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The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture
Colum P. Hourihane

Aachen [Fr. Aix-la-Chapelle] 

City in Nordrhein-Westfalia, Germany. It was the birthplace and residence of Charlemagne, ruler of the Frankish Kingdom, and remained associated with German rulers throughout the Middle Ages; most Holy Roman emperors were crowned there until 1531. It was founded by the Romans in the 1st century ad as a modest military settlement. Its Roman name, Aquae Granni (‘Waters of Granus’), was derived from a local Celtic deity and the area’s abundant hot springs: the remains of three bath complexes have been uncovered in the centre of the city. Despite the collapse of the Roman Empire, the therapeutic waters encouraged continued habitation, and during the early 790s Charlemagne chose Aquisgranum, as it was then called, as his capital. Until his death in ad 814, he spent part of almost every year there and built an elaborate palace, of which the chapel survives. He gathered scholars and artists from all over Europe in order to promote the cultural revival known as the Carolingian renovatio. Between 1172 and 1176, by order of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, fortification walls were built around the palace and burgeoning town, and between 1334 and 1349 Charlemagne’s audience hall was replaced by an elegant town hall.

After a disastrous fire in 1656, much of the city was rebuilt in the Baroque style. Ceasing to be a Free Imperial city in 1794, Aachen was taken into Prussia in 1815. Now an industrial and mining city, it was badly damaged in World War II.


K. Faymonville: Die Kunstdenkmäler der Stadt Aachen, 2 vols (Düsseldorf, 1916–22)Find this resource:

    W. Kaemmerer: Geschichtliches Aachen: Von Werden und Wesen einer Reichsstadt (Aachen, 1955, rev. 2/1957)Find this resource:

      H. Cüppers, ed.: Aquae Granni: Beiträge zur Archäologie von Aachen, Rheinische Ausgrabungen, xxii (Cologne, 1982)Find this resource:

        W. Braunfels: ‘Aquisgrana’, Enciclopedia dell’arte medievale, ii (Rome, 1991), pp. 210–16Find this resource:

          L. Falkenstein: ‘Charlemagne et Aix-la-Chapelle’, Byzantion, lxi (1991), pp. 231–87Find this resource:

            1. Centre of manuscript production.

            Manuscripts produced at Aachen are those of a group of scribes of different origins and training rather than of a self-contained monastic scriptorium. The two groups of manuscripts associated with the royal court under Charlemagne, the ‘Ada’ and ‘Coronation Gospels’ groups, may well have been produced at Aachen itself, as could many of the liturgical, Classical, and rare patristic texts produced for the court library. Under Louis the Pious (reg 814–40), on the other hand, evidence for the production at Aachen of legal manuscripts (the leges scriptorium group), of Classical and patristic texts (the Bamberg Pliny group), and of contemporary theology is substantial. As six extant manuscripts demonstrate, the court at Aachen continued to be a focus of fine book production in the reign of Emperor Lothair I (reg 840–55), but Aachen itself ceased for some decades thereafter to be a significant political or cultural focus.


            W. Koehler: Die Karolingischen Miniaturen, ii–iv (Berlin, 1958–82)Find this resource:

              B. Bischoff: ‘Die Hofbibliothek Karls des Grossen’ and ‘Die Hofbibliothek unter Ludwig dem Frommen’, Mittelalterliche Studien, iii (Stuttgart, 1981), pp. 149–86Find this resource:

                R. McKitterick: The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 57–9Find this resource:

                  R. McKitterick: ‘Carolingian Uncial: A Context for the Lothar Psalter’, BLJ, xvi (1990), pp. 1–15Find this resource:

                    H. Schefers, ed.: Das Lorscher Evangeliar: Biblioteca Documentară Batthyáneum, Alba Iulia, Ms R II, I, Biblioteca Aostolica Vaticana, Codex Vaticanus Palatinus Latinus 50 (Lucerne, 2000)Find this resource:

                      2. Buildings.

                      (i) Palace.

