Aachen Cathedral, also referred to as the Kaiserdom ("Imperial Cathedral") of Aachen, is a building of great historical, architectural and religious importance. Built by Charlemagne in 805 AD, its unique design was highly influential on German church architecture and it was a site of imperial coronations and pilgrimage for many centuries.
Aachen Cathedral remains one of the oldest churches in Germany and contains a wealth of treasures from the early medieval period, including Charlemagne's Throne (c.800), a golden altarpiece (c.1000), a golden pulpit (c.1020), the golden shrine of Charlemagne (1215), and the shrine of the Virgin Mary (1238). The last contains an impressive collection of relics and still attracts pilgrims. Still more treasures are on display in the magnificent Cathedral Treasury.
History of Aachen Cathedral
Charlemagne (Karl der Grosse in German), the first Holy Roman Emperor, began building his Palatine Chapel (palace chapel) in 786 AD. The Palatine Chapel has been described as a "masterpiece of Carolingian architecture" and was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. 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 AD) 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.
Charlemagne collected a variety of relics during his lifetime, which are still kept in Aachen Cathedral. The four most important are impressive indeed:
- the cloak of the Blessed Virgin;
- the swaddling-clothes of the Infant Jesus;
- the loin-cloth worn by Christ on the Cross; and
- the cloth on which lay the head of St. John the Baptist after his beheading.
In the Middle Ages, these relics attracted swarms of pilgrims from Germany, Austria, Hungary, England, Sweden, and other countries. In the mid-14th century, it became customary to show the four "Great Relics" only once every seven years, a custom which continues today (the next will be in 2007).
When Charlemagne died in 814, he was buried in the chapel's choir. In 1000 AD, Emperor Otto III had Charlemagne's vault opened. It is said the body was found in a remarkable state of preservation, seated on a marble throne, dressed in imperial robes, with his crown on his head, the Gospels lying open in his lap, and his scepter in his hand. A large mural 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. At Barbarossa's request, Charlemagne was canonized that same year.
In 1168, Barbarossa provided a bronze chandelierto hang over the shrine, which still remains today. In 1215, Frederick II had Charlemagne's bones put in a splendid golden shrine, which was originally placed beneath the chandelier in the middle of the Octagon. (Charlemagne received another honor 10 years later, when an entire window was devoted to him in Chartres Cathedral.)
Charlemagne's remains were again disturbed around 1349, when a revival of interest in relics, and especially those of Charlemagne, led to the creation of two separate reliquaries to display some of the bones. Charles IV commissioned the Reliquary of Charlemagne (with his thigh bone) and the Bust of Charlemagne (with his skull), which can both be seen in the Treasury.
Also in the Treasury is the Arm Reliquary, which displays the ulna and radius bones of Charlemagne's right arm. This was commissioned by King Louis XI of France in 1481. Since 1474, Charlemagne has been venerated as the progenitor of the French kings.
In the meantime, the Palantine Chapel's choir hall was reconstructed in the Gothic style. The new Capella vitrea (Glass Chapel) was consecrated in 1414, on the 600th anniversary of Charlemagne's death. The emperor's shrine was moved to the east end of the choir, where it remains today.
Also in the 15th century, several smaller chapels and a vestibule were added to the Palatine Chapel to manage the increasing crowds of pilgrims, and the resulting enlarged building is what we know as Aachen Cathedral.
Thankfully Aachen Cathedral suffered very little damage in the World Wars. In 1978 it was one of the first 12 sites to make the entry into the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. It was the first German site and one of the first three European sites to be admitted. Two decades of restoration work on the dome was completed in 2006.
What to See at Aachen Cathedral
The Westwork is of Carolingian origin, with the staircases and intervening niche surviving intact from this period. The porch dates almost entirely from the 17th century and the upper part of the west tower was added in 1879-84. Some Carolingian masonry survives in the lower part of the tower.
The west portal features great bronze doors known as the "Wolf's Doors," which were cast around 800 AD for the original Palatine Chapel. They were based on ancient models and weigh four tons. The modern entrance is through a smaller, more humble doorway to their right.
Displayed in the entrance hall are two bronze sculptures: the she-wolf, dating from the 2nd century AD and brought to Aachen in Charlemagne's time; and a large pinecone dating from 1000 AD, which may have decorated a fountain.
The Palatine Chapel and Its Treasures
The Palatine Chapel is one of the most important surviving examples of Carolingian architecture anywhere. It is also known as the Octagon for its distinctive octagonal central area.
The columns and bronze gates of the gallery are originals from the Carolingian era, but none of the original decoration survives. The fine marble floor is in a Cosmati style but dates from 1913.
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 1165-84 in Aachen and is inscribed with a dedication to Mary from Barbarossa and his wife Beatrix. On special holy days the candles are lit, which must be quite a spectacular sight.
