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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

John F. Moffitt

The Enthroned Corpse of Charlemagne. The Lord-in-Majesty Theme in Early Medieval Art and Life

Jefferson: McFarland, 2007. 239 pp., $39.95. ISBN 978-0-7864-2767-3.

The Enthroned Corpse of Charlemagne was published just several months before the death of its author, Dr. John F. Moffitt (1940-2008), Professor Emeritus of Art History at New Mexico State University. Not only a researcher but also a professor, member of prestigious academic organizations, and artist, Moffitt had a prolific career, writing on a wide number of topics including Caravaggio, Bernini, our Lady of Guadaloupe, Duchamp, and more. Nevertheless he was specially known for his contributions on Hispanic art and culture (Goya, Velázquez, king Felipe IV, etc.), some of which were quite controversial, such as his hypothesis about the Iberian sculpture of Dama de Elche, traditionally dated in the 5th century and re-dated by Moffitt to the end of 19th century.

Since he was interested in a diverse range of topics, he proposed links between works of art from different styles and historical periods, making a personal and courageous interpretation of art history. This ability has been clearly developed in The Enthroned Corpse of Charlemagne where he was able to compare the 11th century incorruptible body of Charlemagne and wax effigies of Madame Tussaud made in the 18th -19th century (see chapter 5).

The main topic of the book is the discovering by the emperor Otto III of the enthroned incorruptible corpse of Charlemagne in the Palatine Chapel of Aachen (today in  Germany), on Pentecost day in the year 1000, almost two centuries after Charlemagne’s death (814). To understand the impact and meaning of that event, Prof. Moffitt studied another work of art, the sculpture of Sainte Foy at Conques (today in France), renewed around the year 1000. Both of  Charlemange’s cadaver and the Sainte Foy sculpture share the notion of Maiestas Domini, or Lord-in-Majesty.

Although it is in chapter 5 where he better explains how the preservation of an incorruptible corpse in Early Middle Ages was possible, each chapter contributes to a complete knowledge of the cultural atmosphere surrounding the discovering. The “Introduction: Charlemagne’s Legacy and Rethel’s Karlsfresken is a general explanation about the key role played by Charlemagne in history: the cultural renaissance of this period, the connection with Roman Empire, or the creation of the European Christian unity. It is also a description of the impact of the historical texts referring to Charlemagne’s corpse in contemporary art, and more specifically in the canvas Otto III Discovering the Body of Charlemagne painted by Alfred Rethel (1857) and preserved in the Museum Art Palace Foundation in Düsseldorf.

In the opening chapter, “The Early Medieval “Lord in Majesty”: The Example of the Majesté de Sainte Foy at Conques, Moffitt pays attention to the enthroned figure of Sainte Foy (Holy Faith), a golden reliquary-effigy preserved in the treasury of the Abbey-Church of Conques. This sculpture seems to have been made at an unspecified date after 882, originally for commemorating Sancta Fides, a twelve year-old girl who was martyred in Agen before the 6th century. Nevertheless, around the year 1000 (also called annus mirabilis) and under the Ottonian artistic influence, this sculpture seems to have been renewed. As a result it acquired the aspect of an adult male and it was associated to the theme of Maiestas Domini or the enthroned triumphal Lord-in-Majesty. Probably, Moffitt argues, in those days the figure evoked the imperial figure of Charlemagne, who embodied both the Maiestas Domini and the Holy Faith.

“Sainte Foy as an Imperial Effigy and as an Apocryphal Figure” (ch. 2) is a continuation of some ideas developed in chapter 1. Nonetheless, chapter 2 focuses on Sainte Foy as a reliquary enclosing the stolen skull of a martyr. Since the Second Council of Nicaea (787) stated that no church could be consecrated without the possession of a relic, holy theft of relics (furta sacra) became a common practice in Middle Ages. Taking into account this historical framework, it seems that in 882 the monks of Conques organized a secret theft of the relics of Sainte Foy, which at that time lay in a church in Agen, 75 miles southwest of Conques. They took the relics, carried them from Agen to Conques, wrote a chronicle about the furta sacra, and after some decades commissioned the first Sainte Foy statue to hold them. By contrast, the renewal or second stage of the sculpture was linked to Abbot Bernardus, who added imperial symbols (a crown and a throne) around the year 1000, so that Sainte Foy could be identified with the maiestas domini.

“An Imperial Symbiosis: Charlemagne and Constantine” is an intermediate  chapter between the explanation concerning the Sainte Foy (developed in chapters 1 & 2) and the analysis of the corpse of Charlemagne (developed in chapters 4 & 5). Here Moffitt introduces a new topic, although one he alludes to in the previous pages. He explains the cultural and historical link between two Christian emperors: Constantine the Great (3rd - 4th century) and Charles the Great (9th century). Not only Charlemagne was considered a New Constantine, but also lots of his cultural empresses evoked Constanine’s ones. Nevertheless, it is the notion of maiestas domini¸ shared by both emperors, which deserved all the attention of Prof. Moffitt in chapter 3, and again, as we will see, in chapter 4 and 6.

