Beginning in 1424, the Crown of the Holy Roman Empire (Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Kaiserliche Schatzkammer Wien) was kept in Nuremberg and used only for coronations. Thus later rulers required a private crown for other public appearances, and these were designed according to the respective taste of the time. The crown of Emperor Rudolf II (1552–1612) is the only one of these private crowns that survived. Designated as the crown of the House, it had no official state function, a situation that did not change until Emperor Francis I (1768–1835). In 1804 he chose it as the crown of the Austrian Empire, although it was never actually used for a coronation.
It is in keeping with Rudolf ’s serious character and sense of mission
that even this private crown, despite all its magnificence, is not purely
a decorative piece but rather an insignia that is heavy with symbolism.
The crown consists of three main parts of great symbolic significance:
the circlet with its fleur-de-lys mounts, symbolising royal dignity; the
mitre, as a sign of the emperor’s special ecclesiastic position; and the high
imperial arch. The main contours of these three parts of the crown are
edged with pearls, making them clearly distinguishable, on the one hand,
while linking them to create a whole, on the other. Each individual part
is characterised by specific decorative elements that are not repeated on
any other part. On the circlet, the eight large diamonds, the hardest of all
precious stones, were considered a symbol of Christ and intended to be
reminiscent of the old Imperial Crown. The emperor of the Holy Roman
Empire saw himself as Christ’s representative on earth, and Rudolf took
ancient traditions very seriously. Because the Imperial Crown consisted
of eight plates – a number that was considered an imperial sign – there
are eight diamonds on the Crown of Rudolf.
Gables shaped like fleur-de-lys make the circlet a crown of lilies, one
of the oldest and most important forms of a crown. In order to further
emphasise the time-honoured character of this shape, the fleurs-de-lys are
decorated with crab-like ornaments reminiscent of Gothic architectural
elements. Each lily is dominated by a ruby as a symbol of wisdom and
the fire of the Holy Spirit. Behind the lilies is a mitre, which in contrast to a bishop’s mitre is turned 90 degrees. It symbolises the ecclesiastic dignity of the emperor and derives from the head-covering of the high priests of the Old Testament. © Masterpieces of the Secular Treasury, Edited by Wilfried Seipel, Vienna 2008