Gallery of reconstructed portraits

Created: 2003
Published: 2003

The reconstructed portrait of Charlemagne


Charlemagne (*742–†814 ce) was king of the Franks since 768 ce, from 774 ce king of the Lombards too, and in 800 ce he was crowned emperor and Augustus by the pope. Accordingly he became the official protector of Western European Christianity. Charlemagne has been looked upon as the founder of European culture — the ‘Father of Europe’. That seems a gross exaggeration. He was a brutal warlord, who was able to conquer, through some fortuitous victories, a realm that included a major part of Europe, by which he subdued several nations. On the remains of Roman culture, he honoured Germanic traditions. During his reign some attempts were made to improve administrative organisation (regular inspections, written laws) and a small cultural recovery dawned (revaluation of Latin, improvement of writing). But these developments were limited to the upper layer of society and they can't be attributed to Charlemagne personally. More likely, the scholars who surrounded him at his travelling court were the initiators. Charlemagne was not an intellectual (and couldn't read or write), he regarded his kingdom as personal property, and he governed mainly by improvising. In the final stage of his life he made Aachen his residence and there he died of old age. His name and glorification played a larger part in history than his own contribution did. Both Ganshof and Bullough explore this subject in depth.

How should we picture the appearance of Charlemagne? In Vita Karoli his biographer and former courtier Einhard describes the looks of Charlemagne in detail. Charlemagne was a large man, with light coloured hair, a long nose, a thick neck, and a quite prominent belly. He usually wore typical Frankish dress and he commonly carried a sword. A bronze statuette from the ninth century ce gives us an idea of what a Frankish sovereign from that time looked like. This king wears a crown with lilies, a cloak, a sword, leg straps, and decorated shoes. He has a long drooping moustache and short-cropped hair. A manuscript illumination from the Leges Barbarorum gives us a worthy notion too, but it's less clear. Here Charlemagne was displayed with a mitre crown, a sceptre, a drooping moustache, a cloak, a sword, leg straps, and shoes. We get the same picture from a contemporary mosaic in Rome. However, this mosaic has been restored so many times, it's no longer suitable as a source. Finally, we can have a look at the portraits on coins from the age of Charlemagne, though they don't show many details and don't necessarily contain any resemblance. On a silver coin from Frankfurt Charlemagne was depicted in side view, with short hair, a long, straight nose, and (if one likes) a moustache.

Which style was generally accepted at the time of Charlemagne? The sources are ambiguous about that. To determine a kind of ‘average’ style, it's necessary to consult many sources. The pen drawings in the so-called Utrecht Psalter are rather expressive and have a slightly nervous look. The illustrations in the St. Gallen Psalter, on the other hand, consist of clear line drawings with coloured areas. Further, the four evangelists were often portrayed as writers in painted manuscript illuminations with refined colour shades, now portrayed in a realistic manner, now portrayed in an expressive manner. The portraits of Charles the Bald and Lothar (both grandsons of Charlemagne) can serve as examples too. They contain refined tones as well, but the nature of these portraits is, in turn, somewhat naive and nervous. The symbolic representation of ‘legislation’ on a frontispiece of a law manuscript was even created in a very careless and naive (yet elegant) way. This is a simple line drawing with some accents in colour. An illustration of the ‘works of the months’ consists of little coloured sketches. These are casual too, but now less elegant and more vivid. So, there are many differences. Yet the similarities among these images are obvious too. The images contain hardly any depth (though the composition often does suggest space) and no perspective (except for rather naively drawn perspective in a throne or lectern), drop shadow isn't shown, and proportions — certainly those of the human body — were handled inattentively. Especially hands and fingers seem too large and sometimes they were oddly curled. The pleats in clothing, on the other hand, were generally reproduced with much care and grace. A clear, not too naive, coloured line design was chosen for the reconstruction.

The following details were included in the reconstructed portrait. The crown was derived from the bronze statuette, just as the shape of the moustache. The hairdo (as well as the blush on the cheeks) was reproduced as in the personification of ‘legislation’. The hair colour is light, like it is described by Einhard. The reproduction of the eyebrows, the eyes, and the nose was inspired by a portrait of Louis the Pious (a son of Charlemagne). The ear was deliberately drawn too small, because that's customary in most contemporary images. The cloak is blue, like Einhard describes it, and it has been fastened on the right shoulder with a fibula (brooche). The cloak, the shirt with girdle, the trousers, the leg straps, and the shoes were reproduced like they are shown — for example — by the portrait in the bible of Charles the Bald (notice the flanking Frankish noblemen), the bronze statuette, the personification of ‘legislation’, the illustrations in the Utrecht Psalter, and on a Carolingian fresco in South Tyrol. The decorations on the shoes were adopted from the bronze statuette. The sword is carried like it is done by the soldiers in the St. Gallen Psalter. The sword itself was modelled on the fresco in South Tyrol and the Leges Barbarorum–illumination. The throne and arch were based on the actual setting on the octagonal gallery in the cathedral of Aachen. Finally, the cushion on the throne matches the cushions that can be found on various contemporary images.

In the reconstruction Charlemagne is deliberately not represented with an orb or a sceptre. The custom to depict a king with these objects originates only from the time of Charles the Bald. The beard as a symbol of royal dignity wasn't fashionable until the era of the Ottonians.

