Who was Charlemagne? Parlez-vous fran├žais?

Charlemagne, also known as Charles I, Charles the Great, and Carolus Magnus, was born approximately on April 2nd, 747 C.E., and died January 28th, 814 C.E. He died with the epithet of being the King of the Franks, the King of the Lombards, and the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Frankish Empire began with the rule of Clovis in 508, when he united the Franks under a singular empire. Fast forward to 751, when Pippin III (also known as Pippin the Short), Charlemagne's father, throw s a coup to overthrow the current king, Childeric III, and this eventually leads to the dynastic transfer of power to Charlemagne over the Frankish Empire. This coup is notable not only because it ended the Merovingian dynasty, but because it began the concept that God granted someone the power to rule, the "divine right", an idea which has been used to justify many a conquest and rule throughout history.

Pippin the Not-So-Tall

When Pippin III dies, he divides the kingdom according to Frankish tradition, between his two sons, Charlemagne and Carloman. However, this creates an immediate rivalry, and Charlemagne goes the distance to gain an advantage on his brother, forming an alliance between himself and the Lombards, marrying the daughter of the king of the Lombards. When Carloman suddenly dies in 771, Charlemagne disregards Carloman's heirs' rights, and takes control of the entire empire.

After Charlemagne took power, his notability as a successful warrior-king who stablished a social hierarchy based on three tiers (those who work, those who fight, and those who pray) and expanded Frankish hegemony became widespread, and the enlargement of his empire spread all of the way to Rome.


Ironically enough, Charlemagne's title as the first Holy Roman emperor (and the first emperor in the west since the last Roman emperor was deposed in 476 C.E.) wasn't one he wanted. In fact, if he had known that Pope Leo had planned a coronation on the Christmas of 800 C.E., he wouldn't have gone to Rome that day. The real purpose behind the coronation was to signify that the church had power, and it was Pope Leo's desire to assert papal supremacy.

Charlemagne died in 814, and he had planned to divide his kingdom between his three sons, however, he only had one legitimate son remaining by the time of his death, Louis.

His rule accomplished many reforms, including standardizing the minting of silver coins, creating a uniform religious basis for the entire empire (Christianity), his administration copied and preserved many classical Latin texts, and the cultural revolution which was sparked by his rule, the Carolingian Renaissance, is marked by the flowering of scholarship, literature, art and architecture at the time.

The Carolingian Renaissance

Charlemagne's most direct impact on the art world was the Carolingian Renaissance, a cultural and intellectual revival based in Christianity which began a reversal of the cultural decay of the Dark Ages. The goal of many Carolingian artists was to restore the 3rd dimension to art, using classical drawings as references to create more convincing illusions of space. This era of art is defined by its combination of the portability of medieval art with the classicism of Greek and Roman art.

Notable Works of Art

Palatine Chapel

The Palatine Chapel, built in 792, was created in an octagonal shape with a dome atop it, recalling the shape of San Vitale in Ravenna. The chapel influenced the design of later European palace chapels, and is the last remaining component of Charlemagne's palace in modern-day Germany.

Charlemagne's reliquaries

After Charlemagne's death, a number of reliquaries were made to house his bones, including a bust for his skull, an arm for his ulna and radius, a trio of towers for his femur, and finally, a golden casket to hold the rest of him. These can be found in the Palatine Chapel in Aachen.

The Utrecht Psalter, St. Matthew in the Coronation Gospels, and St. Matthew in the Ebbo Gospels.

The Coronation Gospels and the Ebbo Gospels both portray St. Matthew, and though they were created approximately five years apart, their executions set them distinctly apart. Although both contain elements of classical revival (gradation in the sky, shading to attempt a three-dimensional figure, furnishings typical of the time), the brushstrokes and energy of the later one convey a clear stylistic departure. The Utrecht Psalter is a book containing unpainted, inked drawings, meant to invoke the style of Late Antiquity. The similarity in style between the two gospels and the psalter can be seen in the classical architecture depicted and the winged men consistent in the portraiture and the ink drawing.

Nina Sophia Swart, 2017


  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charlemagne/Emperor-of-the-Romans
  • http://www.historyguide.org/ancient/lecture20b.html
  • https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/medieval-world/latin-western-europe/carolingian1/a/matthew-coronation-and-ebbo-gospels
  • http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/28944

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