The COVID-19 crisis can derail our travel plans…but it can’t stop our travel dreams. Since the pandemic began in mid-March, I’ve been sharing a Daily Dose of Europe: travel essays recounting my favorite memories (from my upcoming travel memoir, For the Love of Europe). Starting today, I’m going to add European art masterpieces to that lineup.
One of the great joys of travel is seeing world-class art in person—and understanding it. So, over the next two weeks, we’ll be featuring 10 of Europe’s greatest works of art (with more to come in future weeks). Especially with so many parents at home looking for enriching educational experiences for their students, we hope each of these daily masterpieces can be a delightful teaching moment. Play “tour guide” and gather your travel partners. Then lavish your attention on each photograph while reading out loud the finely crafted description. Enjoy a daily dose of Europe through its greatest art as if you’re right there.
All of these essays are excerpted from my new book, Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces: Art for the Traveler, co-authored by Gene Openshaw. If you’d like to pick up a copy, I prefer if you support local businesses in your community — which are struggling right now — and buy it from your favorite bookshop. They could use the business…and you could use the book.
Today’s first installment features a work of art that also represents one of the most successful empires Europe has ever seen: the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor.
In a darkened, high-security room of a palace in Vienna lie the crown jewels of a lost empire. These are Europe’s oldest and most venerated royal objects — the sacred regalia used to crown the Holy Roman Emperor. These precious objects set the tone for nearly a thousand years of coronations.
The star of the collection is the Imperial Crown. Compared with more modern crowns, it’s a bit clunky — oddly shaped and crusted with uncut (not faceted) gems. But it’s more than 1,000 years old, and is a true Dark Age bright spot. It was probably made for Otto the Great, the first king to call himself Holy Roman Emperor (r. 962–973). Otto saw himself as the successor to the ancient Roman emperors, as well as King Charlemagne who revived the empire in the year 800. Like Charlemagne, Otto made sure he was crowned personally by the pope in St. Peter’s — thus legitimizing both his “Roman” birthright and his “holy” right to rule.
The Imperial Crown swirls with symbolism. The cross on top says this man is a divine monarch, ruling with Christ’s blessing. The Roman-style arch over the top recalls the feathered crests of legionnaires’ helmets. And the sheer opulence of the crown — made of 22-carat gold, elaborate filigree, and 144 precious stones — attests that this king rules over many lands: a true emperor.
After Otto, future rulers were crowned with this same crown. Many were just minor dukes who called themselves emperors. (Voltaire quipped that the Holy Roman Empire was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”) But under the dynamic Austrian Habsburg family, it truly became an empire, covering much of Europe and the New World. The Habsburgs’ 60-acre palace in Vienna (the Hofburg) was the epicenter of European culture, and their time-worn coronation rituals became Europe’s standard.
Picture the crown along with the other royal regalia in action for a coronation. First, the emperor-to-be would don the royal mantle, a 900-year-old red-and-gold silk cloak, embroidered with exotic lions, camels, and palm trees threaded from thousands of tiny white pearls. Next, the entourage entered the church, bearing the 11th-century jeweled cross, complete with a chunk of the (supposed) actual cross of Jesus. The emperor was given a royal orb (modeled on Roman orbs), an oak-leaf scepter, and a sword said to belong to Charlemagne himself (but probably not). The emperor placed his hand on a gold-covered Bible and swore his oath. Then he knelt, the jewel-studded Imperial Crown was placed on his head, and — dut dutta dah! — you had a new Holy Roman Emperor.
By the 19th century, the Habsburg Empire was fading. “Holy Roman” rulers were forced to tone down their official title, and once-powerful emperors were reduced to hosting ribbon-cutting ceremonies and white-gloved balls. In 1914, the heir-apparent, Archduke Ferdinand, was assassinated. This kicked off World War I, Austria fell, and by 1918, the 1,000-year Holy Roman Empire was history. The crown ended up in a glass display case where its jewels still sparkle with the glory of a once-great empire.
This is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for “Habsburgs”.