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The Imperial Crown

Unknown0950/1050

Treasury, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Treasury, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

The shape of the Imperial Crown is unlike that of any other
Occidental crown of the Middle Ages and, in fact, unique.
It was probably made for the imperial coronation of Otto I the Great
in 962, and its shape and ornamentation are an expression of the selfconception of sovereigns of the Ottonian dynasty: each element, each
detail, even if it appears to be merely decorative, is filled with deep
symbolism expressing the concept of the divine right of kings.
The Imperial Crown is made of hinged plates based on the wreaths worn
by the rulers of antiquity. There are eight of them because eight was
considered the imperial number and a symbol of perfection. The four
larger plates over the brow, neck and temples are richly decorated with
precious stones and pearls, reflecting the idealised concept of the heavenly
Jerusalem as a golden city with walls set with precious stones. In addition,
the order, colour and number of stones have allegoric significance: the
focus is on the number twelve, a reference to the Twelve Tribes of Israel
and the Twelve Apostles. The emperor saw himself as the thirteenth
among them. The four smaller plates are decorated with enamel images. Three of them have inscriptions naming the Old Testament figures they depict as well as biblical quotations that explain their presence: David, a king of Israel and a prophet, stands for justice, his son and successor, Solomon, for wisdom and the fear of God, while the third plate depicts the prophet Isaiah telling the deathly ill king Hezekiah that he has another fifteen
years to live, a symbol of trust in God and the resulting experience of
divine mercy. For more than eight centuries the quotations on the plates
were uttered as part of the Holy Roman Empire’s coronation liturgy,
and they describe the most important character traits of a good ruler.
On the fourth plate, Christ is seated on a throne and flanked by two
angels. The three figures represent the Holy Trinity, while the inscription
on this plate – from the biblical book of Proverbs (“By me kings reign!”)
expresses the central idea of theocratic rule: Christ is ruler of the world
and represented on earth by the wearer of the crown, the emperor.
The brow and neck plates support the arch, which is mounted in sockets
and derived formally from the helmet decoration of the ancient Roman
emperors. In its present form the arch derives from an addition madeduring the reign of Conrad II (reigned 1024–1039). It is possible that
the original idea was to create an arch for each ruler. On the two sides
of the arch small pearls spell out an inscription that clearly expresses
the concept of the divine right of kings: Conrad is called emperor
“by the grace of God” (“dei gratia”). The cross atop the brow plate is also not original, dating from the time of Henry II (Saint Henry, reigned 1002–1024). Seen from the front it is a triumphal bejewelled cross (crux gemmata), demonstrating that imperial power is exercised in the name of Christ. The back depicts in niello technique the suffering Christ, although his open eyes suggest his triumph over death, making the cross a sign of victory.
Originally a mitre of white fabric was worn under the octagonal crown.
Like the starry mantle of the Ottonian rulers it is based on a sign of
dignity worn by Jewish high priests and was a reference to the priestly
duties of the emperor as Christ’s representative. © Masterpieces of the Secular Treasury, Edited by Wilfried Seipel, Vienna 2008

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