Charlemagne was born 2 April 742 in what was then the Frankish Kingdom and died there in January 814.

By Jean Marie Carey

Charlemagne was born 2 April 742 in what was then the Frankish Kingdom and died there in January 814. He was interred in the magnificent cathedral in Aachen, in what is now Germany. The cathedral, based upon the design of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and executed by painters, stonemasons, metalworkers, and architects from Italy, is one of the most notably international monuments initiated by the first recognized emperor in Western Europe since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire 300 years earlier.  

Charlemagne expressed his protectoral policy towards the papacy by removing the Lombards from power in northern Italy, reaching the height of his dominion in 800 when he was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day at Old St. Peter’s Basilica. His rule spurred the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of cultural and intellectual activity within the Western Church. Charlemagne sought to restore the culture of ancient Rome, more specifically that of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor. The reform of the Frankish Church, in particular the imposition of the Roman liturgy, generated the need for buildings, paintings, books, furnishings, and vestments. Charlemagne himself was also a popular subject for later Italian artists.  

Reference: “Charlemagne.” In The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture. Oxford University Press, 2012. http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195395365.001.0001/acref-9780195395365-e-510.


Cross of Gisulf, c. 568. Found 1874 in Piazza Diacono, Cividale, in the tomb of Gisulf, first duke of Lombardy Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Cividale del Friuli, Italy.

Situla (Bucket for Holy Water), ca. 860-880. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection, Nr. 17.190.45.

Aachen Cathedral, Palatine Chapel, Upper Gallery, Throne of Charlemagne, chapel begun c. 792. Photo: Scala Archives, Florence.

School of the Palace of Charlemagne, Plaques: Book covers for the Psalter of Dagulf, c. 795. Musée du Louvre,. MR 370, MR 371.Made for Pope Hadrian in the palace workshops of Emperor Charlemagne. Left: King David orders the psalms to be written down; he sings. Right: Saint Jerome receives the Pope’s orders to edit the psalms.

Carolingian Plaque with Saint John the Evangelist, c. 800. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection, (1977.421).

Teofilo Torri, Charlemagne Makes Donations to the Clergy of arezzo, c. 1600. Palazzo dei Priori, Arezzo, Italy. Scala Archives, Florence.

St. Peter’s Church (Peterskirche), initiated by Charlemagne in 792; Martino Altomonte altarpiece: early 18th century. Rebuilt from a 4th Century Roman church. Photo: William Keighley, The Image Library, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Taddeo Zuccaro, Charlemagne Restores to the Church its Former Possessions, 1564-65, Sala Regia, the Vatican. Scala Archives, Florence.


Further Reading: Thomas F.X. Noble. Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians. (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). 

 Jeff Sypeck.Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800 .(New York: Harper, 2007.) 

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