Famous Artists, First Reich...800 to 1806, History Highlights

Karl der Grosse, Charlemagne, was crowned on 25 December 800…All future German Holy Roman Emperors and all French Kings considered themselves to be descendants of his Empire.

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This regal portrait of a man who lived 1200 years ago was painted in 1512 by Albrecht Dürer…it is a representation of what he thought his subject, Karl der Grosse (Charlemagne), may have looked like at age 58 in the year 800. It was known that Karl was slim and very tall…6′ 0″ versus 5′ 7″ which was the normal tall height at the time… but there were no likenesses of Charlemagne. Although Dürer was meticulous in every respect including research, he still could only make an educated guess with the facial features in this portrait. Dürer did study the actual regalia… the robe and crown and his sword and orb…and reproduced them with great accuracy, although he did take artistic license and depicted the imperial crown created in 962 for Emperor Otto I.

Karl was the First Emperor of the “Holy Roman Empire”, which at first included France, but later was renamed “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation”. This painting depicts Karl…also known as Carolus Magnus and normally referred to as Charlemagne…as Imperator Augustus after his coronation by Pope Leo III on December 25th 800, in Rome, shortly after Charlemagne conquered Italy.

Descended from Germanic tribes called Franks, he united most of Western Europe for the first time. In this painting Charlemagne is shown with the symbols of both Germany and France… the German eagle at upper left and the French Fleur-de-lis at upper right. All future German Holy Roman Emperors and all French Kings considered themselves to be descendants of Charlemagne’s Empire.

His mission was to unite all Germanic peoples into one kingdom, and convert his subjects to Christianity. A skilled military strategist, he spent much of his reign engaged in warfare in order to accomplish his goals. As Emperor, Charlemagne encouraged the Carolingian Renaissance, a cultural and intellectual revival in Europe. When he died in 814 at age 72, Charlemagne’s Empire encompassed much of Western Europe, and ensured the survival of Christianity in the West. Today, Charlemagne is referred to by some as the father of Europe.

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An interesting trivia item is how Charlemagne founded the city of Frankfurt. An 1888 painting by Leopold Bode, brings this episode to life. It depicts Charlemagne and his Franks “furt” the Main River…meaning ford the river… after observing some deer that knew the low point and crossed within view. This lucky moment allowed Charlemagne to retreat across the river after suffering a defeat at the hands of Saxons. He later returned to this spot and founded a city that he named Frankfurt to memorialize this river crossing. After he established the Holy Roman Empire in 800 A.D., Frankfurt became the Imperial seat and the place where future Emperors were elected before being crowned in Aachen.

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The beautifully detailed scene below is an 1861 painting by Friedrich Kaulbach, imagining the scene as Karl is crowned as “Imperator Augustus” by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800. Try to enlarge this image to truly appreciate the quality of this painting.

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