                      Charlemagne maintained many residences throughout his realm, all of which could be termed palaces because of their royal status, but none rivalled that at Aachen in size and splendour. Attracted by the site’s natural hot springs and its strategic location between the Rhineland and northern France, his father, Pepin the Short (reg 754–68), spent winters at Aachen in 765, and Charlemagne followed suit in 769 and 787. Construction of a new palace was sufficiently advanced by 794 to allow it to be used regularly. Periodic excavation since the mid-19th century has uncovered the core of the complex. To the south, a polygonal chapel was flanked at the east end by two small basilican structures and approached from the west by a monumental atrium. An audience hall (aula regia) stood c. 125 m to the north; its axis ran parallel to that of the chapel, but its main apse was at the west instead of the east. The audience hall and atrium of the chapel were in turn connected by a narrow, two-storey walkway, which was intersected midway by a massive rectangular gate-house. The layout of the palace followed a grid that seems to have been based on a module of 12 Carolingian feet (1 ft=330 mm) and diverged from the Roman town’s rectilinear street-plan by some 40°, in order to place the chapel on a strict east–west alignment. Around these ceremonial buildings of stone and mortar presumably stood subsidiary structures of wood—living quarters, workrooms, and stables—but they have left no trace.

                      The audience hall was an aisleless building (47.42×20.76 m) with three apses, the largest to the west, and smaller ones in the middle of the north and south sides. At the east end, a massive stair-tower provided access to catwalks for maintenance. The exterior elevation was articulated at wide intervals by a series of thick pilasters and arches that framed one or more superimposed rows of round-arched windows. The long passageway between the audience hall and chapel was barrel-vaulted on the ground-floor, with mere slits for windows, and timber-roofed above, with broadly spaced tripartite windows looking out on to the west range of the complex. The thick foundations of the gate-house (29.57×15.10 m) indicate that it, too, was vaulted at ground-level and possessed a second storey, reached by stairs in its western corners.

                      The main buildings of the palace reflected Charlemagne’s acclamation of Aachen as a new or second Rome. The audience hall with its three apses took the form of a triclinium, a structure traditionally used in Roman villas for reception or dining. This building type seems to have gone out of fashion in the Latin West in the 6th century ad, but it was revived in Rome in the mid-8th century for the papal palace adjoining the Lateran basilica. The blind arcading of the elevation was inspired by the audience hall of Constantine the Great at Trier. The reasons for this reference seem obvious. Charlemagne was described by contemporaries as a ‘new Constantine’, and Trier had served as Constantine’s capital before he marched on Rome in ad 312. The arrangement of the monumental gateway and narrow corridor ultimately derived from Constantinople, where the Chalke Gate, built by Emperor Justinian (reg 527–65), led to a covered passage that linked the imperial palace to Hagia Sophia. Pope Zacharias (reg 741–52) erected a similar entrance tower in Rome, with a bronze gate leading to an elevated corridor that joined various parts of the Lateran palace. Thus, the design of the palace at Aachen was not only utilitarian in nature but also symbolized Charlemagne’s political ties with both northern Europe and the Mediterranean.

                      (ii) Palatine chapel.

                      (a) Architecture.

                      The best-preserved portion of the palace is the chapel, which, although partially obscured by later additions, still dominates the city. Dedicated to the Virgin, the chapel was nearing completion in 798, according to a letter of Alcuin (c. 735–804; Mnmt Ger. Hist., Epistolae, iv/2, p. 244). A 12th-century reference in the Annales Tielenses (Mnmt Ger. Hist., Scriptores, xxiv, p. 22) states that it was consecrated by Pope Leo III in 805, and a lost inscription inside the building ascribed its construction to Odo of Metz, an individual otherwise unknown (see Schlosser, 1896). The chapel is a complex double-shell design, composed of a domed octagonal core (diam. 14.46 m), with an enveloping aisle and upper gallery, and enclosed within a 16-sided outer wall. The east end was marked by a projecting square apse, replaced by the Late Gothic choir, while at the opposite end stands a multi-storey entranceway or westwork. The broad planes of the exterior are pierced by three tiers of individual round-arched windows. A cornice with brackets caps the outermost wall, while the octagonal drum of the dome is articulated at the corners by paired pilasters with Corinthian capitals, now badly eroded. The central octagon dominates the interior space, defined by eight massive piers that rise to form superimposed arches, squat at ground-level and attenuated above. The predominant impression is one of compression and lift, created


