This painting, by the French artist Henri Leopold Lévy (c. 1840 – 1904), was inspired by the interesting correspondence that occurred between Charlemagne (aka Charles the Great, r. 768-814) of the Carolingian (eventually Holy Roman) Empire and Harun-al-Rashid (r.786-809), the Caliph of Baghdad. The two rulers opened up communications with each other early as the year 797. This scene, however, particularly references a back-and-forth of envoys sent between Charlemagne and Harun-al-Rashid after the emperor dispatched representatives to visit the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem. Charlemagne’s biographer, Einhard (c. 770-840), described this expedition and Harun-al-Rashid’s response to it:
“[W]hen Charles’s representatives, whom he had sent with gifts to the most holy sepulcher of our Lord and Saviour and to the place of His resurrection, came to him [Harun-al-Rashid] and told him of their lord’s wishes, he not only allowed them to do what they requested but even granted him that holy and salvific place so it might be thought to be in his power. He sent his own legates back and sent magnificent gifts to Charles, robes and spices and other riches of the East…” (Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, section 16).
Henri Leopold Lévy had this piece of history in mind when he made his painting. Up the steps, sitting on a throne, is a figure representing Charlemagne. Harun-al-Rashid’s envoys can be seen beside him, offering a key to the Holy Sepulcher to Charlemagne. Accentuating the religious significance of the scene is the curious inclusion of an angel, descending from heaven to lay a wreath on the head of Emperor Charlemagne, whose realm would eventually be renamed as the Holy Roman Empire.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer, translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.
- Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Scholz and Barbara Rogers. Ann Arbor Paperbacks / University of Michigan Press, 1972.