Do you have a suggestion or remark concerning this reconstruction? All comments are much appreciated. Are you curious about what this portrait would look like today, if it had existed and if it had been preserved? One of the forgeries was based on this reconstruction.


  • F.L. Ganshof, The Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy (London 1971 ce).
  • Donald Bullough, The Age of Charlemagne (London 1972 ce).
  • Einhard, Vita Karoli (ca. 830 ce). Ganshof discusses the value of Einhard's testimony as a source.
  • Bronze statuette of a Frankish sovereign, France: Paris: Musée du Louvre, oa 8260 (860–870 ce). The rider originates from the 9th century ce, but the horse possibly dates from the 3rd, 4th, or 5th century ce and was restored in the 18th century ce. The rider holds an orb in the left hand and was probably holding a sceptre in the right. The statuette had once been gilded and used to belong to the treasure of the cathedral in Metz.
  • Portrait of Charlemagne in the so-called Leges Barbarorum or Leges Salicae, Ripuariae, Longobardorum, Baioariorum, Caroli Magni, Italia: Modena: Archivio Storico Diocesano di Modena-Nonantola, Cod. O.I.2 fol. 154v (991 ce). This is a copy of a manuscript that Lupus (a student of Hrabanus Maurus) made in 829–832 ce for Count Eberhard of Friaul. Charlemagne was depicted on his throne, with his son Pepin and a writer. Above their heads was written: “Karolus [christ]ianissim[us] imp[erato]r aug[ustus] Pipin[us] glor[ios]us rex filius eius”.
  • Portrait of Charlemagne, part of a mosaic in the Lateran Palace, Italia: Roma: Palazzo del Laterano: Triclinio Leonino (796–800 ce). The mosaic contains a presentation (to the right of the apse) of St. Peter giving the pallium to Pope Leo III and offering the banner of Rome to Charlemagne. It was restored in 1625, 1743, and 1933 ce.
  • Silver coin (denarius) that was struck after 804 ce in Frankfurt, Deutschland: Berlin: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin: Münzkabinett. The obverse shows Charlemagne in side view, with a laurel wreath and a cloak or a toga, and the inscription “Karolus Imp[erator] Aug[ustus]”.
  • Utrecht Psalter, Nederland: Utrecht: Universiteitsbibliotheek, Hs. 32 (Hautvillers 820–832 ce). This manuscript was illuminated with many drawings of Biblical scenes, but also with scenes from everyday life. The drawings are similar to the manuscript illuminations in the Gospel Book of Archbishop Ebbo, and in the history of art they belong to the so-called ‘Rheims School’.
  • St. Gallen Psalter or ‘Golden Psalter’, Schweiz (Suisse/Svizzera): St. Gallen: Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 22 (Soissons/St. Gallen 860–900 ce). On the pages 140–141 of this manuscript soldiers have been depicted on foot and on horseback.
  • Examples of portraits of the evangelists:
    • ‘Coronation Gospel Book’, Österreich: Wien: Kunsthistorisches Museum: Weltliche Schatzkammer XIII 8 (Aachen before 800 ce).
    • Gospel Book of Archbishop Ebbo, France: Epernay: Médiathèque d'Epernay, Ms. 1 (Hautvillers 816–835 ce). The illuminations are, aside from the use of colour, similar to the drawings in the Utrecht Psalter, and in the history of art they belong to the so-called ‘Rheims School’.
  • Two portraits of Charles the Bald, which were both made for Charles the Bald himself:
    • Portrait of Charles the Bald in the so-called ‘Vivian bible’, France: Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Ms. Lat. 1 fol. 423r (Tours 845–846 ce). On this portrait Charles the Bald is represented on a throne, surrounded by Frankish noblemen, soldiers, and clergymen (among them Count Vivian, lay abbot of the abbey St. Martin in Tours).
    • Portrait of Charles the Bald in the psalter of Charles the Bald, France: Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Ms. Lat. 1152 fol. 3v (842–869 ce). The manuscript was written by Liuthard. On the portrait Charles the Bald is represented on a throne, with an orb and a sceptre.
  • Portrait of Lothar in the so-called ‘Lothar Gospels’, France: Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Ms. Lat. 266 fol. 1v (Tours 849–851 ce). The portrait shows Lothar on a throne, with a soldier on each side.
  • Symbolic representation of ‘legislation or ‘jurisdiction’, Österreich: Kärnten: St. Paul im Lavanttal: Klosterbibliothek, Cod. XXV 4.8 fol. 1v (beginning of the 9th century ce).
  • Illustration of the ‘works of the months, Österreich: Wien: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 387 fol. 90v (Salzburg 810–818 ce).
  • Portrait of Louis the Pious in De Laudibus Sanctae Crucis of Hrabanus Maurus, Österreich: Wien: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 652 (Fulda before 840 ce). Louis the Pious was portrayed with a cross and a shield (as ‘defender of the Cross’).
  • Fresco on the east wall of the San Benedetto (St. Benedikt), Italia: Alto Adige (Südtirol): Malles Venosta (Mals im Vinschgau) (ca. 816 ce). The fresco contains an image of a former protector/benefactor of the church.

Alternatives for ‘Charlemagne’: Karel de Grote / Charles the Great / Karl der Große / Karl der Grosse / Carlomagno / Karolus Magnus / Carolus Magnus.

Active ingredients: xhtml, css, kiss, metadata, ©