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.
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.
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