This trio of paintings, by the French artist Henri Leopold Lévy (c. 1840 – 1904), depicts a famous event from the life of Charlemagne (or Charles the Great, r. 768-814). It re-creates a scene that occurred in the year 800, when Charlemagne was in Rome to support Pope Leo III, who had nearly been assassinated a year prior. With Charlemagne’s help, the people who had assaulted the pope were caught and brought to justice. As thanks for the king’s aid, Pope Leo III personally crowned Charlemagne as an emperor and named him Defender of the Roman Church. Charlemagne’s biographer, Einhard (c. 770-840), described the event, writing, “Thus Charles traveled to Rome to restore the state of the Church, which was extremely disturbed, and he spent the whole winter there. It was at this time that he received the title of Emperor and Augustus” (The Life of Charlemagne, chapter 28). A later figure named Notker the Stammerer (c. 840-912), wrote another account in his text, The Deeds of Charlemagne:
“As Charles stayed in Rome for a few days for the sake of the army, the bishop of the apostolic see called together all who were able to come from the neighboring districts and then, in their presence and in the presence of all the counts of the unconquered Charles, he declared him to be Emperor and Defender of the Roman Church” (The Deeds of Charlemagne, book 1, chapter 26).
This ceremony of Charlemagne being crowned emperor by Pope Leo III is what Henri Leopold Lévy re-created in the paintings featured above. The imperial designation given to Charlemagne that day in the year 800 eventually evolved into the title of Holy Roman Emperor. After around a millennium of existence, the Holy Roman Empire was finally dissolved in 1806.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer, translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.