The chandelier's design represents the Heavenly Jerusalem as envisioned in Revelation, yet it has only eight towers (plus eight archways with smaller towers) instead of the twelve described in Revelation. Fortunately, the dedicatory inscription explains this - 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 vault of the Octagon is adorned with golden mosaics executed by Salviati of Venice in 1882, which show Christ surrounded by the 24 Ancients of the Apocalypse. The Octagon is crowned by a cupola that rises to about 31 meters (102 feet) above the pavement. For centuries it was the highest vaulted interior in northern Europe.
Standing to the right of the altar in the Octagon is the 14th-century statue of Our Lady of Aachen, holding a rather mischievous-looking Christ Child. She represents the patron saint of the cathedral and has been said to work miracles. Since the 17th century it has been customary to give her dresses and jewellery.
In the upper gallery, visitors can view the marble throne on which 32 Holy Roman Emperors were coronated between 936 and 1531. The throne dates to Carolingian times and was likely used by Charlemagne himself, though not for his coronation, which took place in Rome. The throne is very simple, consisting of four ancient marble slabs held together by bronze clamps. Its six marble steps, partly carved from an ancient column, allude to Solomon's throne.
The fine columns of the gallery are purely decorative, not bearing any weight of the arches. Charlemagne had 32 of them shipped from the ancient buildings of Rome and Ravenna. Most of them were looted in the French Revolution but 22 have since been returned and restored to their place in the gallery. The bronze grilles between the pillars were cast in Aachen in the time of Charlemagne. They have elaborate patterns that indicate Roman, Celtic and Frankish influences, and are matched in pairs across from each other.
The Gothic Choir and Its Treasures
Beyond the altar is the Gothic choir or Capella vitrea (Glass Chapel) of 1414, a spectacular sight. The walls are filled with 13 colorful windows that rise 100 feet high. The original windows were badly damaged by fires and finished off by the bombing raids of World War II; the present glass dates from the 1950s.
The main altar, which faces the Octagon, is decorated with a magnificent golden frontal known as the Pala d'Oro. It dates from about 1000 AD and was a gift of either Otto III or Heinrich II. The golden panels are held together with a wooden frame and may be out of their original order.
The Pala d'Oro centers on a beardless Christ enthroned inside a mandorla (almond-shaped nimbus), who gives a blessing and holds a cross with one hand and holds a book in the other. He is flanked by figures of the Virgin Mary and St. Michael and four small medallions depicting the symbols of the Four Evangelists. The ten other panels depict scenes from the Passion, starting with the Triumphal Entry at top left and ending with the Empty Tomb on the bottom right.
Nearby, on the right side of the choir, is another glimmering treasure: the magnificent Golden Pulpit. It dates from about 1020 and was commissioned by Emperor Heinrich II. It is covered in gold and studded with jewels and precious objects, including ancient glass bowls! The dishes are not the only unusual decorations: there are also six sensuous pagan ivory reliefs from Egypt, dating from the 6th century AD.
There are two golden shrines elevated inside glass boxes in the Gothic choir. The one closest to the Octagon is the Shrine fo 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 listed above. 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.
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.
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.
On the pillars between the stained glass windows stand 14 statues completed by 1420: the Virgin Mary, the Twelve Apostles, and Charlemagne. The vault above has roof bosses carved with figures, including the Resurrected Christ directly over Charlemagne's shrine. Murals (1880-1913) of biblical scenes and saints line the walls of the choir.
Quick Facts on Aachen Cathedral
|Names:||Aachen Cathedral · Aachener Dom · Kaiserdom · Pfalzkapelle|
|Categories:||cathedrals; royal chapels; World Heritage Sites|
|Styles:||Gothic; Carolingian Empire|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||50.774612° N, 6.084114° E|
|Address:||Klosterplatz 2 |
|Phone:||0241 47 70 90|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Aachen Cathedral|
- Personal visits (December 2005 and January 8, 2008).
- "Cathedral of Aachen" - handout accompanying guided tour
- Alfred Carl, Aachen and Its Cathedral (2005) - available in Treasury gift shop
- Aachener Dom - official website
- Aachener Dom - German Wikipedia
- Palatine Chapel - Encyclopædia Britannica
- Aachen - Encyclopædia Britannica
- Aachen - Catholic Encyclopedia
- Aachen - TripAdvisor reviews
- Aachen Cathedral - UNESCO World Heritage List
- Richard E. Sullivan, Aix-La-Chapelle in the Age of Charlemagne (1975).
- Charles Whiting, Bloody Aachen (UK edition, 2000).
- Alessandro Barbero, Charlemagne: Father of a Continent (2004).
- Holy Skepticism: Christian Relics Face a Modern Audience - Deutsche Welle, June 2, 2007
- Photos of Aachen Cathedral - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Aachen Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of Aachen Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.