Art Through Time: A Global View
Ceremony and Society Art: Coronation Sword and Scabbard of the Kings of France
Although studies suggest that it is comprised of parts created between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, this sword has long been known as La Joyeuse, or the Sword of Charlemagne.
From 768 until 814, the year of his death, Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was king of the Franks. He was also, from 800 on, the first of the Holy Roman Emperors, later earning the epithet the “Father of Europe” for the vastness of the lands acquired under his aegis.
As early as 1271 this sword was being used in the coronation ceremonies of French kings, who wished to identify themselves as descendants of the exalted ruler of the Franks and leader of Christendom. Over succeeding centuries, the sword was kept, along with other royal regalia, in the church of Saint-Denis, a major pilgrimage site and the burial place of France’s kings for over 800 years. On the occasion of a coronation, the sword was brought out and carried to Reims Cathedral, where it played a vital part in the ritual. During the first part of the ceremony, the sword was presented to the king, Charlemagne’s heir, as part of the insignia of knighthood. It was then passed to the commander of the French army, who held it point up for the remainder of the proceedings.
As with many royal ceremonial objects, the sword, with its golden handle and gemstone-encrusted scabbard, was visually magnificent. It was also laden with historical associations. Though rooted in myth and legend, the history of the sword added to its potency as a symbol of authority. In turn, the appearance of the sword in coronations over the course of hundreds of years reinforced its legitimacy as an object of great antiquity, extraordinary origin, and royal power. French kings made several alterations to it, including an embroidered velvet sheath added to the scabbard in 1825.
Bartz, Gabriele. The Louvre: Art & Architecture. Köln: Könemann, 2008.
Becher, Matthias. Charlemagne. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
Musée du Louvre Web site. http://www.louvre.fr.
Oakeshott, R. Ewart. Records of the Medieval Sword. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2007.