In Charlemagne’s Footsteps: Visiting the Palatine Chapel at Aachen

Aachen Chapel

Aachen Chapel

The German city of Aachen is one of those places that just about anyone even vaguely interested in the Middle Ages dreams of visiting. It’s associated with one of the most well-known men of the period, Charles the Great, (better known as Charlemagne). He styled himself the first Holy Roman Emperor, and appropriately enough in my high school history classes he seemed like the first truly noteworthy leader since the fall of Rome more than four centuries earlier.

My own scholarly interests (and aesthetic priorities) have drifted from the study of medieval texts to the buildings and spaces in which their contents were originally imagined and written down. The Palatine Chapel of Aachen represents the greatest survival of the glory days of Charlemagne’s empire: his personal prayer hall and only a stone’s throw from his (sadly lost) imperial palace. Needless to say, as soon as I became interested in medieval buildings, I became interested in visiting Aachen.

That was about three and a half years ago, and despite several plots involving convoluted train journeys or even braving Ryanair again, I wasn’t able to make that dream a reality until I visited Belgium for the first time to take part in the excavation at Walhain Castle. Our extremely generous program supervisor, Dana Best Mizsak, made an offer I’d consider a bit mad: to take a car full of excitable (and occasionally hung-over) students on three separate trips to various important cultural and historic sites within a roughly two-hour radius of Louvain-La-Neuve. When I learned that one of the trips would be to Aachen (as well as Bonn, and eventually Cologne), I hardly hesitated.

It’s hard to really describe just how incredible it was after we fought through 90 degree heat and overcrowded parking lots to finally stand in the Palatine Chapel, the Carolingian heart of Aachen Cathedral. What made the experience even more surreal was that on the way I had been reading Robert Edsel’s Monuments Men, and I learned that the cathedral and over a thousand years of history had been spared during the eight-day battle in October 1944 for the seat of what Adolf Hitler called the First Reich by the most unlikely and miraculous of events: a bomb that crashed through the Gothic apse and plowed into the high altar, just a few yards from this jewel of Western Civilization, had somehow failed to explode.

The chapel was crowded, as would be expected on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of summer. Our group had already visited the cathedral’s incredible treasury, featuring the gold and silver bust of Charlemagne containing a fragment of his skull, a jewelled cross of Lothar II that my friend Caitlin, better versed in art history, pointed out was the first known depiction of Christ dead on the cross, and the reused third-century Roman sarcophagus in which Charlemagne’s body had originally lain, along with a host of other relics and richly decorated objects.

None of that prepared me, or I suspect most of my friends and fellow travellers, for the Palatine Chapel of Aachen.

While the majesty and sublime beauty of the space is no doubt enhanced by the exquisite nineteenth-century neo-Byzantine mosaics (which at the time fooled both me and Caitlin with their apparent antiquity), the incredible height of the dome, the carved columns climbing toward the sky, the sheer quantity of green and purple marbles comprising the main piers that I’d expect to find in an early modern chateau or a twenty-first century bank hub, not a ninth-century royal chapel far from the heart of Rome, all played their role in creating an ambiance that felt truly otherworldly to this lapsed Catholic. The weight of all that history and the knowledge that Charlemagne and generations of French rulers after him had walked these halls surely had something to do with it as well. It was invigorating and yet almost intimidating. History truly lived in this space. Maybe something greater did as well.

A few of us could surely have stayed there for hours, just taking it all in, but Aachen was just the first stop on our ambitious itinerary. We would visit two more great cathedrals that day – the Gothic masterpiece of Cologne and the late Romanesque Bonn Minster – but really, nothing could compare. I’m not entirely sure anything ever will, short of something like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. As I’ve visited neither of them, I can’t really say for certain.

I have every intention of going back to Aachen to explore the city someday. But I think that experience will never really compete with the feeling of entering Charlemagne’s sanctum for the first time on a sweltering mid-summer day.

Ross McIntire (’14)

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