                      Aachen. Palatine Chapel, interior, 792–805. Photo credit: Foto Marburg/Art Resource, NY

                      AachenClick to view larger

                      Aachen. Section drawing of Palatine Chapel

                      by the lateral splaying of the piers and the tall proportions of the upper storey, which together lead the eye to the eight-sided cloister vault. The gallery, covered by a series of transverse barrel vaults, is divided into rectangular and triangular bays by heavy diaphragm arches. The ambulatory in contrast is low and dark, covered by an intricate sequence of groin vaults.

                      The current, resplendent interior decoration is not Carolingian but the result of a radical restoration carried out c. 1900 after late Baroque stucco had been stripped from the walls. It seems clear, nonetheless, that the walls were originally covered with rich marble revetment and the dome with mosaic, reviving the aesthetics of late antiquity. According to Einhard, these luxurious materials, including marble columns, were imported from Rome and Ravenna. The current configuration of the throne in the gallery opposite the apse dates to the Ottonian period, but fragments of the original opus sectile floor show that this was a place of special prominence. From this vantage point, Charlemagne could look down to the main altar and up to the image of Christ in the dome, while the congregation below saw their king enthroned between heaven and earth.

                      The centralized design of the chapel, always rare in the West, also recalled Early Christian building traditions. Numerous models have been proposed, but the closest comparison, and the one most often cited, is S Vitale in Ravenna, dating from the reign of Justinian. Their plans and elevations are strikingly similar, and Charlemagne’s links with Ravenna are well known. Even so, the Early Christian model was not copied literally but transformed into a distinctly new and medieval form. The subtle interplay between curvilinear and angular patterns at S Vitale was replaced by a more ponderous and rectilinear approach. Billowing exedrae, framed by thin angular piers, became at Aachen flat screens sustained by massive, broad supports. In place of the undulating, free-flowing interior of S Vitale, that at Aachen is contained and defined through the compartmentalization of space, in keeping with the grid-like attitude toward planning that is characteristic of the layout of the whole palace. The construction techniques are also very different. S Vitale’s brick-and-mortar masonry was translated at Aachen into the local idiom of rough-hewn stones and quoining. The Westwork, an element introduced to church architecture in Carolingian times, not only provided access to the gallery, as did the two stunted, cylindrical stair-towers flanking the entrance at S Vitale, but it also added a monumental vertical accent to the façade of the church (in place of a low narthex), marking the position of the king’s throne by a great arch.

                      Like S Vitale and many other Early Christian churches, the chapel was preceded by an atrium, but one with its own distinctive characteristics. Long and low, the atrium was defined to the north and south by a solid outer wall, from which projected two large niches, screened off on the inside by rectangular piers and paired columns, forming a raised, covered platform that surrounded an open courtyard on three sides. Rather than a traditional quadriporticus, the atrium seems to have been designed as a place of assembly for the staging of such events as the annual gathering of nobles and the reception of foreign ambassadors. The remains of a water channel running diagonally across the courtyard indicate that a fountain stood at the centre, perhaps mounted by the bronze pine-cone that now stands in the vestibule of the chapel. Two rectangular buildings set on a north–south axis either side of the chapel’s east end were of similar dimensions (15×23 m), and each was connected to the gallery by a two-storey narthex, yet their exact functions remain unknown.

                      Charlemagne was buried in his chapel in 814. In 1165, through the instigation of Frederick Barbarossa, he was canonized, and his remains drew many pilgrims. From the start the palatine chapel was a focal-point of German kingship, and it inspired many copies until well into the 14th century. The gables were added to the roof in the 13th century and the dome rebuilt after the fire of 1656. Between 1355 and 1414 the eastern square apse was replaced by a double-bay apsed choir with extremely tall traceried windows and a quadripartite rib vault, the wall shafts of which are supported on angel-corbels. The chapel was designated the cathedral of a newly constituted diocese in 1802.


