Aachen Cathedral, frequently referred to as the “Imperial Cathedral” (in German: Kaiserdom) is a Roman Catholic church in Aachen, Germany. The church is the oldest cathedral in northern Europe and was known as the “Royal Church of St. Mary at Aachen” during the Middle Ages. It is also one of the most famous examples of occidental architecture.
The Cathedral of Aachen is one of the best-known architectural monuments in the western world as it is the burial site of Charlemagne and a major pilgrimage site. Its famous relics from the time of Charlemagne were first shown in 1312, and the popularity of Aachen as a place of pilgrimage necessitated the expansion of the church by 1355.
For 600 years, from 936 to 1531, the Aachen chapel was the church of coronation for 30 German kings and 12 queens. The church has been the episcopal seat of the Diocese of Aachen since 1930.
In 1978 it was the first German cultural monument to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site List.
The city of Aachen lies in a Prussian valley, surrounded by wooded heights, on the Wurm, a tributary of the Roer River.
The city owes its origin to its springs which were already known in the time of the Romans. There appears to have been a royal court in Aachen under the Merovingians, but it rose to greater importance under Charlemagne who chose it as his favorite place of residence, adorned it with a noble-imperial palace and chapel, and gave orders that he should be buried there.
Charlemagne (Karl der Grosse in German), the first Holy Roman Emperor, began building his Palatine Chapel (palace chapel) in 786 C.E. The Palatine Chapel has been described as a “masterpiece of Carolingian architecture.” It is all that remains today of Charlemagne’s extensive palace complex in Aachen.
The Palatine Chapel was designed by Odo of Metz. He based it on the Byzantine church of San Vitale (completed 547 C.E.) in Ravenna, Italy. This accounts for the very eastern feel to the chapel, with its octagonal shape, striped arches, marble floor, golden mosaics, and ambulatory. It was consecrated in 805 to serve as the imperial church.
Symbolism of octagon
The construction of Aachen Cathedral features an octagonal dome 32 meters high. Charlemagne’s tomb is in the Cathedral altar. It is adorned with engravings of the King and Pope Leo III. Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne as the Imperator Romanorum, Emperor of the Romans, in the year 800.
The great dome above the altar is octagonal because Charlemagne placed special significance on the number “eight.” The numeral appears frequently in the Holy Bible and was charged with symbolism in the Christian world during medieval times. An octagon can be made by drawing two intersecting squares within a circle. The circle represents God’s eternity while the square represents the secular world. The four corners also represent the four directions to heaven and the four characteristics of man. Charlemagne saw the number eight as symbolizing the power of the Franks and the Roman Empire, the ruler of both the secular and religious worlds. The Franks were later to become known as the Holy Roman Empire. The Emperor’s throne—built in the tenth century—overlooks the altar. The two relics in his hands were symbols of his power as ruler of two worlds. Charlemagne is holding a sceptre symbolizing his rule of the secular world in his right hand, while in his left he holds an orb, the symbol of the religious world.
Hanging from the vault in the center of the Palatine Chapel is Barbarossa’s Chandelier, a huge (4.2-meter diameter) bronze circlet commissioned by Frederick Barbarossa to celebrate Charlemagne’s canonization. It was created in 1165-1184 in Aachen and is inscribed with a dedication to Mary from Barbarossa and his wife Beatrix.
The chandelier’s design represents the Heavenly Jerusalem as envisioned in the Book of Revelation, yet it has only eight towers (plus eight archways with smaller towers) instead of the 12 described in the Book of Revelation. The dedicatory inscription explains that the deviation from the biblical description was intentional, so that the chandelier would fit perfectly into the eight-sided imperial chapel for which it was designed.
The Aachen cathedral treasury displays sacral masterpieces of the late Classical, Carolingian, Ottonian and Staufian period – among them there are some unique exhibits like the “Cross of Lothair” the “Bust of Charlemagne” and the “Persephone sarcophagus.” The Cathedral Treasury in Aachen is regarded as one of the most important ecclesiastical treasuries in northern Europe.
