By Costanza Beltrami

Charlemagne (2 April 742/747/748–28 January 814) was crowned Imperator Romanorum (“Emperor of the Romans”) by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800. The event followed the Pope’s oath of spiritual cleansing in response to corruption charges, which Charlemagne was requested to investigate. The coronation took place during the Christmas mass, held in the Basilica of St Peter’s, Rome, rather than in the smaller church of Santa Maria Maggiore, as was customary.

The coronation was a hugely significant event in European history and became a powerful metaphor for the protection of the papacy by secular and political powers. Raphael evoked this alliance in the fresco representing Charlemagne’s Coronation in the Room of the Fire of the Borgo, in the Vatican Palace. Here he depicted the Emperor with the features of the contemporary French king Francis I (ruled 25 January 1515– 31 March 1547), from whom pope Leo X was seeking protection. Set in St Peter’s, the fresco also draws attention to Leo X’s efforts to rebuild the Basilica, a project headed by Raphael after the death of Donato Bramante in April 1514.

Charlemagne was similarly presented as a symbol of the ideal ruler — powerful but religiously minded — in an equestrian statue realized by Agostino Cornacchini (1683–1740) for the Scala Regia, the ceremonial entrance to the Pope’s palace in Vatican City. This statue was intended to form a pendant with Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s portrait of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, who authorized Christian worship in the Roman empire (Edict of Milan, 313 AD).

References: “Charlemagne.“ Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press,; Nicholas Penny. “Raphael.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press,;

Raphael, The Coronation of Charlemagne, fresco, 1516–16, Room of the Fire in the Borgo, Vatican. Photo credits: Web Gallery of Art.

Agostino Cornacchini, Equestrian Statue of Charlemagne, marble, 1725, Scala Regia, Vatican. Photo credits: Web Gallery of Art.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Vision of Constantine, marble, 1670, Scala Regia, Vatican. 

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