• Charlemagne, Emperor of the West (742-814)

    AMIEL Louis-Félix (1802 - 1864)

  • Saint-Charlemagne

    MEYER Henri (1844 - 1899)

Charlemagne, Emperor of the West (742-814)

© RMN-Grand Palais (Palace of Versailles) / Gérard Blot

© National Library of France

Publication date: December 2019

Historical context

The Carolingian renaissance

When, in 768, Charles the Great took back the crown from his father of Pepin the Short, he confirmed the passage of the Merovingians to a second Frankish dynasty. Louis-Felix Amiel (1802-1865) painted his portrait in 1839, undoubtedly the most important of the series that he delivered to Versailles: the kings Pépin III, Charles III, Louis II, and Louis V are pale next to the one that gave its name to the new Carolingian dynasty.

A pupil of Antoine-Jean Gros, an official painter to Napoleon, then to Louis XVIII and Charles X, Amiel very early on specialized in neoclassical-style portraits which constitute a market in its own right, especially given the scale of the Versailles construction site: we also owe him a Philippe Auguste, a La Hire or a Bernadotte. The conservative Republican-leaning newspaper allowed itself a monarchical and Catholic reference because of the Carolingian renaissance: that of cursive writing and the learning of Latin grammar. Patron of the University of Paris since 1661, he was associated with schooling through textbooks from the second half of the 19th century.e century - which would make it the precursor to the generalization of instruction by the Ferry Laws.

Image Analysis

His Majesty Charles the Great

For lack of precise period representations on which to base oneself, and especially in the context of a pictorial tradition of a hagiographic nature, Amiel decides to largely invent his portrait of Charlemagne in the light of his understanding of historical importance. of the king of the Franks and "great emperor of the Romans". The bust portrait occupies most of the brushed canvas against a neutral background that places the scene out of time. The upper body is hidden under a thick coat of purple velvet set with precious stones that do not sparkle: these are signs of royal dignity rather than wealth. He holds in a firm and serene right hand the golden scepter surmounted by the Latin cross, and in his left hand the globe which indicates his status as emperor. With the beard, the crown - royal, as evidenced by the fleur-de-lis which was chosen as an emblem by Pépin at the end of his reign - the main part of the symbols associated with the XIXe century to Charlemagne are summoned. Only the face has a riddle: what does the pout of the mouth mean while his eyes look sideways at the cross?

The image drawn by Meyer and printed in color by The small newspaper of January 30, 1892 combines effects of reality and dreamlike dimension. In a room with a bay window reminiscent of the salons of the new Sorbonne designed by Henri-Paul Nénot in the 1880s, a crowd of students with fairly similar features and the identical black costume, toast and greet the figure of Charlemagne. By its stature and its hieratic appearance, it recalls a statue of the reconstructed monumental complex of the Sorbonne. But the clouds which surround it underline the marvelous and dreamlike dimension of this incarnation. In medieval costume, almost from behind, the emperor wears as often the long beard, the imperial crown, the mantle and the Joyeuse sword. If we follow the gaze of the monarch, we realize that he meets that of the bust of Marianne which overlooks the room. Without a Phrygian cap but with four tricolors, the stern face of the allegory of the Republic stares straight in the eyes of this distant predecessor. The cup he lifts thus seems less to respond to the cheers of the students than a tribute to the regime which has revived the University of Paris without renouncing traditions.


Ecumenical Charles the Great

Napoleon Bonaparte was instrumental in restoring the image of Charlemagne, who until then was mainly a literary figure. By opting for empire and a symbolism inspired by Charles the Great, he opened a century of positive representation, patriotic reinterpretation and memorial combat around a figure relatively unknown at the time. The first major contribution on which we agree is that he civilized the barbarians - it is not Louis-Philippe who will deny this heritage while he is in the process of conquering Algeria to return to the prosperous era. of the first French colonialism, that of before the Revolution.

The figure of the Carolingian also serves (forgetting his Frankish, and therefore German origins) in 1870 to demonstrate the historical military superiority of the French over the Germans and to justify the ideology of Revenge. Finally, the Emperor of the Romans is summoned by the Legitimists who see him, succeeding Clovis, the renovator of the traditional link between the Church and France, his "eldest daughter". More surprisingly, Republicans also claim his figure. Jules Michelet considers it to be a national “monument”; for Victor Hugo, "Charles of France" embodies the birth of the nation just as much as the father of Europe of the peoples he calls for. From the 1880s, the history textbooks of the IIIe Republic do not hesitate to place it in the national pantheon for the double title of the foundation of a centralized state (the missi dominici) and that of the school, especially after the Ferry laws. In the case of the future apostle of colonization as in that of the illiterate king, it is a question of a rewriting of the past and the present which is cheap from origins closer but less avowable: that of Jean-Baptiste de La Salle (1651-1719) for free education and teacher training, or the patriotic content of primary education, which actually developed under the Second Empire.

  • Pepin the Brief
  • Merovingians
  • Francs
  • Museum of the History of France
  • Louis Philippe
  • Christendom
  • Versailles
  • Glitch III
  • Charles III
  • Louis II
  • Louis V
  • Carolingians
  • Bonaparte (Napoleon)
  • Louis XVIII
  • Charles X
  • neoclassicism
  • Third Republic
  • Ferry (Jules)
  • Emperor
  • The Sorbonne
  • students
  • Middle Ages
  • Marianne
  • tricolour flag
  • literature
  • barbarians
  • colonial conquest
  • Clovis
  • Church
  • Michelet (Jules)
  • Hugo (Victor)
  • Europe
  • school
  • Second Empire

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "Charlemagne"

Video: Total War: ATTILA - Age of Charlemagne - In-Engine Cinematic