From Charlemagne to Frederick Barbarossa - powerful emperors shaped the fortunes of Europe from 800 AD onward. For five centuries in the Middle Ages, they acted as God's agents, relentless commanders and skilful politicians. But how did these rulers once ascend to the imperial throne? Which networks and lobbyists helped them? The state exhibition in Mainz, which runs until mid-June 2021, offers clarification.

The center of power once lay on the Rhine. For centuries, the region between Aachen and Basel, between Metz and Frankfurt a.M. was considered the political, economic and cultural focal point of Europe. In an area of about 100 kilometers, pompous court and imperial assemblies took place, the mighty cathedrals of Mainz, Worms and Speyer were built. In the Middle Ages, the region was the central ruling base of great dynasties, from the Carolingians to the Staufers. Today, Rhineland-Palatinate thus has a huge cultural heritage, on which the state exhibition in Mainz in the imperial year 2020 is based. 

Until mid-June 2021, the Mainz State Museum of the Rhineland-Palatinate Directorate General for Cultural Heritage (GDKE) will display some 300 exhibits and important documents on an area of around 1,200 m², with renowned museums from near and far contributing valuable loans. An ideal destination for those interested in culture. The exhibition explores the pillars on which the rule of the emperors in the Middle Ages was based. It sheds light on the changeable networks of power, looks at dynamic networks of relationships, political deals and diplomatic maneuvers on the basis of selected emperor personalities, from Charlemagne to Henry II, IV and V to Frederick I Barbarossa.

The Coppenberg Barbarossa Head: The gilded portrait bust of Emperor Frederick I © Radek Brunecky

The rule of the emperors in the Middle Ages was not without controversy

The great age of emperors in the Middle Ages began with the coronation of Charlemagne (800), who at the same time revived the idea of ancient emperorship by the grace of God, legitimized by the pope. Today, however, we know that the anointed rulers did not reign undisputedly with absolute power over their empire, but rather moved within a tense power structure. Over a period of five centuries, emperors, empresses and kings, princes and commanders, knights and imperial princes, bishops and Jewish communities, citizens and cities were closely interwoven - these networks enabled imperial rule that was unique in Western Christendom.

The pillars of imperial greatness included churchmen such as the strong Archbishop Willigis, who resided in "golden Mainz" as the most powerful man after the emperor and deputy of the pope - under his aegis, the Mainz diocese became one of the most important and prosperous in the empire. Thanks to increasing financial strength, the flourishing cities and their citizens ensured the stabilization of imperial rule. A large part of the population, who worked the land according to the principle of landlordism without benefiting themselves, also contributed to its economic basis.

The magnificent imperial crown with crown cross has decorated not only the head of Henry II © Radek Brunecky

The Jewish Talmud schools were considered the cradle of scholarship

Significant economic burdens were also borne by the Jewish communities, especially in Speyer, Worms and Mainz, which thus bought security from the rulers. Under the name SchUM (SCHpira, Uormatia and Magenza), their highly respected Talmud schools developed into the highest authority in religious-cultic and legal matters, and were considered the "cradle of learning" in Central, Northern and Eastern European Jewry for centuries. The certification of the SchUM sites as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is in a review phase.

Finally, imperial power was also supported by chivalry and courtly culture, which became the new ideal at the end of the 12th century, combined with the idea of the religiously and economically motivated crusade. The temporal and thematic conclusion of the exhibition is finally the Golden Bull of 1356 - as an imperial code it regulated above all the modalities of the election and coronation of the Roman-German kings and emperors by the electors until the end of the empire in 1806. Seven copies of the Golden Bull have survived to this day, the Mainz copy is temporarily made available to the exhibition by the Austrian State Archives in Vienna.

In addition to the Golden Bull, other top-class exhibits are on display at the Landesmuseum Mainz, some of them on loan from collections throughout Europe. In addition to exquisite goldsmith's art and documents that made history, there is, for example, Charlemagne's arm reliquary from the Louvre in Paris or the precious marriage certificate of Empress Theophanu, who became empress of the East Frankish-German Empire thanks to her marriage to Emperor Otto II in 972. Other highlights include Empress Gisela's burial crown and the famous Heidelberg song manuscript Codex Manesse, considered the most extensive and famous German song collection of the Middle Ages.

A highlight of the exhibition: The Codex Manesse, the collection of songs from the Middle Ages, is famous for its colorful miniatures © Radek Brunecky

The state museum as a basis for searching for clues throughout Rhineland-Palatinate

The GDKE has incorporated the entire region into the exhibition; after all, no other federal state has as many original sites to offer as Rhineland-Palatinate. So following a visit to the Mainz State Museum, it's a good idea to head to other locations that offer a wide range of presentations, lectures and guided tours on the Middle Ages. These include Worms with the Imperial Cathedral of St. Peter and the Jewish Museum, Speyer Cathedral, Ingelheim with the Imperial Palace, the Porta Nigra in Trier or Bingen and the Museum am Strom. 

The Landesmuseum Mainz also offers an extensive program of events, such as the interactive exhibition "Knight, Peasant, Noblewoman", where visitors can interactively discover the Middle Ages at 32 stations, using the lives of knights and noblewomen, merchants and minstrels, craftsmen, monks and peasants as examples. Digital 3D models of the cities of Mainz, Worms and Speyer as well as an app "In the footsteps of the emperors", which is currently under construction, round off the offer. Last but not least, there are exciting lectures, workshops, guided tours and other accompanying attractions.

How to get to the Landesmuseum Mainz by train: Plan arrival.

"Knight, peasant, noble lady" - the museum visit becomes interactive in the hands-on exhibition © Jürgen Vogel

Cover picture: The nine-part picture cycle "Mainzer Marienleben" depicts the life of Mary, the mother of God © Radek Brunecky

More articles from Rhineland-Palatinate