Ahh, Charlemagne. The king who had everything (or at least, most of Europe in the 8th century). But of course, he wanted more. You see, Charlemagne wanted to be the head of both church and state, and so when the pope told him, “no, piss off”, he was not very happy to hear that. Charlemagne’s solution, then, was to create an entirely new holy city, an epicenter for Christianity that completely disregarded the rule of the Vatican. Thus, Aachen was born.
Aachen, Germany was everything a king like Charlemagne could want. First off, it was originally a kind of ancient-roman resort town, where young Charlemagne and his family used to vacation. An extravagant chapel was later built there, and as an added bonus, hot springs dotted this central European city’s landscape. Subsequently, several roman baths were established here. You know, for religious reasons! While Aachen’s role as a Christian capital of the world did not stand the test of time, its unusual history as a rebelliously built city has attracted history buffs like our professor for hundreds of years. Hence, we arrived in Aachen one fine afternoon. Hungry for lunch, but also for knowledge.
If you can’t tell by the introductory paragraphs, I have had some wine while writing this post.
A Tragic Lunch
While this experience is not reflective of Aachen in particular, I feel as though it should be mentioned in order to establish the scene. My friends and I went to a standard cafe for lunch. Things seemed to be fine, but when the food arrived, it turned out that my food’s order had simply been forgotten, and so I didn’t get any food. I don’t blame the employees, I’ve worked food-service jobs before and they are difficult. Especially during a lunch rush like this. Nonetheless, it didn’t help that I would now be giving my 30+ minute presentation on an empty stomach. Well, one kind friend gave me some chocolate cookies, so I wasn’t at risk of total annihilation by hunger.
My Aachen Presentation, and Lack Thereof
I had spent several days compiling all of the information I would need to give a brief history of the city of Aachen, and a tour of the Aachen Cathedral, as this was a graded assignment which significantly contributed towards our course total. I’m not completely terrified of public speaking, but it isn’t the easiest task. So I guess what I’m trying to say is: I was nervous, but not terrified to give my presentation.
After entering, we met the guide who would be taking our class on a tour of the Palatine chapel. This wasn’t an incredible shock, especially as we’ve had guides take us on tours of historic sights before. For example, we had an incredible guide who told us the history on the stained glass of the Chartres Cathedral just a few weeks prior.
What was truly a surprise, though, was the fact that this guy, while extremely knowledgeable, talked the entire time to the point that I had no hope of getting a word in. Thankfully, I talked to my professor about the surprise and after showing him the notes I’d prepared, he seemed to understand. So I suppose I lucked out. I didn’t have to present and got a good grade!
With that out of the way, let me tell you about the Palatine chapel!
The word ‘chapel’ is a bit deceiving for this monstrous church.
Charlemagne ordered the construction of the chapel in 796 AD, but it has been changed and added to until the 14th century.
While I was doing research, the architectural style of the chapel was described as carolingian/early romanesque/byzantine with gothic additions.
So let’s unpack that.
First and foremost, Charlemagne was entranced with the San Vitale in Ravenna, and wanted to replicate it. You sure can tell, with its octagonal apse and patterned mosaic ceilings pose an obvious tribute, though I would go so far as to say that these mosaics were better than those at Ravenna. Or rather, they’re better maintained at the very least. What I suspect is that Ravenna’s age (200 years older) and humid climate have led to more gaps between the colored glass cubes as opposed to the environment in Northern Germany, which is cool and dry. Definitely better for working with plaster.
Some early romanesque features include rounded arches, stripes, and use of marble and spoila. Marble is an especially smart choice, seeing as there would have been quite a lot of it left over from the earlier roman settlements. One example of this “recycling” is Charlemagnes throne on the chapel’s second floor. Funny enough, the guide pointed out an ancient roman game of tic-tac-toe that had been carved into the throne.
As far as carolingian-style architecture goes, I coldn’t find a concrete answer on its defining features. However, there are a few things that make this chapel unique. The most prominent one, in my option, is the five-layerd window series. Supposedly, it symbolizes the transition between life on earth (ground level) and life in heaven (dome level).
The latest structural addition, the choir, was a gothic addition completed in the 14th century. It is very tall, and lined with stained glass.
Complete with a fan vault, it reminds me a lot of the San Chapelle in Paris. It also contains the tomb of Charlemagne himself, contained within a world-famous reliquary. The reliquary is opened once every seven years. Holy Bones! Wouldn’t that be cool to see?
The Legend of the She-Wolf
If you look to the right as you walk into the Palatine Chapel, you’ll notice a statue of a she-wolf.
While it’s probably just a reference for Charlemagne’s desire to be the new Rome (Romulous and Remus, who?), there’s a crazy urban legend surrounding it.
Legend has it that while building the Palatine chapel, the builders ran out of money, so they made a deal with the devil. They promised that he could have the first soul that walked into the completed church. The irony here is unbelievable.
So fast forward, the church has been completed and the people are trying to get out of their deal. Their solution is to send a wolf into the church first.
This made the devil so angry that he charged out of the church, but he got his THUMB stuck in one of the lion shaped wall carvings and tore it off.
So now, it is said that if you put your hand in the wolf’s mouth, you can feel the devils thumb in there.
As for me, I didn’t feel any thumb… or did I?
While I’m sure Aachen has many other sites, (both historical, and relaxing hot-bath-related) we had to leave after our tour to make it to Bruges, Belgium before nightfall.
Germany as a whole has been an exciting time full of new experiences; like drinking entire liters of beer, eating gingerbread that doesn’t taste like sand, visiting meteor-space churches, and dancing away at wild nightclubs. So I will miss it. Nevertheless, I am excited by the idea of visiting a new country. See you soon, Belgium!
Where did she come from? Nuremberg, Germany
Where is she going (next)? Bruges, Belgium