Charlemagne’s Late Medieval Fans

In the second of her blog posts on Aachen Cathedral, Laura Slater muses on some of the pieces in the Aachen Cathedral Treasury, and Charles IV’s penchant for relics…

Later medieval rulers from across Europe looked up to Charlemagne as an exemplary, even holy ruler of Christendom. Charlemagne was canonised as an (unofficial, locally rather than papally recognised) saint in 1165 by Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa. The glittering shrine of Charlemagne was completed in 1215 at the coronation of Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, who added the final nail.


long gilt shrine, with panels depicting seated churchmen

The shrine of Charlemagne (please click for more detail)


It looks like a miniature church, but there are no saints seated under the gilt arcade, as we might expect for the tomb of a holy man. Instead, each side of the shrine depicts eight successors of Charlemagne. At the front of the shrine, we see Charlemagne enthroned, flanked by smaller, standing portraits of churchmen. The shrine forms a grand celebration of secular, imperial power and the special status of the Holy Roman Emperors.



According to later medieval legends, Charlemagne was thought to have gone on crusade in the Holy Land and brought back many important relics of Christ. He inspired kings such as Louis IX of France to do the same. The ‘Charlemagne window’ in Chartres cathedral, dated to around 1225, shows Charlemagne victorious against the ‘Saracens’ in the Holy Land and then going on crusade in Spain, fighting the Moors.


In his fourteenth-century Voeux du Paon (Vows of the Peacock), written around 1312 for Thiébaut of Bar (the powerful prince-bishop of Liège), Jacques de Longuyon classed Charlemagne as one of the Nine Worthies, exemplars of chivalric virtue and prowess. In 1332, Philippa of Hainault gave her husband, Edward III, a silver gilt cup and ewer decorated with images of the Nine Worthies, including a portrait of Charlemagne.

Charles IV of Prague, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1346 and 1349, was also a fan. He is thought to have been the donor behind this spectacular reliquary, containing Passion relics of Christ and, most prominently, a supposed arm bone (which is actually a leg bone) of Charlemagne. Among the other relics in the reliquary is a tooth of St Katherine, who had been Charles’s personal patron saint ever since his victory in the Battle of San Felice on St Katherine’s day (25th November) 1332. The reliquary also holds three teeth of Charlemagne. In 1349, at his imperial coronation in Aachen, Charles IV had received a ‘gift’ of three teeth of Charlemagne to take back to Prague with him. Charles IV was notorious for swiping relics everywhere he went. Religious houses and cathedrals were forced to give ‘diplomatic gifts’ of whatever relic Charles wanted. To avoid the risk of losing their precious relics, sometimes monks and clerics would hide them in advance of his arrival: if he didn’t see them, he couldn’t ask for them! But this time, at least, Charles seems to have returned the relics back to the cathedral treasury at Aachen, suitably and splendidly framed for public display.


Golden reliquary with figures of three churchmen


Charlemagne is the gilt figure standing on the far left of the reliquary, with the Virgin Mary in the centre and St Katherine on the far right. He is holding a miniature church: a model of Aachen Cathedral, celebrating the emperor’s role as founder.



Herta Lepie and Georg Minkenberg, The Cathedral Treasury of Aachen (Schnell and Steiner: Regensburg, 2010)


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