Palatine Chapel, Aachen


Carolingian art and the classical revival

The Palatine Chapel at Aachen is the most well-known and best-preserved Carolingian building. It is also an excellent example of the classical revival style that characterized the architecture of Charlemagne’s reign. The exact dates of the chapel’s construction are unclear, but we do know that this palace chapel was dedicated to Christ and the Virgin Mary by Pope Leo III in a ceremony in 805, five years after Leo promoted Charlemagne from king to Holy Roman Emperor. The dedication took place about twenty years after Charlemagne moved the capital of the Frankish kingdom from Ravenna, in what is now Italy, to Aachen, in what is now Germany.

Map with present day nations

Map with present-day nations

In the construction of his chapel, Charlemagne made several strategic choices that linked his building to the legacies of ancient Rome and the fourth-century emperor Constantine. The Emperor Constantine was important because he was the first Christian emperor of Rome. The location for the new building was selected because it was an historic Roman site with hot springs that were used for bathing. The materials used for the chapel also invoked Rome; among them were columns and marble stones that Pope Hadrian permitted Charlemagne to transfer from Rome and Ravenna to Aachen around the year 798. A relic of the cloak of St. Martin was installed in the church at its consecration—the choice of a fourth-century Roman soldier who had a vision of Jesus after sharing his cloak with a beggar was another way to reinforce the link of Charlemagne’s rule with Rome.

floorplans

Two important models (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and San Vitale in Ravenna)

The chapel’s classical style also referenced its Roman imperial lineage, particularly in its imitation of two significant Christian buildings: the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and San Vitale in Ravenna. The Holy Sepulchre’s building program was started in 325 C.E. by Constantine’s mother, Saint Helena, and completed in 335. The centralized plan and surrounding ambulatory and upper gallery is echoed in the plan of the Palatine Chapel. However, the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is composed of two main buildings—in addition to the rotunda that covers the tomb is a similar structure over the traditionally-accepted location of the crucifixion. The Holy Sepulchre may also have been the inspiration for the lion-head knockers of the chapel’s bronze doors (below).

Detail of door, Palatine Chapel, Aachen (photo: Bojin CC BY-SA 3.0) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AachenerDom1652PortalLoewe.jpg

Detail of door, Palatine Chapel, Aachen (photo: Bojin CC BY-SA 3.0)

Because it didn’t receive extensive additions like the Holy Sepulchre, the San Vitale Chapel at Ravenna is probably the best comparison for what the Palatine Chapel would have looked like before its Gothic renovations. San Vitale is a small octagonal church, with a centralized plan and a two-story ambulatory (below).

View with Ambulatory, Gallery, Chancel, and Apse, San Vitale, Ravenna, begun in 526 or 527 under Ostrogothic rule, consecrated in 547 and completed 548, mosaics date between 546 and 556

San Vitale, Ravenna, begun in 526 under Ostrogothic rule, consecrated in 547, completed 548

The octagonal plan of the Palatine Chapel (see plans above) not only recalled that of its two most significant models, but also participated in the tradition of early Christian mausoleums and baptisteries, where the eight sides were understood to be symbolic of regeneration—referencing Christ’s resurrection eight days after Palm Sunday. Its original dome was also based on classical models and bore an apocalyptic mosaic program, consisting of the agnus dei, or Lamb of God (which is, symbolically, Jesus Christ), surrounded by the tetramorph (symbols of the four Gospel writers) and the twenty-four elders described in Revelation 4:4. The agnus dei image was later obstructed by the installation of a chandelier.

Palatine Chapel Interior (photo: Velvet CC BY-SA 3.0) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aix_dom_int_vue_cote.jpg

Palatine Chapel Interior (photo: Velvet CC BY-SA 3.0)

The octagonal centralized plan of the Palatine Chapel is unique among Carolingian chapels; this may have been because, unlike a longitudinal plan which created a sense of processional direction toward the apse and altar, a centralized plan did not place special emphasis on the altar (and therefore may not have been as effective liturgically for the purpose of a chapel). That said, it does seem to have established an association of Charlemagne with Christ; some scholars believe that Charlemagne’s marble throne (below) was originally located in the center of the octagon on the first floor, that is, directly below the image of the agnus dei, thereby creating a kind of visual link between the emperor and the Christ.

Charlemagne's throne, Palatine Chapel, Aachen (photo: Berthold Werner CC BY-SA 3.0) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aachener_Dom_BW_2016-07-09_13-53-18.jpg

Charlemagne’s throne, Palatine Chapel, Aachen (photo: Berthold Werner CC BY-SA 3.0)

By presenting his capital at Aachen as a new Rome and himself as a new Constantine through the careful appropriation of late antique artwork and architecture, Charlemagne was not simply making a positive assertion about himself as ruler; he was also implicitly contrasting his reign with that of the Eastern Empire (the Byzantines), a negative stance that was also expressed around the same time in the Opus Caroli Regis contra Synodum (i.e., “The Work of King Charles against the Synod), a detailed response to the Second Council of Nicaea, written on his behalf by Theodulf of Orléans.

Before 774

Europe before 774

 

Palatine Chapel exterior, Aachen, consecrated 805, Carolingian structure visible (lower two stories), photo: CaS2000 CC BY-SA 3.0

Palatine Chapel exterior, Aachen, consecrated 805, Carolingian structure visible (lower two stories) (photo: CaS2000, CC BY-SA 3.0)

 

Charlemagne’s body was interred in the Palatine Chapel after his death in 814. The building would continue to be used for coronation ceremonies for another 700 years—well into the sixteenth century.

Major additions to the chapel began in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, significantly changing the building’s profile and footprint with exterior chapels. After several fires in the seventeenth century, the dome was rebuilt and heightened.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Additional resources:

Carolingian Art on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Cite this page as: Dr. Jennifer Freeman, "Palatine Chapel, Aachen," in Smarthistory, September 15, 2016, accessed September 27, 2016, http://smarthistory.org/palatine-chapel-aachen/.