German painter Friedrich Kaulbach (1822-1903) was best known as a portraitist and historical painter. At the height of his fame he produced some of the finest portraits of local nobility and royalty. Prominent works include portraits of German-American sculptor Elizabeth Ney and King George V of Hanover. But arguably his most famous painting is that of Charlemagne or Charles the Great being crowned by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day, 800 CE in the history painting entitled the Coronation of Charlemagne.
In Kaulbach’s version of one of the most important events in all of history, we find Pope Leo III raising the imperial crown all but ready to place it upon Charles’ head in the great basilica of St. Peter’s, Rome, while notably the clergy, followers and his family proudly stand beside him. Importantly, in the lower right of the painting, Charles’ trusted advisor, friend and biographer Einhard is recording the extraordinary event on an unrolled scroll.
As a history enthusiast I have been fascinated by this painting but not just the scene it depicts but also remarkably the background story to the Christmas Day coronation in 800 CE.
Curiously it all began some five years early in 795 CE when the newly crowned Pope Leo III found himself in grave danger from threats within the church. Having won the election to become Pope, he was immediately subjected to taunts and abuse from the previous pope’s family and friends (Hadrian I 772-95 CE) about his suitability and breeding for high office. Leo wasn’t a Roman, and that didn’t sit well with members of Rome’s nobility. In short, they expected the office of the Pope to pass to one of them. As it was that did not happen.Therefore, it didn’t take long for Hadrian’s ancentors to plot against Leo’s demise. In a bloody attack in April 799 on the streets of Rome, Leo was almost beaten to death and an attempt was made to mutilate him.
As luck would have it, he was saved by friends, who helped him escape Rome to Charlemagne’s court in Paderborn. The king of the Franks was unfortunately unable to resolve Leo’s troubles at the time. He was busy conquering lands in the north and converting barbarians to Christianity.
By November 799 CE, Charlemagne was finally in a position to help. He sent Leo back to Rome with Frankish escorts, with an eye on sorting out all the alleged charges brought against Leo, at a time in the near future that suited him. (Charlemagne, like his father was a great protector of the church and he promised Leo that he would come to his aid in due course.)
Charlemagne did eventually come to the aid of Leo, arriving in Rome, in August 800 CE. But it wasn’t until early December that Charlemagne opened up proceedings for a tribunal to eventually restore some dignity back to the papal office. Officially, Charlemagne had no right or jurisdiction to hold the tribunal, technically only an emperor had the right to pass judgement over Leo’s embarrassing situation, but the closest emperor was all the way in Constantinople. Nevertheless, when no opponents of Leo came forward to accuse him of wrongdoing, the matter seemed resolved. Following this, as we already know, what Leo did next on Christmas day was unprecedented.
There is a question that has dogged historians for centuries, why didn’t Leo ask the legitimate Emperor in Constantinople for help? No one truly has the definitive answer to this question, but Leo would probably have argued that, why should he look to Constantinople (which was so far away from Rome) for help, when the King of the Franks was within easy reach. With the political split between East and West occurring also a long time ago, it was maybe time for Popes like Leo (in Rome), to finally assert their own authoritarian claims, henceforth, Leo’s bold decision to crown Charlemagne as Augustus et Imperator (Majestic Emperor) on Christmas day. To add fuel to the fire, a little matter of a vacant throne in Constantinople, according to Leo (and Charlemagne), may have also been a reason for Charlemagne surprise coronation. Across in the East a woman sat on the throne called Irene. Tradition had always seen a male heir rule the Empire, but with no living male heir, did Pope Leo see fit to create one of his own, in Charlemagne? To the Byzantines this argument would have been utter nonsense and ridiculous. Regardless of her poor record as Empress, Irene was still the legitimate ruler in Constantinople in Byzantine eyes. Anyway, I digress, but for more on the event and the political fallout click HERE to read about the Christmas Day coronation.
As for the history painting in question here, Kaulbach can be commended for bringing the event to life on canvas. It has been noted that the King Of Bavaria, Maximillian II, commissioned Kaulbach to paint the coronation of Charlemagne in 1850. He completed it in 1861. I’m not sure why it took him so long to complete. Without a doubt it would have been a daunting task given the importance of the commission. It’s also not clear where Kaulbach took inspiration for his history painting, but one doesn’t have to look far. In the rooms of the Stanze di Rafaello, in the Apostolic Palace, in the Vatican, the workshop artists of Italian Renaissance artist Raphael created a wonderful sixteenth century fresco showing Charlemagne being crowned. Is this the inspiration of Kaulbach’s painting? Possibly. But whatever the case may be, Kaulbach’s romantic version of Charlemagne’s coronation is both regal and mesmerising in its own right.
This painting appears in the public domain.
*Some sections of this featured article were originally written in 2013 and formed the basis of my Christmas Day, Rome, 800 AD article, which has seen been edited.