“Barbarossa – The art of sovereign rule“

Contribution of the Cluster of Excellence "Religion and Politics" to an exhibition on the Staufer emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa in the LWL Museum für Kunst und Kultur in Münster

The LWL Museum of Art and Culture in Münster staged a major international exhibition from 28 October 2022 to 5 February 2023 to mark the 900th birthday of the famous Staufer emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (1122-1190). The son of a Swabian duke, Barbarossa was crowned king of the Roman-German Empire in 1152, and its emperor in 1155. As such, he played a leading role in Europe’s political network of the 12th century.

The exhibition focused on the iridescent and contradictory figure of the emperor “Redbeard”, using rich textual sources and precious works of art to explore his many facets: as a secular prince striving for balance and peace among his peers; as a deeply religious Christian who set up art foundations with a view to his spiritual salvation; as a pugnacious and cruel knight who had to live up to his role as protector of the church; and as a keen patron of art and culture. The exhibition looked through the eyes of the emperor at what was in many respects an exciting era.

The exhibition on the emperor Friedrich Barbarossa and his world was curated by Dr. Petra Marx, with the expert advice of medieval historian Prof. Dr. Jan Keupp from the Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics”. Keupp’s research project at the Cluster of Excellence, A3-8 “Material Mediators”, focuses on material objects located at the interface of religious practice and medieval politics. He is author of the following article “Barbarossa – the art of displaying medieval rule”. (lwl/exc)

Barbarossa – the art of displaying medieval rule

By Prof. Dr. Jan Keupp, trans. David West

View of the Cappenberg Head CC BY-SA 3.0
© Montecappio

Who is about to lose their head?

No emperor’s head in Cappenberg? Recent research has contradicted the thesis put forward by Friedrich Philippi in 1886 that the head kept in the church of the former Premonstratensian monastery is a “portrait bust of Emperor Frederick I”. Rather, the inscriptions around the neck and base of the gilded bronze head refer several times to the apostle and evangelist John, and thus identify the work of art as a reliquary containing the hair of Jesus’ favourite disciple. As revealed by the digital microscope, these inscriptions had already been carved into the wax model of the hollow-cast work, which contradicts the idea that an initially profane bust of a ruler was then made into a sacred object for church use. It also contradicts the numerous attempts that have been made under a “primacy of politics” to interpret the bust in terms of its propagandistic content.

To move the context of interpretation of the bust entirely into the sphere of sacred art withdrawn from worldly concerns inevitably raises the question of whether it is an appropriate object of study for a research project that focuses on the intersection of religion and politics. It also raises the question of why the current exhibition organized by the LWL Museum of Art and Culture and entitled “Barbarossa – the art of rule” should make the Cappenberg Head one of its central objects. But it is precisely at this point that the research carried out on the enigmatic bronze head over many years shows its continuing value, since it helps us trace the multiple stages of action and meaning that ultimately converged in creating this specific work of art. It also brings into focus some of the vast network of aristocratic exchange that allowed the Staufer their elevated position.


Textile fragments from the Cappenberg Head
© Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen (Foto: Elke Michler)

Silk fabrics, networks, and the multifaceted threads of power

This network is brought to life by several apparently nondescript fragments of fabric displayed in the exhibition’s fourth room, dedicated to the high-medieval Cappenberg priory. These fragments were presumably placed inside the head in several phases, with the oldest silk fabrics attributable to textile workshops of the Byzantine Empire. In all probability, they served to wrap the relics that were already enclosed in a jewelled pectoral cross (encolpion) at the beginning of the 12th century. The (later) Bavarian duchess Wulfhild had requested these sacred relics from her relative, who resided as empress in faraway Constantinople. While still alive, Wulfhild passed on the cross. Through the marriage of her daughter Judith it came into the possession of the Swabian duke Frederick II., who then used it as an object of exchange to secure two Swabian castles and extensive property. In turn, the relics came into the hands of the Westphalian counts Gottfried and Otto of Cappenberg, who used them to furnish the Premonstratensian monastery that they had founded on the site of their former fortress. If contemporary tradition is correct and Otto of Cappenberg kept the valuable relics in a gilded head, then this closes the circle to the bust that still exists today and its function as a reliquary. But what still remains unclear is whether the Cappenberg church was home in the second half of the 12th century to another bust, one “modelled on the head of the/an emperor”, or whether a certain historical moment imagined the diadem-crowned apostle’s head to be an “imperially” adorned one.

Map with stations marking the migration of the object
© esri

The objects on display and their history thus provide a glimpse of the network of personal connections and obligations that pervaded the high-medieval empire, this network being tied repeatedly to material artefacts. How far the Swabian duke and the Cappenberg counts valued their new alliance is made tangible by another exhibit: the silver bowl belonging to the Premonstratensian monastery, whose base is engraved with the liturgical event of a baptism by immersion. While the name of the godfather is denoted as Count Otto, the name that can be read above the baptized child is FRIDERIC(VS) I(M)P(ERA)T(OR). The sacramental act of baptism, probably performed at the end of 1122, forged a bond between Frederick I Barbarossa and the Cappenberg monastery that was all the more stable because the act was given a material point of reference in the church interior in the form of the so-called baptismal bowl. An imperial conferral of privileges in as late as 1187 was able to pay renewed remembrance to the godparenthood of the co-founder and provost Otto.

So-called baptismal bowl from Cappenberg. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum of Decorative Arts CC BY-NC-SA
© Hans-Joachim Bartsch

Identifying such entanglements can be seen as the exhibition’s core theme. It draws on art objects that were mostly intended for religious use or that have survived the ages in church treasures. Like the Cappenberg Head, they served to represent divine salvation on earth, but at the same time can also be understood as objectifying highly contemporary claims to validity and networks between people.
The many connections that such an object can manifest are also evident in the Rupertsberg antependium from around 1220. This richly embroidered altar cloth is included in the exhibition not least because it depicts the abbess and visionary Hildegard of Bingen, whom we see here as a saint. But she by no means appears alone on the purple silk background, since at its centre is the ruler of the world, Christ, as the central point of reference of all earthly endeavours. He is surrounded by a total of 23 figures – seven saints, five spiritual or secular benefactors, and eleven members of the Rupertsberg convent.

Rupertsberg antependium CC BY – MRAH/KMKG
© Royal Museums of Art and History

This tableau of figures, exuberant by today’s standards, unites the living and the dead, as well as saints and laypeople, in a powerful ensemble. The artistic embroideries link the history of the convent with the memoria for pious benefactors and patrons, while at the same time reflecting the spiritual appeal of the monastic community. We may deduce from this that the networks of the Staufer period were mostly multi-dimensional in time and space, and that their stability and effectiveness could be ensured by drawing on the guiding force of tradition and the supra-temporal presence of the transcendent. For the purposes of my research project at the Cluster of Excellence, the antependium is in fact a “material mediator” that gained its power “at the crossroads of sacred and secular connotations”. The antependium helped anchor the alliance materially in this world, while also linking the alliance to the sphere of eternal salvation, and might have enabled a woman like Hildegard to raise her voice even against the most powerful of her time: the exhibition shows an example of an epistolary codex, the open pages of which present a letter from Hildegard to the Staufer king Frederick Barbarossa. She writes that, in her mystical vision, the head of the empire appears to her like an infant (parvulus), and that he should be careful not to forfeit God’s salvation and grace through misguided action. With her urgent admonitions, Hildegard sought to make it clear to the secular ruler that his actions were always to be understood as part of a structure of order willed by God, a structure for which she was the earthly spokesperson. As the protective privilege granted to the Rupertsberg monastery shown in the adjacent display case attests, Frederick Barbarossa seems to have recognized this authority.

Frederick Barbarossa – a rereading in objects

Given the expectations and group affiliations expressed in numerous exhibits, the Frederick Barbarossa of the exhibition is not a sovereign autocrat, and he seems far removed from the imperious hero that the 19th century imagined him to be. While the exhibition and its visitors may well focus on the figure of the Staufer emperor, its strong dramaturgy ensures that what also always comes into view is the network of intellectual forces and actors to whom Frederick owed his position, and that helped shape his actions.

View of the exhibition “Barbarossa – the art of rule”.
© LWL Museum für Kunst und Kultur (Foto: Hanna Neander)

The exhibition deliberately uses here an analogy to the game of chess, which enjoyed great popularity among the elites of the 12th century: although the game’s complex formation is centred on the king, this figure is comparatively limited in the moves that it can make. As on the stage of high-medieval imperial politics, success on the board can only be achieved by those who know how to deal with the highly heterogeneous forces in their environment, and unite them in the pursuit of a common goal. The emperor of the exhibition is therefore less a despotic power seeker than a discreet networker, less an autonomous decision-maker than a savvy moderator of the expectations placed upon him.

Stripped of the heroic myth, this Barbarossa reveals himself to be a multi-layered ruler who is bound to the ways of thinking and acting of his epoch. This version may sometimes discomfort and alienate visitors, however. His personality seems less clear, and the function of his imperial government as an example for the present is highly questionable. We might almost think that relocating the Cappenberg Head historically has caused the Red Beard to lose his old familiar face, that his reign has been robbed of the auratic splendour of historical grandeur. Many facets of Frederick Barbarossa’s actions must seem offensive to us today, with his warlike attitude even repulsing us. But it is a little like art with this emperor: neither has to please, and still less be pleasing, in order to inspire. Rather, encountering this ruler and the objects representing his world should be inspiring precisely because of their medieval peculiarity and strangeness.


Richard Engl/Jan Keupp/Markus Krumm/Romedio Schmitz-Esser (Eds.), StauferDinge. Materielle Kultur der Stauferzeit in neuer Perspektive, Regensburg 2022 [with a methodological introduction by the author and a critical contribution by Ludger Körntgen on the Cappenberg Head and its interpretation in terms of a “primacy of politics”].

Knut Görich, Friedrich Barbarossa. Eine Biographie, Munich 2011 [research-oriented and highly descriptive portrayal of Frederick Barbarossa and the cultural conditions of high-medieval rule].

Knut Görich/Romedio Schmitz-Esser (Eds.), BarbarossaBilder. Entstehungskontexte, Erwartungshorizonte, Verwendungszusammenhänge, Regensburg 2014 [volume with contributions on pictorial representations of Frederick I in the Middle Ages and beyond, including a contribution by the author on the so-called baptismal bowl].

Knut Görich (Ed.), Cappenberg. Der Kopf, das Kloster und seine Stifter, Regensburg 2022 [multidisciplinary volume with current findings and theses on the Cappenberg Head, including studies by Lothar Lambacher, Wibke Bornkessel and Boaz Paz on materials, as well as an essay by the author on the so-called testament of Otto von Cappenberg].

Robert Gramsch, Das Reich als Netzwerk der Fürsten. Politische Strukturen unter dem Doppelkönigtum Friedrichs II. und Heinrichs (VII.) 1225-1235 (Mittelalter-Forschungen 40), Ostfildern 2013 [exemplary study providing a more recent view of the Hohenstaufen empire as a network].

Caroline Horch, ‚Nach dem Bild des Kaisers‘. Funktionen und Bedeutungen des Cappenberger Barbarossakopfes (Studien zur Kunst 15), Cologne/Weimar/Vienna 2013 [comprehensive and detailed analysis that assumes that the reader has a portrait of the emperor in front of her].

Camilla G. Kaul, Friedrich Barbarossa im Kyffhäuser. Bilder eines nationalen Mythos im 19. Jahr-hundert, 2 Vols. (ATLAS. Bonner Beiträge zur Kunstgeschichte 4), Cologne/Weimar/Vienna 2007 [study rich in material on 19th-century imaginings of Barbarossa].

Petra Marx (Ed.), Barbarossa. Die Kunst der Herrschaft, Petersberg 2022 [exhibition catalogue with further descriptions of objects and several contributions by the author, including on the network character of the Cappenberg foundation complex that this text is partly based on].

Friedrich Philippi, Die Cappenberger Porträtbüste Kaiser Friedrichs I., in: Zeitschrift für vaterländische Geschichte und Alterthumskunde 44 (1886), 150-161 [first suggestion that the Cappenberg reliquary is a portrait of Frederick I].

Leonie von Wilckens, Das goldgestickte Antependium aus Kloster Rupertsberg, in: Pantheon 35 (1977), 3-10 [key information on this exhibit].