occur neither in the one set of acts nor in the other. The underlying thought, however, was clearly exposed by the iconoclastic synod of 754 and as clearly refuted by the orthodox synod of 787.
  • In Book III, chapter v., it states that, "Tarasius said in his confession of faith that the Holy Spirit was the companion (contribulum in the Libri Carolini) of the Father and of the Son." It was not Tarasius who said this, but Theodore of Jerusalem.
  • Chapter XVII. begins thus: "How rashly and (so to speak) like a fool, Constantine, bishop of Constantia in Cyprus, spoke when he said, with the approval of the rest of the bishops, that he would receive and honourably embrace the images; and babbled that the service of adoration which is due to the consubstantial and life-giving Trinity, should be given images, we need not here discuss, since to all who either read or hear this it will be clear that he was swamped in no small error, to wit to confess that he exhibited to creatures the service due to the Creator alone, and through his desire to favour the pictures overturned all the Holy Scriptures. For what sane man ever either said or thought of saying such an absurdity, as that different pictures should be held in the same honour as the holy, victorious Trinity. the creator of all things, etc." But according to the acts, this is exactly the opposite of what Constantine did say.[7]


Freeman, Ann, with Paul Meyvaert. Opus Caroli regis contra synodum (Libri Carolini), Hannover 1998 (=Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Concilia, Bd. 2, Supplementum I).

In English Translation[edit]

Partial English translation: Caecilia Davis-Weyer, ed. Early Medieval Art 300-1150: Sources and Documents (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), pp. 100–103.

Further reading[edit]

  • Chazelle, Celia. "Matter, Spirit, and Image in the Libri Carolini." Recherches Augustiniennes 21 (1986): 163-184.
  • Chazelle, Celia. "Images, Scripture, the Church, and the Libri Carolini." In Proceedings of the PMR Conference 16/17 (1992-1993): 53-76.
  • Feeman, Ann. "Theodulf of Orleans and the Libri Carolini." Speculum 32, no. 4 (Oct. 1957): 663-705.
  • Freeman, Ann. "Further Studies in the Libri Carolini, I and II." Speculum 40, no. 2 (1965): 203-289.
  • Freeman, Ann. "Further Studies in the Libri Carolini III." Speculum 46, no. 4 (1971): 597-612.
  • Freeman, Ann. "Carolingian Orthodoxy and the Fate of the Libri Carolini." Viator 16 (1985): 65-108.
  • Froehlich, K. "The Libri Carolini and the Lessons of the Iconoclastic Controversy." In The One Mediator, the Saints, and Mary. Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue, eds. H. G. Anderson, J. F. Stafford, and J. A. Burgess, 193-208. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.
  • Gero, Stephen. “The Libri Carolini and the Image Controversy.” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 18 (1975): 7-34.
  • Noble, Thomas F.X. "Tradition and Learning in Search of Ideology: The Libri Carolini." In The Gentle Voices of Teachers: Aspects of Learning in the Carolingian Age, ed. Richard E. Sullivan, 227-260. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1995.
  • Noble, Thomas F. X. Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009 (esp. pp.158-243).
  • Schade, H. "Die Libri Carolini und ihre Stellung zum Bild." Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie 79 (1957): 69-78.
  • Ommundsen, Aslaug. "The Liberal Arts and the Polemical Strategy of the Opus Caroli Regis Contra Synodum (Libri Carolini)." Symbolae Osloensis 77 (2002): 175-200.


  1. ^ Dodwell, 32
  2. ^ a b Gibbon, Edward. History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Vol. 5. Kessinger Publishing. 2004. ISBN 1-4191-2419-6. p 37.
  3. ^ a b  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChambers, Ephraim, ed. (1728). "article name needed". Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (first ed.). James and John Knapton, et al.
  4. ^ JSTOR Review by John J. Contreni of:Opus Caroli regis contra synodum (Libri Carolini) by Ann Freeman; Paul Meyvaert, Speculum, Vol. 76, No. 2 (April 2001), pp. 453-455
  5. ^ Calvin's Institutes
  6. ^ "Libri Carolini, sive, Caroli Magni Capitulare de imaginibus". Retrieved 2017-08-11.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g "Examination of the Caroline Books". Early Church Fathers: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. XIV. Public domain.
  8. ^ Dales, Richard C.The Intellectual Life of Western Europe in the Middle Ages, note 3 on p. 88, BRILL, 1992 ISBN 90-04-09622-1 - summarizes recent scholarship. See also Dodwell, 32
  9. ^ Dales,89
  10. ^ a b c Thomas Shahan, "Caroline Books (Libri Carolini)" in Catholic Encyclopedia (New York 1908)
  11. ^ Dodwell, 49
  12. ^ Paul Oskar Kristeller et al. (editors), Itinerarium Italicum (Brill 1975 ISBN 978-90-0404259-9), p. 90
  13. ^ Dodwell, C.R.; The Pictorial arts of the West, 800-1200, pp. 32-33, 1993, Yale UP, ISBN 0-300-06493-4
  14. ^ Gale, 87

External links[edit]