Edit: two minor errors fixed, indicated with
Let me ask you something that may reveal my ignorance. Or, it might reveal someone else’s, we’ll see. A while ago I saw the image below on the one Tumblr blog you’ll find in my sidebar, Medium Aevum. Now this is not an unfamiliar image to me, because it is the one used for the cover of Paul Edward Dutton’s excellent reader Carolingian Civilization in its second edition (and maybe its first, which I only ever saw in a library binding), and it ought not to be unfamiliar anyway, because it comes from the Sacramentary of Charles the Bald, so an actual piece of Carolingian book-painting (which is as you may well know about the only kind of Carolingian painting we really have).1 And that manuscript is now Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Lat.
1241 1141, which means that a certain amount of poking around Mandragore can get you the full thing digitised, because the web is wonderful like that.
Now my query here is with the identification given to the figures in this picture in the Medium Aevum post, and indeed elsewhere. (The owner of Medium Aevum has disabled comments there because of abuse, so I hope they won’t mind my using their page as an example. The place I actually borrowed the image from, About.com’s Medieval History pages, makes the same statement though they do there at least notice some of the difficulties I’m about to point out.) There it is said to be Charlemagne, standing between Popes Gelasius I and Gregory the Great. That immediately gave me pause. Firstly I paused because, well, that guy just doesn’t look like a Carolingian: as has been said here before, there seems to have either been a strong resemblance between the males of the line or else a strong idea among artists about what they should look like, and it includes more jowls than that, also moustaches, and quite less late-Antique hair.2 This looks like a young Constantine to me, not that an artist in 870 would have known what that looked like. But then there’s the popes. Why those two? Why not Leo III and Hadrian, the one whom Charlemagne was actually crowned Emperor by and the one he actually got on with?3 Gelasius, as the man who told Emperor Anastasius that his power was ultimately lesser than the pope’s (or at least, his responsibility was), I can kind of see although why a king would want that in his Sacramentary is harder to imagine. Gregory I would make a kind of sense, too, just because of his fame and connection with Saint Benedict, though I think the Carolingian fascination with him was lesser than the Anglo-Saxon one, but it’s still only a kind of sense, and certainly he had no special connection with imperial power (quite the reverse, in fact, if you look at his career, which was pretty much all about how to manage disconnection from Empire).4 Gregory the Great does admittedly turn up on the next page of the manuscript, being inspired by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove in that way that he so often apparently was, and they do look similar, so it’s not impossible, but still a strange thing to put a coronation of Charlemagne. If that’s what it is… Because I see nothing on the page that so identifies it; it’s not even clear if the text in the panel beneath them is actually from this page, because if you seek it out in Mandragore you’ll see that one of the two sources has reversed the image, and I think the text may actually have imprinted from the previous or subsequent page: Mandragore shows it faded and backwards, and very little left of the text on the subsequent page’s equivalent panel.
With suspicions thus up, I started with Dutton’s book, whose back cover identifies the portrait only as “The Crowning of a Christian King”. Hmmm, I thought, and betook me armed with the shelfmark usefully given there to Mandragore, as described, and they entitle the picture, “Allégorie : royauté de droit divin”.5 Yes, I thought, that’s more like what I had in mind, so where on earth has this come from? And there I draw a blank. Medium Aevum almost always gives a source, and it’s usually Wikipedia; so it was in this case. The file on Wikipedia is called “Karl 1 mit papst gelasius gregor1 sacramentar v karl d kahlen.jpg”, which is fairly unambiguous, and as so often with Wikipedia too, it gives a source for this, but as is also so often the case, that source is a dead link, a course web-page at the University of (Edit: North) Florida whose course or whose owner has obviously left the building. And there the trail goes cold, although from Wikipedia it has grown widely as you will see if you Google elements of the filename. (There is a further link on the Wikipedia page to the Bridgeman Art and Culture image library, but, well, I do not retrieve this image on any search I can be bothered to follow through with, and certainly not one for Charlemagne.)
So okay, there’s the question. Has anyone thought that this was a scene of the coronation of Charlemagne before, is this just out there in a book I perhaps should have read? If so, on what basis did that person make the identification of king and popes? And if not, how on earth has this idea got out there?
1. That is, P. E. Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader (Ontario 1994), 2nd edn. Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures (Ontario 2004); for more on Carolingian-period painting my first resort would be George Henderson, “Emulation and Innovation in Carolingian Art” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), Carolingian Culture: emulation and innovation (Cambridge 1994), pp. 248-273.
2. From which statement we learn that apparently after seeing two Kalamazoo papers about late antique hairstyles I feel like an expert. Ignore me about the hair.
3. Dutton’s anthology indeed includes the tombstone inscription for Hadrian that Charlemagne had put up in San Pietro di Roma, Carolingian Civilization 2nd edn., c. 9.4, but you can also see it here.
4. My go-to book on Gregory, who was an interesting man, is
5. It’s seemingly not possible to give direct links to a Mandragore record, it’s all dynamic, but the first box in the search page has an index that lets you pretty much pull the thing up.