All posts by Jon Niola

Feast of Saint Charlemagne

Charlemagne, flanked by Leo III and Turpin of Reims Detail, Shrine of Charlemagne Aachen: Cathedral Completed in 1215
Charlemagne, flanked by Leo III and Turpin of Reims
Detail, Shrine of Charlemagne
Aachen: Cathedral
Completed in 1215
Charlemagne, name inscribed, crowned, seated, holding scepter in right hand and globe in left hand. Fidenza: Cathedral West Façade, north porch 1170-1220 attributed to Benedetto Antelami
Charlemagne, name inscribed, crowned, seated, holding scepter in right hand and globe in left hand.
Fidenza: Cathedral
West Façade, north porch
1170-1220
attributed to Benedetto Antelami
Detail, Charlemagne Window Chartres: Cathedral Early 13th century
Detail, Charlemagne Window
Chartres: Cathedral
Early 13th century

Today marks the feast day of Saint Charlemagne. The Frankish leader was canonized by the antipope Paschal III in 1165, some three-and-a-half centuries after his death on January 28, 814. Political motivations assuredly played a role in this act given the pontiff’s desire to curry favor with Charlemagne’s successor, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Yet it is well worth remembering that distinctly local commemorations of the emperor had already been established throughout the original footprint of the Carolingian empire.

Portrait of Charlemagne Princeton: Library, University, Princeton 56 Grandes Chroniques de France, Rotulus c. 1420
Scepter of Charlemagne 14th century Paris: Museum, Louvre
Scepter of Charlemagne
14th century
Paris: Museum, Louvre
Portrait of Charlemagne New York: Library, Morgan Library, M.751 fol. 83r
Portrait of Charlemagne
New York: Library, Morgan Library, M.751
fol. 83r
Charlemagne receiving horn and sword New York: Library, Morgan Library, M.769 fol. 388v c. 1360
Charlemagne receiving horn and sword
New York: Library, Morgan Library, M.769
fol. 388v
c. 1360

Although Paschal III’s ordinances were officially revoked during the Third Lateran Council in 1179, Charlemagne remained a figure of veneration, particularly in the cathedral of Aachen, which houses an elaborate thirteenth-century shrine containing his relics. On Karlstag, the twelfth-century liturgical chant Urbs Aquensis, urbs regalis is performed within the cathedral in celebration of the emperor’s memory. With its vivid language, the sequence evokes Charlemagne’s accomplishments by describing him as a soldier of Christ, just ruler, converter of infidels, and an all-around rex mundi triumphator. Such descriptors complement posthumous medieval depictions of the emperor, which are amply represented in the Index’s catalogue. Portrayed variously as a ruler, warrior, patron, and saint in different media, these figures of Charlemagne underscore the diversity of guises and legends that developed after the historical emperor’s death.