Adoring the cross at Karlsteijn

The Portraits of Charles IV of Bohemia

Charles IV belongs to a group of 14th century rulers who commissioned artists to render them as not just idealized icons, but personally recognizable individuals.

Bust of Charles IV in the triforium in St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague. Source: Wikipedia
Bust of Charles IV in the triforium in St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague. Source: Wikipedia

Portraits are a curious genre. In a sense we define them in terms of likeness. However, art historians prefer to identify a portrait as an image “in which the artist is engaged with the personality of the sitter and is preoccupied with his or her characterization as an individual” (John Gere 1974 [1]). In this sense, we must acknowledge that we do not possess portraits of Charles IV. None of the artists who painted of sculpted him were ever only preoccupied with rendering his personality. On the other hand there is no doubt they strived to be faithful to his personal appearance.

Theirs was a balancing act intended to paint Charles and his wives and descendants as at the same time royal images and personal portraits. On one hand the idea of the individual is obviously present in a number of the images we still possess. We even have a portrait of Charles IV, which has been compared to his skull and found representing his “true likeness”. On the other hand, we also know that the idealistic rendering of the persons in question were on the agenda. For instance Charles – even though he was painted and sculpted as the stooping man he was left after his accident in 1350 – was never painted with the scar, which must have been very visible on the bridge of his nose. In a modern sense, these visual renderings of the man were not meant as portraits intended to unveil his inner psyche. Instead the portraits were intended as representations of Charles IV as a devoted Christian or as the king and emperor by Deo Gratias

Tympanon with a relief of Charles and Blanche
Tympanon with a relief of Charles and Blanche at Church of Our Lady of the Snow. Source: Wikipedia

No more so, was this visible in the artistic programme, which Charles commissioned for the castle of Karlštejn. This consisted not only of one of the more famous portraits of Charles IV receiving and donating the famous relics to the new chapel built to house the royal insignia. It also consisted of a series of the now lost series of 58 of Charles’ putative ancestors: Old Testament Patriarchs, Gods, heroes and rulers from Antiquity, pagan and Christian princes. All were they depicted standing or sitting on thrones in full length. It is generally believed that this dynastic gallery was modelled on that on the Grand Salle in the Palais de la Cité in Paris, where Charles grew up and which was decorated with 58 full-length statues placed high above. Both series are unfortunately no longer existant. However, another such grandiose series of portraits can be found in the upper triforium in St. Vitus in Prague showing 21 busts of the King, members of his family, bishops and some other dignitaries, including the architects he architects, Mathieu d’Arras and Peter Parler. Whether or not inspiration for these were found in the series of portraits in the chapel at the Chateau de Saint-Germain-en-Laye is disputed.

The interesting fact about this portraits of Charles IV and his queens in the triforium is that they are here uniquely presented without their crowns. These busts was located in a virtual inaccessible site – even today only select groups can gain access – and were perhaps regarded as primarily private art; much like the reliquary busts they seem to eccho and which Charles was such an avid collector of.

Devotional Images and Relics

Charles receiving the relics at Karlsteijn © Karlsteijn Castle
Charles receiving the relics at Karlsteijn © Karlsteijn Castle
Charles IV adoring the Mother with child -by Theodoricus of Prag
Charles IV adoring the Mother with child. By Theodoricus of Prag. © National Gallery in Prague

However, the bust is unique. By far, the largest number of portraits of Charles IV renders him in the role as a devotional Christian.

Thus we find him adoring the coronation of the virgin in a monumental – though dilapidated – stone relief commemorating his coronation as king of Bohemia in 1347. This was intended as a tympanon for the Church of Our Lady of the Snow (Chrám Panny Marie Sněžné), which he donated the funds for on he second day after the coronation.

More famously, we find him in the devotional altar painted by Theodoricus of Prag for Johann Ocko of Vlasim in the National Gallery in Prague: here we see the emperor rendered life-like and yet idealised kneeling in front of Mary and Child. Finally, he is depicted in the same posture in famous mosaic decoration on the southern portal of St. Vitus, where he kneels in subjugation to the coming of the Last Judgement.

The Adoration of the Magi. Bohemia Prague c. 1360. The Morgan Library and Museum
The Adoration of the Magi. Bohemia Prague c. 1360. The Morgan Library and Museum

Another role, which he plays, is as procurer and venerator of relics. Most famously he is painted as such in the frieze in the Chapel in the Castle of Karlstein by Nicholas Wurmser, which Charles had built in order to house the crown jewels as well as his most precious relics: splinters from the cross and thorns from the crown.

In a curious twist in some of these devotional images, Charles IV was simply caught up as posing as part of the history. One of the more famous of these portraits can be found in the so-called Morgan Diptych, where Charles poses as one of the Magi’s. This was crafted at the court of Charles IV c. 1360, perhaps commissioned by the emperor himself. In the scene of the three kings adoring the Christ Child, the second magus has the features of Charles and his red cloak bears the imperial eagle. Another such scene can be found in the iconic chapel at Karlstejn. As seen from this perspective the series of paintings in the chapel presents the Charles as both a devoted Christian prince, a procurer of relics and as a reenactor inserted into the biblical scenes.

Statue from the Tower at the Charles Bridge in Prague
Statue from the Tower at the Charles Bridge in Prague

Another staging he obviously endorsed was that of a crowned king and emperor. As can be seen from the images posted above, Charles IV did not pose for portraits without wearing his crown. However, a number of portraits feature him as nothing but king, emperor and representative of a far-reaching dynasty.

One of the more evocative is the sculpture, which was placed high up on the tower, which was built on the Charles Bridge in Prague and probably intended to act as a kind of welcome to his ancestors, when parading up to St. Vitus to be enthroned and crowned. Perhaps it was also just intended as a distinct memorial to the city of Prague, who was in charge.

But even if the portraits of Charles IV have another purpose than depicting the emperor as an individual, there is no doubt that what we see is more or less close to the actual appearance of the king. This became apparent when his physical remains were examined in 1978 and one of the responsible forensic experts, Emanuel Vlček superimposeda radiograph of the king’s skull on top of the portrait from Karlstejn, where he adores the Crucifix together with the queen.

Muehlhausen-greetings of an emperor from the tribune
Mühlhausen:Greetings of an emperor from the tribune © guelcker


Die Porträts Kaiser Karls IV. – eine Einführung.
By Marco Bogade
ibidem-Verlag 2005
ISBN-10: 3898214826
ISBN-13: 978-3898214827
Art and Propaganda : Charles IV of Bohemia, 1346-1378
by Iva Rosario
Boydell Press 2001
ISBN-10: 0851157874
ISBN-13: 978-0851157870


Adoring the Cross at Karlsteijn © Karlsteijn







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