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Swiss National Museum unveils an exhibition of Charlemagne, the Father of Europe in its medieval form
Receptacle for frankincense. During Mass the altar, host, wine and liturgical instruments – as well as the people present – are censed with frankincense. Frankincense is considered to be a symbol for the presence of God. Censer with chain, bronze, probably from the vicinity of Aachen, around 800. On loan from Museum Schnütgen, Cologne, H 46. © Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln, rba_c007610.

ZURICH.- A visionary ruler who shaped Europe. Charlemagne (*748–†814) laid the foundations for our culture over 1,200 years ago. He unified Greater Europe and reformed the education system and society. Charlemagne who was also emperor of what is now Switzerland, at the heart of his empire. His life and works will be presented at the Swiss National Museum in Zürich from 20 September 2013 as part of a comprehensive exhibition.

On Christmas Day in the year 800, a new era in the Middle Ages of the western world began at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome: Pope Leo III appointed Charlemagne as the first emperor since the fall of Rome in the 5th century. Charlemagne established a strict governing system in the Latin West. The introduction of a comital constitution, a specific church policy and a comprehensive education and coinage reform are keywords in the body of political reforms which shaped the Middle Ages and continue to have an impact today.

2014 marks the 1,200th anniversary of the death of Charlemagne (*748–†814). So who was this Carolingian ruler who was already referred to as the ‘great’ during his lifetime? What impact did he have during the 8th and 9th centuries in the region defined by the Europe of today?

The exhibition on ‘Charlemagne and Switzerland’ spans the period from the rule of Charlemagne from 771–814 to the end of the Carolingian dynasty in the late 9th century. An epilogue indicates how Charlemagne’s legacy lived on and how he was perceived in the centuries which followed.

Selected exhibits
The exhibition features the first ‘euro’ in Europe. Charlemagne’s coinage reform introduced a standard currency which was used in parts of Switzerland until the introduction of the franc (1850). The gold-gilt silver breast cross from the treasury at Aachen Cathedral is thought to have been worn by Charlemagne himself and symbolises Charlemagne’s role as patron of the church and Christianity.

An exceptional example of early artwork is also featured and has been loaned from the library at the Abbey of St. Gall. This book was produced by the Bishop of Chur, Remedius, in around 800 and features paintings highlighting the significance of the Abbey of St. Gall as a centre for book art. Rare Carolingian silks are also on display, including the exquisite Samson fabric from the Chur Cathedral treasury. Charlemagne became the subject of legend following his death. Idealised portrait paintings fuelled the development of this legend such as the image of Charlemagne created at Albrecht Dürer’s studio in 1514 and on loan from the German Historical Museum and Louis-Félix Amiel’s depiction of Charlemagne (1839) from the Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon.

The exhibition brings together some 200 exhibits of artistic and historical significance in Switzerland for the first time. These exhibits are on loan from 48 national and international establishments and attest to the life and impact of Charlemagne.

Traces of Charlemagne in Switzerland
The area which Switzerland covers today was closely linked with the Carolingian dynasty. Charlemagne was in Geneva and crossed the Alps on many occasions. The Alpine mountain passes gained in significance under his rule. The abbeys were built along key transport routes and provided Charlemagne and his followers with accommodation and key strongholds. The Abbey of St. John on the North-South axis in Müstair is said to have been founded by Charlemagne. Today it classes as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site with its preserved Carolingian wall paintings.

In Switzerland, between 750 and 900 buildings and an astonishing number of works of art have either been preserved or have left archaeological evidence: abbeys, churches and a palace in the Lindenhof in Zürich as well as richly embellished scripts, exquisite ivory and goldsmithing work and textiles for church use. The Abbey of St. Gall flourished during the Carolingian era and its book production was influenced by Carolingian book art. The current Abbey of St. Gall library, the central library in Zürich and the Burgerbibliothek library in Berne contain numerous significant scripts from the Carolingian era. Many of these scripts are on display to the public for the first time as part of the ‘Charlemagne and Switzerland’ exhibition.

Pioneering heritage
Charlemagne’s education reform was ground-breaking. The script he initiated now forms the basis for our printed fonts. Thanks to him the museum has recovered the works of ancient authors as well as the knowledge they convey. His coinage reform formed the basis of our actual monetary system. We also have him to thank for the preservation of works by ancient authors and therefore the passing down of historic knowledge and in addition, his coinage reform formed the basis for our monetary system today. His palaces fuelled stone construction and he also established Christianity in the Western World, firmly anchored the liturgy, edited the Bible, built new abbeys and regulated the lives of the monks. Charlemagne laid the foundations for our culture in many ways.

Myths and legends
There are many legends and speculator ideas surrounding Charlemagne and his relationship with Switzerland. Legend has it that he spent 14 days at St. Maurice’s Abbey in 788 and stopped off here on his way back from Rome. Another legend claims that Charlemagne had the Grossmünster cathedral built in Zürich after finding the relics of the city’s patron saints, Felix and Regula, here. In the mid-12th century, worship of Charlemagne began to increase in Zürich and in 1233, relics of Charlemagne were brought to Zürich. There is no historical proof that Charlemagne ever came to Zürich but as the evidence in this exhibition indicates, it cannot be ruled out.

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September 20, 2013

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