Painting the Distant Past: Charlemagne 2

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), Emperor Charlemagne (1511-13), lime, 215 x 115 cm, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany. Image by anagoria, via Wikimedia Commons.

In yesterday’s article, I told of Charlemagne’s early rise to power, and his military successes in southern Europe. He found the going rather harder in the north.

Charles’ series of campaigns against the Saxons in Germany was prolonged and bloody. He forced the Engrians to submit in 773, pushing on later to Sigiburg. A series of revolts led by Widukind ensured that Charles’ forces were kept busy. This turned more savage in 782, when his courts started to hand down the death penalty to Saxon pagans who refused to convert to Christianity, and Charles ordered the execution of 4,500 prisoners in the Massacre of Verden. After a further three years of war, the Saxons were finally subdued, and Widukind submitted to baptism.

Albrecht Altdorfer (1480–1538), The Victory of Charlemagne over the Avars near Regensburg (1518), oil on lime, dimensions not known, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

The Victory of Charlemagne over the Avars near Regensburg is one of Albrecht Altdorfer’s most impressive and rhythmic paintings of battles, and dates from 1518. Its inclusion of cannons is of course a glaring anachronism, as they didn’t appear in Europe until after 1300.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Charlemagne Receives the Submission of Widukind (Witikind) at Paderborn in 785 (1835), oil on canvas, 465 × 542 cm, Château de Versailles, Versailles, France. Image by PHGCOM, via Wikimedia Commons.

Over three centuries later, Ary Scheffer painted Charlemagne Receives the Submission of Widukind at Paderborn in 785 (1835).

In 789, Charles deposed the Duke of Bavaria and seized his territory. He had further successes in what are now Hungary and Austria.

A strange turn of events led to Charles being crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800. Pope Leo III fled from violent attacks in Rome to meet with Charles and his court at Paderborn, where he remained for a fortnight before returning to Rome. Advised remotely by the scholar Alcuin, who by then was in Tours, Charles travelled to Rome the following year (800) and just before Christmas a synod was held there, at which the Pope swore an oath of innocence. On Christmas Day, when Charles knelt at the altar to pray in front of the Pope, the latter crowned him. Modern scholars believe that this wasn’t the surprise it might have seemed at the time.

Raphael (1483–1520) and workshop, Coronation of Charlemagne (1514-15), fresco, base 770 cm, Musei Vaticani, Vatican City. Wikimedia Commons.

Probably the most famous depiction of this ceremony is that of Raphael and his workshop in the fresco of the Coronation of Charlemagne from 1514-15.

Friedrich Kaulbach (1822-1903), Coronation of Charlemagne (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Friedrich Kaulbach painted his romantic vision of the Coronation of Charlemagne in the nineteenth century. As Pope Leo III raises the imperial crown to place it on Charles’ head, his biographer Einhard records the event in words, at the lower right, and the emperor’s family watch on.

Absent is Alcuin, the best known of the wise counsel who Charles retained in his court, and were active in the Carolingian Renaissance. Educated in York, in the north of England, Alcuin had been sent to Rome in 781 to petition the Pope to confirm York’s status as an archbishopric, and on his return journey he met Charles in the city of Parma, in Italy.

The following year, Alcuin became Master of Charles’ school in his palace at Aachen, where he taught Charles himself and his children. Although an important intellectual and educator, Alcuin had plenty of political cunning too. He built himself a network of former students in Rome and other places of power, who kept him – thus Charles as well – informed of political developments. This appears to have been of importance in events leading up to the crowning of Charles as Holy Roman Emperor.

This move worsened longstanding friction between the two halves of the former empire, the new Frankish and old Byzantine empires continuing to fight over the legitimacy of their claims to be successor to the Roman Empire.

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), Emperor Charlemagne (1511-13), lime, 215 x 115 cm, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany. Image by anagoria, via Wikimedia Commons.

Albrecht Dürer’s famous portrait of the Emperor Charlemagne was painted in 1511-13, and shows him holding his sword of state and an orb. His fingers are covered with rings.

Charles’ new imperial role quickly turned sour. Viking attacks had already started on the shores of the North Sea and down the Channel. Danes launched raids against the coasts of Frisia and Flanders from 808, and their king Godfred joked about visiting Charles’ imperial palace at Aachen. Godfred was then murdered, and in 811 his successor made treaty with Charles.

Artist not known, Charlemagne and Louis XII, miniature in Book of Hours of Charles VIII of France (c 1450), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

This exquisite fifteenth century miniature shows Charlemagne and Louis XII. Charles is at the left, once again holding an orb, as Louis XII kneels at prayer. This is strange, as it is clearly Charles with his combined devices of the imperial black eagle and a gold fleur-de-lys on blue, but Louis XII wasn’t born for another 650 years, although he is recognisable by his distinctive black hat.

Frans Pourbus the Younger (1569–1622), The Vic Madonna (1617), oil on canvas, 350 x 250 cm, Chapelle de Vierge de l’église Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The Vic Madonna painted by Frans Pourbus the Younger in 1617 is another odd compilation of different figures. In the background are the Virgin Mary and infant Christ, but in front of them to the right is Charles, carrying the sceptre of Charles V, the crown of Saint Louis, his sword of state, and wearing the golden spurs of the treasure of Saint Denis.

Charlemagne died in late January 814 following a short illness, and was succeeded by his youngest son Louis. He had brought great reforms in finance and currency, education and scholarship, politics, and the church. His personal life had been colourful, to say the least, with a total of four wives, five concubines, and no less than nineteen children, of whom at least eleven reached adulthood. Although repeatedly associated with Christianity at his highest level, he was much later canonised by the Antipope Paschal III, which was annulled in 1179, and therefore was never officially made a saint, despite many continuing to revere him.

Ariosto’s story in Orlando Furioso is fiction. For example, it tells of Charlemagne being beseiged in Paris, which never happened. The only seige of that city at this time occurred in 845, during a Viking invasion of France. No ‘Moorish’ attack was attempted against a city so deep in Frankish territory.

More curious still is the legend associating Charlemagne with Saint Giles, a historical impossibility as the saint died in about 710, over thirty years before the birth of Charlemagne. The story, first recorded in the tenth century, claims that Giles was once celebrating mass to pardon the Emperor Charlemagne’s sins, when an angel deposited on the altar a letter reporting a sin so grievous that the emperor never dared confess it – which became known as the Sin of Charlemagne.

Master of the Pallant-Altars (dates not known), Charlemagne takes Confession from Saint Giles (c 1425), walnut, dimensions not known, Pfarrkirche Linnich b. Aachen, Germany. Image by Daderot, via Wikimedia Commons.

In about 1425, the Master of the Pallant-Altars painted Charlemagne takes Confession from Saint Giles, which sets this event outdoors, possibly at a roadside shrine. The letter detailing the Sin of Charlemagne is shown as a long scroll, which has sadly lost much of its textual content.

The Mass of Saint Giles
Master of Saint Giles (fl c 1500), The Mass of Saint Giles (c 1500), oil on oak, 62.3 × 46 cm, The National Gallery (Presented by the Art Fund, 1933), London. Courtesy of and © 2019 The National Gallery, London.

In about 1500, the Master of Saint Giles painted this altogether more elaborate version of The Mass of Saint Giles. The saint stands at the altar in the centre, with Charles kneeling at the left, and the angel bearing the letter descending from the upper left.


Janet L Nelson (2019) King and Emperor, A New Life of Charlemagne, Allen Lane. ISBN 978 0 713 99243 4.