In 1995 the cathedral treasury was completely redesigned and brought up to date with developments in conservation and museum education. One of Europe’s most important church treasuries is now presented in a prestigious setting more appropriate for the priceless exhibits and also for the large numbers of visitors. The permanent exhibition is divided into five thematic areas: the cathedral as Charlemagne’s church, as a coronation site, as the Church of Saint Mary, the liturgy at Aachen Cathedral, the reliquaries and the pilgrimage to Aachen.
There are two golden shrines elevated inside glass boxes in the Gothic choir. The one closest to the Octagon is the Shrine for the Virgin Mary or Marian Shrine (1238); the one in the back is the Shrine of Charlemagne (1215).
The Shrine of the Virgin Mary was completed in 1238 and contains the Four Great Relics of Aachen. The end gables have figures of Christ and Pope Leo III; the gables on the long sides depict the Madonna and Child (front side) and Charlemagne. The Twelve Apostles populate the rest of the long sides. The panels on the “roof” depict scenes from the life of Mary in low relief.
Every seven years Aachen held a Marian pilgrimage in order to honor the relics now held in the Shrine for the Virgin Mary. The four most famous are:
- The dress in which “Mary gave birth to the Son of God”
- The swaddling clothes of the baby Jesus
- The loincloth that Christ wore on the Cross
- The cloth on which Saint John the Baptist’s head was placed after his beheading.
Every seven years these relics were presented in beautiful reliquaries on the day of Heiligtumsfahrt whose celebration lasted for 15 days. Pilgrims came from Germany, Austria, Hungary, England, and Sweden and included the Queen of Hungary, who came to Aachen in 1337, with an escort of 700 knights. They were last displayed in 2007.
The Shrine of Charlemagne was made in Aachen in 1215 and still houses the emperor’s remains (except for the bits kept in reliquaries in the Treasury). On the front gable Charlemagne is shown enthroned between Pope Leo III and Archbishop Turpin of Reims, a member of the imperial court. Above them Jesus emerges from a roundel to bless the emperor.
The long sides of the shrine depict 16 rulers who were in power between Charlemagne and Friedrich II and the other gable has the Virgin Mary flanked by the archangels Gabriel and Michael. Above them are the personified virtues of Faith, Charity and Hope. The “roof” reliefs depict scenes from Charlemagne’s life, especially his struggle against the Moors. One shows him presenting his Palatine Chapel to the Virgin Mary.
Final Resting Place of Charlemagne
When he died in 814, Charlemagne was buried in a vault in the cathedral.
In 1000, Otto III had Charlemagne’s vault opened. Otto of Lomello, one of the courtiers who accompanied him, recorded the event, which is reported in the Chronicle of Novalesia, written about 1026. The account reads:
“So we went in to Charles. He did not lie, as the dead otherwise do, but sat as if he were living. He was crowned with a golden crown and held in his gloved hands a sceptre; the fingernails had penetrated through the gloves and stuck out. Above him was a canopy of limestone and marble. Entering, we broke through this. Upon our entrance, a strong smell struck us. Kneeling, we gave Emperor Charles our homage, and put in order the damage that had been done. Emperor Charles had not lost any of his members to decay, except only the tip of his nose. Emperor Otto replaced this with gold, took a tooth from Charles’s mouth, walled up the entrance to the chamber, and withdrew again.”
A large picture representing Otto and his nobles gazing on the dead Emperor was painted on the wall of the great room in the Town Hall.
In 1165, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa again opened the vault and placed the remains in a sculptured sarcophagus made of Parian marble, said to have been the one in which Augustus Caesar was buried. The bones lay in this until 1215, when Frederick II had them put in a casket of gold and silver. A vellum codex found interred with him was removed.
Another imperial tomb is also here, the grave of Emperor Otto III (d.1002) is under the floor in the center of the choir. It is marked with a simple inscribed slab. Hanging from the vault above is a large, double-sided sculpture made in 1524 by Jan van Steffesweert of Maastricht. It depicts the Madonna and Child attended by cherubs inside a radiant corona.