Aachen Cathedral: Charlemagne's Home

Name: Aachen Cathedral
Location: in the center of the city of Aachen, in the German state of Nordrhein-Westfalen

Charles Martel died in his favorite city, Carisiacum (nowadays, Querzy-Sur-Oise, in the north of Paris), where his son Pepin the Short (year 751 A.D) and his grandchildren Charles (future Charlemagne) and Carloman would be later crowned. Carloman died at a young age, just before his enmity with his younger brother Charles caused a catastrophic situation for the kingdom. The death of Carloman in 771 allowed Charles (742-814) to be crowned as a lone king in 768. A fast and victorious war against the Saxons made Charles take hold of the vast majority of lands of the ancient Roman Empire in Western Europe, except for the British Islands and the Iberic Peninsula. Charles added to his own name the adjective of Magno (in English 'Magne') and utilized Christianity as a binding agent for his empire. The Saxon nobility admitted his participation in the newborn European political union, hugging the Christian faith.

Aachen Cathedral in Aachen, Germany



Charlemagne believed, that it was vital the construction of new buildings for showing the prosperity and strength of the Frankish Empire. Two of them were built respectively in Nijmegen (Netherlands) and Lorsch (Germany), where nowadays it's still preserved the enchanting Torhalle. However, none of them are comparable with the grandiosity and splendor of Aachen. Although Charlemagne respected the custom of not establishing a fixed capital, his prolonged stays and solemn events that were taking place there, in Aachen, made of the city the "mandatory reference spot of his empire".

In those days, the city was known by its Latin name Aquae Granni, which means "garnet water", because of the color of the waters in the area. This reddish color is due to the high content of iron residues in the liquid. The city has been famous for its thermal springs since Ancient Roman times. Over these springs, Charlemagne built a large palace, whose vestiges now are mainly the Royal Hall (Aula Regia), which currently is part of the Town Hall, and the Palatine Chapel, core upon which would be later built the Aachen Cathedral.

It's quite obvious for many experts in the field that the Aachen Cathedral was highly influenced by the Temple of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. This Italian city was used as a residence by the Roman emperors in the 4th century before the Barbarian raids took place. After that, it would become one of the few Byzantine domains in Italy. In 530 A.D, Justinian ordered the construction of the Basilica of San Vitale, considered, together with Hagia Sophia, one of the masterworks of the Byzantine architecture. Charlemagne aspired to form an Empire able to play the same role in Western Europe as the Byzantine Empire, Christian and a direct descendant of the ancient Roman political structure, did in Eastern Europe. Therefore, it's not surprising the fact that Charlemagne focused on Ravenna, the "Little Byzantium", a model for creating in Western Europe a political entity as powerful as the Eastern Empire.

The Palatine Chapel

The Palatine Chapel of Aachen was built between 796 and 803. It is a building of 16 sides and with a central structure of 8 arches supported by columns. This scheme, which leaves a free space in the geometrical center of the building, conditions a unique polygonal nave of triangular and rectangular sections. The nave is made up of two floors, rising over each arch from the lower floor a more aesthetic one, split into two different heights by a set of arches and interior columns. In the first height, two columns with classical Corinthian capitals support 3 small arches under a lintelled structure that serves as a base for the upper height, composed of two new columns that simulate to directly hold the arcade from the second floor. Columns and arches were built using Greek and Italian marbles. The upper arches of both floors are formed by a series of clear and dark pieces, which gives the structural frame of the Chapel a decorative touch.

The Palatine Chapel was considered a "miracle" by most people in those days. Most of the impression this building caused was due to its huge dome, which would make the Chapel the highest domed building away from the Alps for the next 400 years following its construction. The dome was internally decorated with a large mosaic, nowadays lost. A similar shocking sensation would have caused the melted-bronze elements that decorate the church, particularly the ones of the main gate of the building, called the "Wolves' Door", and the bars of the balustrade that protect the gallery of the second floor.

The Palatine Chapel was to be part of a larger architectonic complex, of which we barely have shreds of evidence. It seems that the complex was originally flanked by two churches of smaller size, which enlarged the complex in its northern and southern wings, while in the west there was an open atrium that led to the palatial bedchambers passing through a two-floored portico. According to the testimony of Einhard, Frankish clerk and writer of the work Vita Caroli, the portico was destroyed by an earthquake as it had been built on bad-quality wood, an event that was considered a terrible omen. This fact --bizarre to say the least-- could suggest that the palace absorbed previous buildings, very likely from the Merovingian epoch, considering the geological stability of the zone.

The authorship of the Palatine Chapel is not very clear. Charlemagne got surrounded by a wide group of intellectuals where most of the western peoples were represented (Alcuin of York, English; Gallus, Irish; Theodulf, Spanish; Paul the Deacon, Lombard; Peter of Pisa, Tuscan, are some of the names that took part of this cosmopolitan court.) Einhard, trusted biographer of Charlemagne, could have carried out the supervision of the works, either directly or through master Gerard, former librarian of the palace. However, experts don't believe he was the designer of the chapel, an honor that perhaps belongs to Odo of Metz, who appears in different documents as master builder.

The Palatine Chapel currently constitutes a perfectly defined core to which some modern buildings have been added. Among these, we have to mention the Gothic Choir, consecrated in 1414 to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the death of Charlemagne. The crypt of the cathedral contains one of the main artistic treasures of Medieval Europe. Among its components, the Cross of Lothair (990 A.D) stands out. Made up of gold and embedded with jewelry, its center is adorned by a cameo from Ancient Rome during Augustus' times. Special attention also deserve the Bust of Charlemagne, made up of silver and gold and given up by Charles the 4th in 1350; the chasuble of Bernard de Clairvaux of blue velvet with a pearl embroidery that was donated by Bernard himself during his visit in Aachen (1147 A.D), and a marble sarcophagus decorated with a relief that represents the Rape of Proserpina, which might have contained the remains of Charlemagne.

Future Projection

In 800, Charlemagne was crowned in Rome, becoming "Emperor of the West" by the pope Leo the 3th. This way, the so-called Holy Roman Empire was born, a political entity that played a very important role in Medieval Europe. Between 936 and 1531, about thirty German princes were crowned in the imperial villa of Aachen, villa that later would transfer this privilege to Frankfurt in 1562.

This is not the only forward-looking projection that Aachen would incarnate. In the art field, the work of the Palatine Chapel became a source of inspiration for multiple constructions carried out in different cities such as Werden, Fulda, or Goldbach.

This artistic and cultural irradiation was accompanied by the consolidation of the imperial concept, cohesion element that constitutes one of the precedents of the long evolving process that Europe has suffered throughout its long history.

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