Charlemagne was crowned Roman Emperor on Christmas day, 800 in the old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He had ruled over Franks and Lombards from present-day France, and had planned to relocate the seat of his power further to east, closer to where he had been engaged in ongoing battles with the Saxons for three decades. He chose Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) and had a palace built with a palace chapel. The Chapel was constructed from 792, and was dedicated in 805 by Pope Leo III in honour of the Saviour and Virgin Mary. Construction continued until 814, the year of Charlemagne’s death. An inscription in the vault of the dome with the name of the master builder, Odo of Metz was found in the 10th century. In the biography of Charlemagne by Einhard, it is written that Odo was a learned man, quite possibly having read Vitruvius’s books on Roman architecture.
The Charlemagne’s Chapel which forms the core, and the elegantly proportioned two-bay Gothic nave and the apse built between 1355 and 1414 to the east of the 9th century Chapel make up the present day Aachen Cathedral, seat of the Catholic archdiocese. Charlemagne who had been to Ravenna three times, had instructed his master builder to model the Chapel after San Vitale in Ravenna, and had Roman columns, marble, mosaic material and bronze fittings brought to Aachen from Rome and Ravenna for the construction.
The Chapel is a very tall two story high octagonal space with sixteen-sided ambulatory, originally with a flat apse at the eastern end. Records also show that the original Chapel had a spacious forecourt at the western entrance
The western elevation of the cathedral shows relatively narrow front with a tall arched concave recess, vaguely reminiscent of the Palace of the Exarch in Ravenna, half round stair turrets on either side and a tall Gothic tower above.
The general view from the south shows the exterior masonry of the of the sixteen-sided ambulatory and the octagonal clerestory level surmounted by an elaborate roof for the double shell dome. To the right front is the 18th century Hungarian Chapel.
The exterior view from southeast shows the two bay Gothic nave and St. Matthew Chapel constructed at about the same time.
As a visitor enters the Cathedral through a relatively shallow vestibule, marble-clad arches of the ground floor arcade come into view. At the eight corners of the octagon are placed very sturdy piers which continue up to the springing of the dome. But for the variegated marble cladding describing half round arches, it would be more accurate to say that there are eight arched openings in an octagonal drum. There is a substantial cornice defining the double height gallery level above.
The dome is covered with mosaic, depicting twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse bearing crowns and standing around the base of the dome, and Christ in Majesty on the cardinal axis of the dome. This is an 1881 re-working of the original iconography after a major fire damaged the original.
The interior view of the Gothic nave and apse is almost like a glass lantern. The height at 32 meters (106 feet), and the amount of stained glass area are impressive for the beginning of the 15th century. The master builder had clearly intended to build the extension modelled after the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.
The octagonal Chapel, though it may have been modelled after San Vitale in Ravenna, projects a space of quite a different sensibility. The immaterial ambience of San Vitale is no longer to be experienced. In its place is a tangible, almost tactile space, extrovert and Roman in spirit. San Vitale is Byzantine, the Chapel in Aachen is a product of a new architecture of the West, Carolingian architecture.
For more information on Jong-Soung Kimm, please read this article. For a complete list of articles by our guest writers, see this page. We would especially like to thank him for his tenth article for Via Lucis!
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