Bust of Charlemagne which contains the top part of his skull. c. 1350 [2443×3564]
On display in the Aachen Cathedral Treasury, Germany.
Created 500 years after the death of Charlemagne, the bust is an idealized representation, the facial structure, hairstyle, and fleur-de-lys crown of which reflect 14th c., not 9th c. tastes. The skin is chased with silver and partially gilt; hair and beard are gilt. Damascened silver Reichsadler, the heraldic charge of the Holy Roman Empire signifying Charlemagne’s imperial dignity, decorate the tunic. The eagles are surrounded by a border of filigree and precious stones, some of which are ancient intaglios. The bust stands on an octagonal pedestal equipped with an opening on either side for a wooden carrying frame and is decorated with fleurs-de-lis.
The same cathedral is also home to his arm and leg bones, as well as a marble sarcophagus containing most of the body. Smaller bits Charlemagne’s skeleton may have been distributed elsewhere over the centuries. A 14th-century church in Prague even lays claim to some of Charlemagne’s teeth.
The Bust of Charlemagne was a donation from Charles IV, who was crowned king in Aachen Cathedral on 25 July 1349. This donation is not mentioned in documentary evidence, but it is considered probable, given Charles IV’s deep veneration for Charlemagne.
It is possible that the creator of the reliquary bust, a goldsmith in Aachen, had been trained in his art in France. The reliquary was carried in processions and placed opposite the king at coronations, who was spiritually affirmed in this way as a legitimate successor of Charlemagne. The use of ancient cameos on the reliquary indicates the special significance of Ancient Rome to the medieval imperial ideology. Both Charlemagne and Charles IV saw their rule as part of that tradition.
Recent historical research holds that it is very probable that Charles IV was crowned with the same crown which is worn by the reliquary since the Imperial Crown was then in the possession of Charles’ rival Louis IV. It is probable that the hoop with its cross was added on the occasion of his coronation. Sigismund of Luxemburg was crowned with the same crown in 1414. A parallel to this crown is seen in the Crown of Saint Wenceslas in Prague, which decorated the reliquary containing the skullcap of St. Wenceslas and was used at Charles IV’s coronation as King of Bohemia in 1347.
Original image by Beckstet