Aachen, via Rome and Jerusalem

After the workshop in Liège, the MALMECC team went to visit Charlemagne’s palace chapel in Aachen, also known as Aix-la-Chapelle. Charlemagne (742-814) was one of the greatest medieval rulers. Starting out as king of the Franks, his Frankish empire spread to cover large parts of present-day France, the Benelux countries, Germany and Italy. In 800, he was crowned ‘Emperor of the Romans’ by Pope Leo III in Rome, marking the start of the Holy Roman Empire.


The courtyard and exterior of Aachen cathedral, showing many domes and spires


Charlemagne and his son, Louis the Pious, oversaw what has been called the ‘Carolingian Renaissance’: a revival of art, scholarship, classical learning and Christian culture that saw men such as Alcuin of York become master of the palace school in Aachen, where he taught Charlemagne and his family alongside young men sent to school at the Carolingian court. Aachen became the imperial capital of the Carolingian dynasty. Charlemagne built a grand palace (which no longer exists) and a palatine chapel that today forms the heart of Aachen Cathedral.



Charlemagne’s palace chapel was built around 792 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It is a centrally planned building topped by an octagonal dome. The architectural plan recalls the Church of the Pantheon in Rome, a former Roman temple rededicated to the Virgin. It also echoes two of the holiest places in Jerusalem: the Anastasis Rotunda housing the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the circular Dome of the Rock, the Islamic holy place built c. 692 on the Temple Mount. The mosaic decorations of the palatine chapel at Aachen are very similar to those found in the interior of the Dome of the Rock today.


Ceiling mosaic showing the four rivers of Eden (image courtesy of theladytravels)


Both interiors draw on Biblical descriptions of the interior of the Temple of Solomon, as in 2 Kings 3:5-7:

‘And the greater house [the Temple] he [Solomon] ceiled with deal boards, and overlaid them with plates of fine gold throughout: and he graved in them palm trees, and like little chains interlaced with one another. He paved also the floor of the temple with most precious marble, of great beauty. And the gold of the plates with which he overlaid the house, and the beams thereof, and the posts, and the walls, and the doors was of the finest: and he graved cherubims on the walls.’

Charlemagne and the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik were deliberately echoing the rich marble and mosaic work seen in early Christian and Byzantine churches in Rome, Constantinople and Jerusalem. This was a decorative language rooted in the Biblical precedent set by Solomon for works of great beauty and holiness. It was also now closely associated with ancient imperial Roman and Byzantine power. By appropriating this visual language, Carolingian and Islamic buildings could communicate a similar sense of sacred power and holy magnificence.

Charlemagne clearly wanted his palace buildings in Aachen to rival the medieval world’s most ancient and important Christian and imperial capitals. The chapel’s similarities with the basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna are not accidental: this was another former Roman imperial, Ostrogothic, Byzantine and Lombard capital city, which Charlemagne had visited multiple times.


The interior of San Vitale in Ravenna, showing marked similarities with the palace chapel at Aachen


The palatine chapel we see at Aachen today was heavily restored by Kaiser Wilhelm II in the nineteenth century, although the iconography of its decoration was carefully and closely copied. The famous Throne of Charlemagne still survives in the upper storey of the chapel.  It again echoes the Biblical Throne of Solomon, and may incorporate spolia [repurposed stone] from the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.



Read our next post to find out just what influence Charlemagne had on the court cultures of late medieval Europe….

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