                      Einhard: Life of Charlemagne (MS.; c. late 820s); ed. G. Pertz, Mnmt Ger. Hist., Scriptores, xxvi (Hannover, 1829), p. 457Find this resource:

                        J. von Schlosser: Schriftquellen zur Geschichte der karolingischen Kunst (Vienna, 1896), p. 28, n. 107 [Odo of Metz]Find this resource:

                          A. Haupt: Die Pfalzkapelle Kaiser Karls des Grossen zu Aachen, Monumenta Germaniae Architectonica, ii (Leipzig, 1913)Find this resource:

                            W. Braunfels and H. Schnitzler, eds: Karl der Grosse: Lebenswerk und Nachleben, 3 vols (Düsseldorf, 1965–7)Find this resource:

                              W. E. Kleinbauer: ‘Charlemagne’s Palace Chapel at Aachen and its Copies’, Gesta, iv (1965), pp. 2–11Find this resource:

                                Karl der Grosse: Werk und Wirkung (exh. cat., Aachen, Rathaus, 1965)Find this resource:

                                  F. Oswald, L. Schaeffer, and H. R. Sennhauser: Vorromanische Kirchenbauten: Katalog der Denkmäler bis zum Ausgang der Ottonen, i (Munich, 1966), pp. 14–18Find this resource:

                                    H. E. Kubach and A. Verbeek: Romanische Baukunst an Rhein und Maas: Katalog der vorromanischen und romanischen Denkmäler, i (Berlin, 1976), pp. 1–13Find this resource:

                                      H. Belting: ‘Das Aachener Münster im 19. Jahrhundert: Zur ersten Krise des Denkmal-Konzepts’, Wallraf-Richartz-Jb., xlv (1984), pp. 257–90Find this resource:

                                        G. Binding: ‘Die Aachener Pfalz Karls des Grossen alsl archäologischbaugeschichtliches Problem’, Z. Archäol. Mittelalters, xxv–xxvi (1997–8), pp. 63–85Find this resource:

                                          S. Vanderputten: ‘La Chapelle palatine à Aix-la-Chapelle et l’héritage classique’, Bull. Inst. Hist. Belge Rome, lxx (2000), pp. 5–38Find this resource:

                                            W. Sanderson: ‘Carolingian Buildings at Aachen: Their Dating and Meaning’, AVISTA Forum, xii (2001), pp. 17–25Find this resource:

                                              R. Basic: St. Donat and Alcuin’s Acrostics: Case Studies in Carolingian Modulation (Florence, 2003)Find this resource:

                                                (b) Sculpture.

                                                Among the columns and marbles brought by Charlemagne from Rome and Ravenna to Aachen was probably the late Antonine Proserpina Sarcophagus in which, according to tradition, Emperor Charlemagne was entombed. Antique columns and capitals survive in the chapel alongside Carolingian imitations. Antique bronzes were set up to vie with the authority of monuments at the Lateran palace: a She-bear from southern Gaul, now in the vestibule of the chapel, was to emulate the Roman She-wolf, and an equestrian statue (untraced) from Ravenna, thought to represent Theodoric (reg 489–526), was to parallel that of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline in Rome, then believed to depict Constantine the Great. A foundry brought to Aachen before 796 cast bronze doors and railings for the chapel, completing the work sometime after 800. Four surviving pairs of doors follow antique models, and the railings, originally gilt, still enclose the galleries. Changes in their design demonstrate a progressive mastery of the classicizing styles also developed in manuscript illumination at Charlemagne’s court. It remains uncertain, however, whether the large bronze pine-cone in the chapel vestibule was made by this foundry or is a Roman casting set on a Carolingian base, which bears the four Rivers of Paradise and a fragmentary inscription naming an otherwise unknown Abbot Udalrich as donor. Whatever the case, it served as a fountain like the pine-cone (Rome, Vatican, Cortile Pigna) then in the atrium of Old St Peter’s, Rome.


