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Work Equestrian statuette of Charlemagne or Charles the Bald

Department of Decorative Arts: Early Middle Ages

Equestrian statue: Charlemagne or Charles the Bald

© 2000 RMN / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

Decorative Arts
Early Middle Ages

Author(s):
Bardoz Marie-Cécile

This bronze statuette, which has been said to be of Charlemagne, was discovered by Alexandre Lenoir in the treasury at Metz Cathedral in 1807 and is inspired by equestrian statues from antiquity, such as that of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. The representation of Charlemagne or Charles the Bald as a horse-riding figure highlights the Carolingian emperors' interest in the thematic repertoire of antique art. The monarch, holding a globe and a sword (now missing), asserts his authority as a conqueror.

From Metz Cathedral to the Louvre

From the sixteenth century on, inventories of the treasury at Metz Cathedral list the presence of two statuettes of Charlemagne: one of gilded silver, made by the Metz silversmith François in 1507; the other of 'bronze' or 'gilded copper' and listed in 1567. The Louvre statuette would seem to correspond to the second of the two. Both statues appear again in the 1657 and 1682 inventories. The one in bronze, rediscovered in Metz in 1807 by Alexandre Lenoir (1793-1816), the founder and subsequently Director of the Musée des Monuments Français, remained in Lenoir's personal collection until the middle of the nineteenth century. It was sold by his heirs to M. Evans-Lombe and then acquired by the city of Paris for the sum of 5000 francs. After being damaged in a fire, the statuette was entrusted to the Musée Carnavalet and, in 1934, was exchanged for an object in the Louvre. Artists working in bronze in the Carolingian period took up the Gallo-Roman tradition of casting and based their works on examples from antiquity, such as the Regisole in Pavia or the gilded bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. The latter, which was erected at some point before the sixteenth century in front of the basilica of Saint John Lateran, was thought in the Middle Ages to be a depiction of Constantine crushing paganism. The Louvre statuette might therefore be a portrait of a Carolingian ruler as the 'new Constantine'.

An Equestrian Bronze in Three Parts

The statuette was inspired by the equestrian bronzes of antiquity and is a rare extant example of the Carolingian bronze-casters' art. The whole consists of three parts - the horse, the rider's body and saddle, and the rider's head - cast separately in metals of different composition. The horse bears all the characteristics of antique or Late Empire horse statues and is thought to have been re-used, a hypothesis that would help explain why the horse was altered to match the rider, and why the saddle covers part of the reins and harness.

The Rider: Charlemagne? Charles the Bald?

The rider is certainly Carolingian, but the identity of the ruler remains a matter of dispute. The face does indeed correspond to depictions of Charlemagne on coins, as well as to the description of Charlemagne made by his biographer Eginhard. However, the rider could equally be Charlemagne's grandson, Charles the Bald, whose features, as known to us from manuscript illuminations, are deliberately reminiscent of those of his grandfather.

Bibliography

Gaborit-Chopin Danielle, "La statuette équestre de Charlemagne", collection SOLO, musée du Louvre, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1999, n 13.

Technical description

  • Equestrian statue: Charlemagne or Charles the Bald

    Horse: Late Byzantine Empire (or possibly 9th century), restored in the 18th century
    Rider: 9th century

    Provenance: Metz Cathedral

  • Bronze, formerly gilded

    H. 25 cm

  • Former Alexandre Lenoir, Evans-Lombe collection
    Exchange loan from the Musée Carnavalet

    OA 8260

  • Decorative Arts

    Richelieu wing
    1st floor
    Charlemagne
    Room 1
    Display case 8

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