Charlemagne from Reiner Schiestl's Holy Helpers

The collage image of Charlemagne is taken from Reiner Schiestl’s Holy Helpers (Nothelfer) exhibition in the Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum in Innsbruck (30 March–19 November 2017).


From the artist:


Ging es mir um eine Sicht mit ironischer Distanz und um eine Entmythologisierung jener (selten historischen) Persönlichkeiten.


Zum Bild: Ich habe den großen Karl bewußt klein gemacht, weil er meist als Riese dargestellt wird (Sie kennen sicher das schöne Fresko in der Klosterkirche von Müstair). Das Schwert war wohl sein wichtigstes politisches Instrument, nicht die segnende Hand (“Christianisierung” der Sachsen). Den Heiligenschein hätte er sicher gern gehabt, aber: Hätte sein Leben eine Heiligsprechung gerechtfertigt?



It was important to me to show a view with an ironical distance and a demystification of those (rarely historical) figures.


On the painting/picture: I made a deliberate choice to create a small Charles because he is mostly portrayed as a giant (I am sure you are familiar with the fresco in the monastery of Müstair). The sword was most likely his most important political tool, and not the consecrating (?) hand (“Christianisation” of the Saxons). I am sure he would have loved to have a gloriole, but: Would his life have justified a canonisation?

The San Teodoro Fresco, Pavia

Commentary provided by Isabelle Cochelin (University of Toronto).


All medieval textbooks evoke Charlemagne crossing the Alps to come to the rescue of Pope Hadrian I, as he was threatened by “terrible” invaders, the Lombards[1]. The pope was in distress; Charlemagne came to his defense and saved him. In the process, between September 773 and June 774, he besieged and seized Pavia, the capital of the Lombards, and took the title of King of the Lombards. This image is taken from a fresco, painted in 1514 in the church S. Teodoro (also called S. Agnese) of Pavia. The fresco presents a completely different perspective on this well-known story (and distorts a few facts): good Lombards besieged unsuccessfully by violent invaders. Anyone interested in history should enjoy this twist of a well-known tale and different view of Charlemagne.


0 whole fresco made in 1514 (Pavia, San Teodoro, also known as Church of St Agnes)


The fresco tells the story in twelve tableaux of the bishop of Pavia, Teodoro (770-785). His election occupies the first row of four images, two of them illustrating his excellent relationship with the pope (called here Leo IV). The next row of four paintings evokes some of his miracles and closes on the Francesi’s invasion of Pavia, thanks to an act of treason on the Lombard side, and the eventual expulsion of the invaders by Teodoro. The last row is dedicated to the siege of Pavia by the “French”. First, the siege is evoked and it is said that only Teodoro was defending the city. Second, Charlemagne’s nephew tried to kill Teodoro with an arrow that killed him instead (see image below); no name is given to the nephew (nepote), and Charlemagne is simply called Charles (re Carlo). In the penultimate image, shown in the panel to the left here, one observes a quite attractive and physically imposing king Charles in a position of humility and deprivation: kneeling in front of a door of the city, without any visible sign of power, surrounded by his dead soldiers, Charlemagne is praying Teodoro to resurrect his nephew, which the saint does, as is depicted in the background of this same image. The last tableau shows Teodoro able to route out the French, with the help of another miracle.


10 Charlemagne nephew throws arrow to T and arrow kills nephew-1


The lower frieze, below these twelve pictures, tells us that this whole fresco had been offered by some guilds of the city. The years preceding the making of the fresco, the French had attacked the region, controlled it for some time, and then retrieved in 1513. Through the fresco, the Pavians were not only retelling in their own ways a story of the past, but also depicting their present, and expressing their hopes for the future.



[1] On the extremely negative depiction of the Lombards by the papal sources to convince Charlemagne to come down the Alps, see E. Fabbro, “The Charlemagne and the Lombard Kingdom that Was: the Lombard Christian Past in Post-Conquest Italian Historiography,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 25/2 (2015): 1–26.

Commemorative Stamps

In 2014, the Philatelic and Numismatic Office of Vatican City State produced two stamps to commemorate the 1200th anniversary of the death of Charlemagne. On the .85 cent stamp artist Patrizio Daniele reinterpreted Agostino Cornacchini’s equestrian statue, produced in 1725 for St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The 1.90 euro value displayed the classical iconography of Charlemagne with his scepter and orb, the Cross above, and Aachen Cathedral in the background.


Charlemagne Prize

Die Vorderseite der 330 g schweren Sterlingsilber-Medaille mit einem Durchmesser von 8,5 cm zeigt das (älteste) Stadtsiegel – aus dem 12. Jahrhundert – mit der Inschrift „Carolus Magnus Romanorum Imperator Augustus“ Auf die Rückseite wird ein vom Karlspreisgremium vorgegebener kurzer Text und natürlich der Name des aktuellen Preisträgers gesetzt. Vorder- und Rückseite werden miteinander verbunden, vergoldet und an ein eigens dafür gefertigtes, mit den Stadtadlern besticktes, gelbgrundiges Band, gehängt.


The obverse of the 330g sterling silver medal, with a diameter of 8.5 cm, shows the (oldest) city seal – from the twelfth century – with the inscription ‘Carolus Magnus Romanorum Imperator Augustus’. On the reverse is a short inscription composed by the Charlemagne prize committee and, of course, the name of the current prize holder. Obverse and reverse are brought together, gilded, and attached to a yellow ribbon embroidered with the city eagle.


Our thanks to the city of Aachen for providing us with the image [ (c) Stadt Aachen, Andreas Herrmann] and the German text.


For information, visit the Karlspreis website.