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There were royal palaces scattered throughout the Frankish Empire. If you follow the news, you'll know that Saddam Hussein did the same thing in Iraq - for protection. One such Carolingian royal palace was already located in Aachen, and Charlemagne was determined to turn it into a permanent residence. The nearby hot springs were an inducement for settling here.

A view from the south, with the Chapel in the center, and to the right - originally the Anna Chapel - now a second sacristy. The building is in remarkably excellent condition, and is all that remains of the what was an extensive palatial complex. UNESCO declared the construction as a World Heritage Site in 1978, the first such designation in Germany.

Construction on the palace began in 785, and shortly after the Royal Chapel was begun between 790 and 800, and completed in 805. The palace is no more. As with his predecessors (Constantine onward), Charlemagne considered it his duty to express himself as defender of his faith, in an architectural way, by constructing this Chapel. Pope Leo III attended the consecration.

The Anna Chapel was completed in 1449. Everything surrounding the Royal Chapel is considerably younger by comparison. The outer roof of the octagonal upper structure was applied in the 17th century.

Here a model, located out of doors, near the entrance to the complex, will best explain the basic elements. The dome-like structure in the center is the Royal Chapel, built by Charlemagne. The rectangular mass in the lower right is the Nicholas chapel, built on the site of a Romanesque chapel in 1480, same dedication.

Immediately to the left of the Nicholas Chapel is the Chapel of Charles and Hubert, consecrated in 1474, and in which kings maintained vigil prior to coronation. The structure to the far left is the choir, added to the complex on the 600th anniversary of the death of Charlemagne in 1,414. Realize that just about 600 years ago was the 600th anniversary of Charlemagne's death, and his royal Chapel is a bit older! In fact, the 1200th anniversary was celebrated in the year 2,000.

Here a photograph taken from the north. The bridge connecting the Chapel with the tower is unusual. The upper part of the very tall tower on the extreme right was added between 1879 and 1884. Executed in the “Gothic” style, it is 243 feet (74 m.) high. At the time of its construction the original chapel was the largest dome north of the Alps. Aachen Cathedral was the site of the coronation of 30 German kings. Apparently some original masonry from Charlemagne's time remains intact in the lower level. Not certain what was here originally, but a tower was erected in the 14th century, destroyed by fire in the 17th, and constructed in its present form as stated above in the 19th century.

A view of that tower, and some of the original base. The entrance is through a long courtyard, the “Domhof,” in front of the tower.

One small mystery, however: the original model shows no cupola at the top of the original dome (see model below). The top of the cupola reaches a height of 101.5 feet (30.9 m.) All reference sources mention the cupola, but neither its date, nor its architect.

Later additions, but the gargoyles stand guard overhead.

Before we enter, a sketch of Charlemagne's Chapel with the tower to the left.

We enter into a sixteen-sided ambulatory, which actually has two stories to it. The sixteen sides merge into eight, resulting in the centralized octagonal chapel area.

The incredible mosaic tile work of the ceiling prepares us for the entrance into the central core. A groin vault, typical of the Romanesque. We shall enter under the striped arch visible on the extreme right of the illustration.

The design is very similar in plan to San Vitale in Ravenna, and sources state that its designer, Odo of Metz did derive the design from that structure. However, the 9th century historian Notker wrote that Charlemagne had the Palace Chapel built “propria dispositione,” i.e. in “accordance with his own conception.” While San Vitale was an octagon within an octagon (the outer “ring” was also an ambulatory), here in Aachen there are actually sixteen sides surrounding the inner eight. Semi-circular arches – basic Romanesque.

The central space is reminiscent of Constantine's Hagia Sophia - a centralized tower. Most interesting is the fact that the inner octagon is actually a cube, in that the height equals its width to the base of the dome.

Hanging from the vault in the center of the Chapel is “Barbarossa's Chandelir,” a 13 foot 9 inch (4.2 m.) wide bronze circlet commissioned by Frederick Barbarossa to celebrate Charlemagne's canonization. Created between 1165 and 1184, its candles are lit on holy days.

A digression: the golden corbeled ledge which projects directly over the arches leading into the octagon, contains a consecrational inscription, which when translated from the Latin states:

“Once the living stones have been joined together in peaceful union, and all measurements and numbers are in agreement throughout, the works of the lord who created this great hall shall shine forth brightly. The completed edifice crowns the pious efforts of the people, whose work shall stand as a monument of eternal beauty if the Almighty protect and rule over it. May it therefore please G-d to watch over this temple which Charles our emperor has established on solid ground.”

What a testament to a work of architecture! And twelve hundred years later it is still standing, possibly more beautiful than ever.

A model of the original palace and chapel complex. The sixteen external sides have a diameter of 33 meters (108'). Every two exterior corners angle inwards to become eight piers, forming an internal octagon. This geometric configuration then rises to support a dome 14.6 meters in diameter (48'), and approximately 33 meters in height (108'), forming a square, dimension wise, of base to height. The upper drum section contains the outward thrusts of the eight-part vaulted dome by means of two iron rods wrapping around the structure, which were embedded in the upper masonry sections of that drum. This is like having a belt around your waist, which you tighten to keep your stomach in. It is a principle which Michelangelo was to employ in his construction of the dome of St. Peter's in Rome. Michelangelo actually used chains, with which he “cinched” the base of his dome.