                                                W. Braunfels: ‘Karls des Grossen Bronzewerkstatt’, Karolingische Kunst (1965), iii of Karl der Grosse: Lebenswerk und Nachleben, ed. W. Braunfels and H. Schnitzler (Düsseldorf, 1965), pp. 168–202Find this resource:

                                                  Karl der Grosse: Werk und Wirkung (exh. cat., Aachen, Rathaus, 1965), nos 3–4, pp. 6–7Find this resource:

                                                    P. Lasko: Ars Sacra, 800–1200, Pelican Hist. A. (Harmondsworth, 1972), pp. 14–16Find this resource:

                                                      D. P. S. Peacock: ‘Charlemagne’s Black Stones: The Re-use of Roman Columns in Early Medieval Europe’, Antiquity, lxxi (1997), pp. 709–14Find this resource:

                                                        (c) Treasury.

                                                        Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne relates that Charlemagne endowed his chapel with a rich treasure of liturgical objects and willed it to be kept from dispersal after his death. Other sources record that many relics were brought from Jerusalem, Constantinople, Rome, and elsewhere and placed as objects of veneration into and above altars, encased in costly reliquaries and exhibited on special occasions. The location of a space reserved for the early medieval church treasure remains uncertain. From the early 15th century to the mid-19th it was kept in a large cabinet in the St Matthew Chapel (1379), which was used as a sacristy at the south junction of the choir and palatine chapel. In 1873 it was moved to the Charles Chapel (on the north-east side, 1455–74), in 1881 to the Hungarian Chapel (at the south-west, 1367), and in 1931 to the present site in a vaulted passage north of the Poor Souls’ Chapel.

                                                        Of six objects surviving from Carolingian times, only three remain at Aachen: the Aachen Gospels, an ivory diptych depicting epiphanies of Christ, and an early Byzantine silk. The Coronation Gospels and the burse reliquary of St Stephen (c. 830) were transferred to the imperial treasury in Vienna in 1798 (Vienna, Schatzkammer) and the ‘Talisman (or Amulet) of Charlemagne’ containing hair of the Virgin was given to Empress Josephine Bonaparte in 1804 and subsequently to Reims Cathedral.

                                                        Grimme lists 210 later additions to the treasury, of which the most significant were offerings from rulers seeking to legitimize their aspirations by claiming the heritage of Charlemagne. The Lothair Cross (c. 985–91), the Gospels of Otto III (Munich, Bayer. Staatsbib., Clm. 4453) and several Byzantine silks were donated by Otto III. An ivory situla may also have been given by him or by Henry II. The latter certainly donated the magnificent pulpit and the altar antependium known as the Pala d’Oro (both still in the chapel) and a golden book cover for the Aachen Gospels. Frederick Barbarossa, King of Germany, was responsible for the large Romanesque candelabrum (c. 1166) still hanging from the apex of the dome and the sumptuous shrine into which his grandson Frederick II placed Charlemagne’s remains in 1215. In 1238 the shrine of the Virgin received Aachen’s most sacred relics, the Virgin’s robe, the swaddling clothes, and loincloth of Christ, and the shroud of the head of John the Baptist. The Luxembourg emperor Charles IV presented the bust reliquary of Charlemagne (see colour pl. 1:I, fig. 1) and another reliquary, formed like a small chapel, the windowed base of which was seen part of Charlemagne’s arm. In the late Middle Ages there were three more gifts to justify entitlement from the Carolingian past: in 1475 the crown of Margaret of York (1446–1503), wife of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy; in 1481 an arm reliquary of Charlemagne given by King Louis XI of France; and, during the first quarter of the 16th century, several works by the Aachen goldsmith Hans von Reutlingen (fl 1497–1522) were presented by Maximilian I and one by Charles V.

                                                        From the 17th century numerous objects came to the treasury, each fashioned in the style of its period, from the Baroque to the Gothic Revival, the Romanesque Revival, and the contemporary, the latest to be recorded being a chalice made in 1960 by Ewald Mataré (1887–1965).


                                                        E. G. Grimme: Der Aachener Domschatz, Aachener Kunstblätter, xlii (Düsseldorf, 1972, rev. 2/1973)Find this resource:


                                                          1. Aachen. Reliquary bust of Emperor Charlemagne, gold, gems, and enamel, from Prague, 1349 (Aachen, Palatine Chapel). Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY