Charlemagne’s Chapel

Charlemagne was tired. Tired from the Saxon wars that went off and on for 30 years. Tired of the ventures in southern France and northern Spain and his battles there with Basques, Saracens and Visigoths. Tired of crossing the Alps and battling the Lombards in Italy and the Avars in Hungary. Tired of maintaining an empire that included most of present day Europe from Barcelona to Salzburg and from Rome to the North Sea.

So the First Holy Roman Emperor decided to slow down a tad and build his capital, which he hoped would become the new Rome and the new Constantinople. He had many reasons for choosing Aachen. It was close to the land of the Saxons if they were going to rebel again. It was surrounded by forests for hunting. He loved to bathe in the Roman Hot Springs. His father Pepin the Short had a house here and he most likely visited the place often as a boy. Some people believe he was even born here.

Aachen is Germany’s westernmost major city, located just a few miles from its borders with Belgium and the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It is about an hour southwest of Cologne and about a half-hour east of Verviers, Belgium. The French and English often refer to the city with its French name of Aix-la-Chapelle. The Romans came by in the second century and were enraptured by the sulphur hot springs and called the place Aquae Granni.

Charlemagne's Palatine Chapel is an octagon internally. Externally it's a sixteen-sided polygon.

Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel is an octagon internally. Externally it’s a sixteen-sided polygon.

The Gothic choir hall, also called the glass chapel, was completed in 1414.

The Gothic choir hall, also called the glass chapel, was completed in 1414.

The west tower was added to the cathedral in 1884.

The west tower was added to the cathedral in 1884.

The Palatine Chapel on the left and the choir hall on the right.

The Palatine Chapel on the left and the choir hall on the right.

And so Charlemagne (Karl der Grosse in German) built his magnificent palace in Aachen. He hired the architect Odo of Metz to build a chapel based on St Vitale in Ravenna, Italy (which in turn was based on the Chrysotriclinium in Constantine’s Palace in Constantinople). The chapel was basically an octagon with a square apse on the east and an atrium and westwork at the main entrance. All that remains of Charlemagne’s palace is this Palatine Chapel that was consecrated by Pope Leo III in 805. Charlemagne died in 814 at the age of 72 and is buried in his chapel. Pilgrims began to come to honor him and see the relics that he had collected and the chapel was expanded to accommodate all of the visitors. For 600 years German kings and emperors were coronated here. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa donated an enormous bronze chandelier in 1165. He also had Charlemagne canonized by the anti-pope (later refuted by the Catholic Church). In honor of the 600th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death the glass choir with its thirteen 100-foot windows was consecrated in 1414 and the building began to be known as the Aachen Cathedral.  It is also called Kaiserdom or the Imperial Cathedral of Aachen.

Inside the octagon.

Inside the octagon. The mosaics and striped arches show the strong Byzantine influence.

The mosaic dome.

The mosaic dome. The murals were painted from 1880 to 1913.

top:mosaic dome;middle:some of the columns from Rome and Ravenna;bottom: Barbarossa's chandelier.

top:mosaic dome;middle:some of the columns from Rome and Ravenna;bottom: Barbarossa’s chandelier.

Peering into the glass choir. The golden altar dates from xx. The sculpture hanging from the vault was made by xx in xx.

Peering into the glass chapel (Capella Vitrea). The golden altar (Pala d’Oro) dates from about 1000. The sculpture hanging from the vault was made by Jan van Steffesweert of Maastricht in 1524. In the back is Charlemagne’s shrine where he is buried. It was made in 1215.

xx

Marble, mosaics and glass.

Madonna and child date from xx.

Our Lady of Aachen dates from the 14th century.

The golden pulpit studded with precious stones, glass bowls and ivory was installed in xx.

The golden pulpit studded with precious stones, glass bowls and ivory was installed in 1020.

The chapel was crowded the entire time we were there.

The chapel was crowded the entire time we were there.

Windows and gold.

Windows and gold.

IMG_2367-1

IMG_2368-1

Last view of the chapel.

Last view of the chapel.

This bronze Roman she-wolf in the chapel's entrance dates from the 2nd century.

This bronze Roman she-wolf in the chapel’s entrance dates from the 2nd century.

This statue right outside the chapel is often mistaken for Charlemagne. No, it's St Stephen of Hungary. There is a statue of Charlemagne in front of Aachen's city hall. He also has an entire window in the cathedral at Chartres devoted to him.

This statue right outside the chapel is often mistaken for Charlemagne. No, it’s St Stephen of Hungary. There is a statue of Charlemagne in front of Aachen’s city hall. He also has an entire window in the cathedral at Chartres devoted to him.

The chapel was looted by the French army during the French Revolutionary wars and some of the columns Charlemagne brought from Rome and Ravenna made their way to the Louvre. 22 of the original 32 columns, however, were eventually returned and restored. Fires over the years also took their toll on the chapel, destroying the original mosaic dome which was covered in 1882 by another mosaic art piece created by Salviati of Venice. The marble floor was replaced in 1913. Two-thirds of Aachen was destroyed by bombs in World War II but the cathedral was relatively unscathed. The stained glass windows, however, were blown out by US artillery shells in 1944 and replaced in the 1950s. Recent renovations to the dome were completed in 2006.

Charlemagne’s collection of relics (the top four are Mary’s cloak, Christ’s swaddling clothes, Christ’s loin cloth and the cloth that held the head of John the Baptist) are publicly displayed every seven years. The last time was in 2007 and so they will be displayed again next year (from June 20th until June 30th). Next year is also the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death.  The City of Aachen and several cultural organization are planning many major events honoring Charlemagne next year. Click here for more information on Karlsjahr 2014.

Saturday, May 26, 2012 was an eventful day on our vacation and our last day in Germany. We had breakfast in Osnabrück, traveled all morning by train to Cologne and Aachen, toured Charlemagne’s chapel after a picnic lunch with our friends Dan and Kate in a nearby park, attended the Memorial Day ceremony at the US Cemetery in Henri-Chapelle, Belgium and dined with Dan and Kate back at their home in Verviers, Belgium.

We were somewhat rushed for time during our Aachen visit. Dan asked us what we wanted to see in the hour or so we had reserved for sightseeing before driving to Belgium. I’m glad we chose Charlemagne’s Chapel!

Next posting: Memorial Day in Belgium

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About crowcanyonjournal

I am a family man with interests in family history, photography, history and travel.
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4 Responses to Charlemagne’s Chapel

  1. gpcox says:

    Magnificent photos and outstanding history.

  2. Peter Bull says:

    I found your very interesting blog after you ‘liked’ a post of mine at my ‘Enthusiastical’ blog. Thanks for helping me find you. I think we have some of the same enthusiasms, although we are pretty much on opposite sides of the planet. I think I’ll do some digging around in here…

  3. Pingback: Twenty Churches in Twenty Days | Crow Canyon Journal

  4. Pingback: Paris 2014: La Sainte-Chapelle and Violins | Crow Canyon Journal

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