Chapter 4, “Contexts and Meaning of Charlemagne’s Karlsgrab”, focuses on the tomb of Charlemagne (Karlsgrab) where his enthroned corpse was discovered. Concerning the tomb and the discovering of the corpse, Prof. Moffitt stresses the similarities between Constantine and Charlemagne: both of them developed the idea of Maiestas Domini  (in fact the emperor’s corpse followed the iconographic formula of Maiestas Domini), both of them were linked to Pentecost day (both Constantine’s death and the discovery of Charlemagne corpse happened on that day), both of them were buried in an atrium, and both of them were linked to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (Constantine embellished this edifice; Charlemagne’s Chapel in Aachen was inspired in it).

From my point of view Chapter 5, “Cadaver or Artwork? The Historical Contexts for Charlemagne’s Incorruptible Corpse”, is the key chapter of the book, and consequently, that one that would deserve a deeply interest in the present review. Here the author deals with the scepticism around the historicity of the Emperor’s corpse. Although some scholars think that the discovering of Charlemagne’s corpse is a fable, Prof. Moffitt shows just the contrary. In fact, he says that “there are two principal reasons for such collective scepticism. First, there is the seeming lack of any precedent for an enthroned burial. Second, […] such a miraculous state of preservation would seem to be completely at odds with our modern scientific knowledge of the actual physical processes of death and decay.” (119) With the aim of contesting the historical scepticism, the author shows the long tradition of enthroned burials in Christian European history. Taking into account that the theological fundament lies in the Bible, where it is said that Christ prepares thrones of honour in the Paradise for the faithful, the author mentions several evidences of secular and religious enthroned burial during Middle Ages and early modern period: the Empress Galla Placidia († 450), the King Louis the Bavarian († 876), the archbishop Sigmiund I of Halberstadt († 24), St. Catherine of Bologna († 1463), Elizabeth of York († 1503), King Henry VII († 1509), Lady Jane Seymour († 1537), and so on. Having explained that question, Prof. Moffitt concentrates his argument on the incorruptible corpse, which seems to be linked to the strong tradition at the time of wax effigies. The tradition of making such effigies can be found from Roman times to contemporary ones (consider, for example Jeremy Bentham’s nineteenth-century effigy still on display today at University College, London), although it was in Middle Ages when it became a proof of sanctity. During Middle Ages, many saints were said to be “incorruptible” after death, what makes us think that some indications must be followed to preserved their bodies in such state. However, since knowledge about post-mortem preservation was not very accurate, the only way for preserving corpses was making wax effigies, i.e. eviscerating the corpse and then coating it inside and out with resins. As Prof. Moffitt suggests, Charlemagne’s incorruptible corpse could have been also a wax effigy, made with the aim of sanctifying the emperor.

“The Ideology Behind the Carolingian and Ottonian “Lords-in-Majesty” (chapter 6) is a deep analysis of the symbols of the Lord-in-Majesty, or Maiestas Domini, which is a commonplace between the Sainte Foy at Conques and the enthroned corpse of Charlemagne. Dr. Moffitt explained the origin of the Maiestas Domini in the Christian era, and how it was associated to Christ. Then he shows how “Carolingian and Ottonian rulers were themselves acknowledged to be Christ-like (Christomimetic) emperors and were consistently portrayed as the Maiestas Domini.” (163) In fact, the appearance of Charlemagne corpse in Aachen was a way to express the Maiestas Domini.

Finally, in Chapter 7, “Conclusion: Charlemagne’s Afterlife as an Artwork”, the author reinforced the ideas expressed in the six previous chapters. In addition, he relates the end of the story of the corpse of Charlemagne: “On December 2, 1165, during a resplendent ceremony celebrated in Aachen, Charlemagne’s body was removed from a porphyry sarcophagus, where it had supposedly reposed for over 350 years (but more likely only 165 years) and it was next placed within a resplendent golden reliquary, so effecting its translatio.” (185) Thus, the translatio is the final point of the book, and maybe the initial step of a future study focused on other medieval enthroned corpses.

Concerning methodology, Moffitt is extremely accurate and precise, as we can appreciate in the rigorous quotations system; the complete bibliography including tittles in German, English, French, Spanish, and Italian, which takes into account primary documentary sources and  prestigious medieval authors such as Belting, Du Bourget, Didron, Duby, Forsyth, Grabar, Mâle, Panofsky, or Schapiro; the compendium of black and white illustrations; the index of topics, places and people; and the clear introductions to every chapter describing aims, conflicts, and initial hypothesis.

Irene González Hernando

Universidad Complutense de Madrid (Spain) <irgonzal@ghis.ucm.es>

Page Added: September 2007