Charlemagne did put personal effort into the design. He tore down an earlier chapel, and realigned the axis of the altar, placing it due east. The entire Palace complex, which surrounded the Chapel, conformed to this layout. Charlemagne used architecture to seal his destiny and perhaps legacy. His use of Egyptian porphyry columns - he had them shipped from Rome and Ravenna - harked back to ancient times when that particular stone was reserved for imperial buildings.

Charlemagne had ordered the porphyry before he was crowned Emperor, apparently regarding himself as the heir of the Roman Emperors. Again, leaders and rulers continue to reveal their power and position - or even ordain it - throughout history. Problem, however, is the fact that many of the porphyry was stripped by those rascals who keep popping up in this history – the French revolutionists. Imagine surviving almost 1,000 years, only to be sent to Paris. Six of the eight red porphyry columns wound up in the Louvre Four are supporting a canopy in the “salle des emperuers,” and two others are in the “niche d' Apollo.” Two were lost or destroyed in transit – probably winding up behind a horse cultivating crops on a French farm. Others were returned by Prussian conquerors in 1815.

The Royal Chapel was much emulated, particularly in Alsace (the church of Ottmarsheim), Cologne (St. Maria im Kapitol), and Essen (the Minster).

The German historian Ferdinand Gregorovius (1821-1891), who specialized in Roman history, wrote in his History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages: 
"The figure of the Great Charles can be compared to a flash of lightning who came out of the night, illuminated the earth for a while, and then left night behind him."

Charlemagne went to war on a yearly basis, and ravaged the Slavs, forced the Czechs of Bohemia to pay tribute, conquered Lombardy, Bavaria, Saxony, and more. But regarding his “illumination,” much can be said of the fact that he recognized and codified the autonomy enjoyed by peoples living within his realm. Instituting an educational system, he brought a degree of literacy, particularly in monasteries and among his administrators, in order to advance the cause of his kingdom and of the church. His “court” consisted of scholars from England, Spain, Italy, and native Franks, and as one source puts it “probably Jews.” With regards the latter, Charlemagne attempted to control and develop trade, encouraging the development of Jewish communities. He did spread Roman Christianity across central Europe.

As with San Vitale, this only slightly younger building appears in remarkably wonderful condition, undoubtedly due to the attention given by Charlemagne and his northern Italian artisans. Its appearance defies its age. It is beautiful, uplifting, regardless of your religion orientation, if any, and presents an attestation to the spirit of man and belief. The vault lifted on a drum to bring light into the Chapel, features rather new golden mosaics, created by Salviati of Venice, in 1882.

The large number of pilgrims who came to visit necessitated the addition of the choir hall. This is the connection between Charlemagne's original chapel and the new choir. Because of its large amount of stained glass, infilling between structural “bones,” it has been dubbed: “The Glass Chapel.”

On the left, a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary (1238). The gold box contains an impressive collection of relics and still attracts pilgrims. On the right, the shrine of Charlemagne, completed in 1215. This contains some of the emperor's remains.

On the second level, in an area being reconstructed, is Charlemagne's throne. Though not used by Charlemagne for his coronation – who was crowned in Rome – he never-the-less is purported to have used it. Apparently 32 Holy Roman Emperors were crowned on this throne between 936 and 1531. Unfortunately the view available did not provide a perspective, but the throne itself is composed of four ancient marble slabs, held together with the visible bronze straps. Leading up to the throne are six marble steps supposedly carved from an ancient column, and allude to the throne of Solomon. The seat slab is just at the level of the lower straps.


Some historians insist on categorizing Carolingian architecture separately, in the 8th and 9th centuries. This places it between what I am calling Early Romanesque (from the decline of Rome to the end of the 8th century), and the 10th and 11th centuries, the "true" Romanesque.

A little summation to avoid confusion:

ROMAN ARCHITECTURE: 4th Century B.C.E. to 4thCentury A.D.

BYZANTINE ARCHITECTURE: 4th Century A.D. to 15th Century

EARLY ROMANESQUE: 4th Century to 8th Century

CAROLINGIAN: 8th Century to 10th Century

ROMANESQUE: 11th Century to 12th Century

GOTHIC: 12th Century to 16th Century

An outstanding achievement of Romanesque architects was the continued development of stone vaulted buildings. Major activity was to take place in France, leading eventually to the Gothic.

French Romanesque architecture is characterized by various vaulted styles. Provençal churches (the southeast) have pointed domes and facades decorated with tiers of wall arcades filled with sculpture. In the Auvergne region (central France), architects built churches containing a long choir with side aisles and, around the semicircular sanctuary, an arcaded ambulatory with radiating chapels, the chevet. In Burgundy, the barrel-vaulted, three-aisled basilica was developed. Norman architects (the northwest), influenced by Lombardian methods, created an original style with groined vaults supported by flying buttresses (the world's first), and facades with two high, flanking towers.

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