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The Church of Europe----A Introduction to Aachen Cathedral
Europe is home to countless churches. However, one medieval cathedral in Aachen, Germany, stands out among all of them. With its historical significance, exceptional architectural creation and artistic ecclesiastical treasuries, Aachen Cathedral is “the Church of Europe”.
A Tiny History of a Significant Cathedral
Between 793 and 813 CE, Charlemagne ordered the construction of his Palatine Chapel in Aachen, the capital of the Carolingian Empire. A series of features were added throughout the Middle Ages, gradually forming the modern Aachen Cathedral. In 814, It became Charlemagne’s burial place. From 936 to 1531, it was the coronation church of German kings and queens. Regarded as a showpiece of the Carolingian Renaissance under Charlemagne’s rule, it remains one of the most important pilgrimage sites that attract the faithful from all over the world. It is no surprise that UNESCO listed it as one of the first 12 World Heritage Sites in 1978.
3. An Old Cathedral With New Creations
Today’s Aachen Cathedral has four main sections, the oldest Carolingian-Romanesque Palatine Chapel in the middle, the Gothic Choir in the east, the 74-metre Neo-Gothic Tower in the west and side chapels surrounding them. In other words, Aachen Cathedral is a unique mixture of classic, Byzantine and Gothic styles.
3.1 The Palatine Chapel
Influenced by Byzantine churches in Ravenna and Constantinople, architect Odo of Metz designed an octagonal basilica surrounded by an aisle and a gallery, or tribunes, above. The number eight is a symbol of Sunday, which relates to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. A dome 32 metres high tops the octagon, making the chapel the tallest building north of the alps for over 200 years.
Charlemagne spared no expense to decorate the inside of the chapel. On the lower storey, which represents the earthly world, eight pillars bear the weight of round arches covered with beautiful mosaic patterns. The upper level, which is two times the height of the lower storey, represents heaven. Here, Carolingian marble columns sourced from Ravenna and Rome hold a gallery with bronze rails. The cupola, or dome, is covered entirely by a spectacular mosaic design depicting Christ and the 24 Elders. Thus, the chapel symbolises that both the secular and the religious world are under Charlemagne’s rule.
The distinctive structure and the awestruck decorations of the Palatine Church set a model for medieval churches. Such a splendid monument was destined to inspire European architecture. Though many of its copies and imitations were ruined, some are still standing today.
3.2 The Gothic Choir
The Gothic Choir was added to the cathedral between 1355 and 1414. It measures 25 metres long, 13 metres wide and 32 metres high. The pointed Gothic arches and buttresses hold up the walls decorated with spectacular sculptures portraying saints and apostles. More than 1000m² of colourful stained-glass windows make the choir a glass reliquary for Charlemagne's shrine and the holy relics of Aachen.
3.3 The West Tower
The Neo-Gothic, two-storey West Tower bears the cathedral’s main portal called “Wolf’s Door”, a bronze gate with decorative lion heads. The tower once served as Charlemagne’s sepulchre.
3.4 Side Chapels
Surrounding the octagon are a series of side chapels of different functions. Their styles include Carolingian, Gothic and Baroque.
4. The Real Treasures of a Legendary Church
Aachen Cathedral houses the most important sacral treasury in Northern Europe. Artefacts from late antiquity, the Carolingian, Ottonian, Staufian and Gothic periods are of high artistic, archaeological and spiritual value.
4.1 The Living Treasures of a Dead King
Treasures relating to the king contribute significantly to Aachen Cathedral’s legacy as Charlemagne’s temple.
Charlemagne’s throne, made from four marble slabs from Jerusalem, rests on the upper level of the Palatine Chapel. From 936 to 1531, the Holy Roman Empire’s 30 kings and 12 queens were enthroned here. Despite its surprising simplicity, it is a witness of history and symbolises the political and religious unification of the occidental world.
The Bust of Charlemagne, which portrays Charlemagne as a timeless Christian ruler and saint, was created 500 years after his death. The enamel lilies on the base stand for France, and the silver eagles on the breastplate stand for Germany since both countries claimed the emperor as their forefather. The bust is also a reliquary of Charlemagne’s skullcap.
Surrounded by the stained-glass windows of the Gothic Choir, Charlemagne’s remains are found safekeeping in his shrine, a golden sarcophagus.
The Proserpina Sarcophagus, a third-century Roman marble sarcophagus decorated with a relief showing the rape of Proserpina, once contained Charlemagne’s body.
Charlemagne’s arm reliquary made of guilt-silver holds bones from his right arm.
4.2 Other Important Treasures
Other treasures include the golden Cross of Lothar inlaid with precious stones, the main altar of Pala D’oro, Ambon of Henry II, the Madonna with Child and the Ivory Situla for holy water, only to name a few.
One of the most important treasures is the shrine to the Virgin Mary, which keeps the four main relics of Aachen Cathedral: St Mary’s cloak, loincloth of Jesus, St John the Baptist’s beheading cloth and Christ’s swaddling clothes. They are on display to believers every seven years during the Great Aachen Pilgrimage.
Another special treasure is the Barbarossa Chandelier donated by Frederick I. Its golden colour and octagonal shape perfectly harmonise with the Palatine Chapel’s dome. The forty-eight candles are lit for the church’s solemnities.
Aachen Cathedral, an edifice of great historical value, inspirational architecture and precious ecclesiastical treasures, reveals a lot about Europe’s past. With careful preservation, it will continue to be admired by future generations as “the Church of Europe”.
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