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Panel Painting Charlemagne

Object number
Unknown artist
Production date
Early 16th century
Oil Paint
Oil on panel
Height: 395mm
Width: 285mm
Depth: 20mm
Burlington House - (on display)
    The painting and its integral surround are on a single panel, cut from a vertical board taken from a tree felled after AD 1495, probably in the eastern Baltic region. The panel was probably prepared for use between 1495 and 1527 and painted soon after preparation.

    Apart from the inserted lower border, the arched surround is not an independent frame but the carved and moulded edge of the panel itself. The surround is painted black with a gilded, hollow-chamfered inner moulding, which has the same profile as the other arch-topped portraits in the group given to the Society by Kerrich, apart from François I of France (LDSAL325) and Ferdinand of Aragon (LDSAL323), which share a different profile. The inscription CHARLE MAINGNE appears, painted in black, on the bevelled lower edge of the frame.

    The picture is comparable in date and format to the Society’s portraits of Louis XII, King of France (LDSAL324) and François I, King of France (LDSAL325). A portrait of the ninth-century Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, who was claimed as a prestigious ancestor by the ruling dynasties of western Europe, may have been produced in the sixteenth century in conjunction with those of the two French kings with the object of bolstering the credentials of the Valois monarchy. The model used for this historical portrait, created some seven centuries after the emperor’s death, is not, however, universally thought to represent Charlemagne.

    As with the Society’s portrait of Louis XII, a better example of this portrait survives in a rectangular frame in another collection, in this case on a panel in Vienna where, however, it is identified as St Maurice, dated c 1500 and attributed to a South German artist. The Vienna portrait differs from the Society’s version in that it is not arch-topped, lacks an inscription, shows only the subject’s head and shoulders, does not include the hand and occupies a greater area of the panel. Nevertheless the pose, costume and facial features are very similar, and the Society’s painting was either copied from it, or from the same prototype.

    It is surprising that two portraits as similar as those in London and Vienna should have been interpreted so differently, particularly as the Society’s version bears an identifying inscription. Was this image intended to represent Charlemagne or St Maurice? As ever in the realm of posthumous portraiture, identification is fraught with difficulty, and there are arguments in favour of both.