Blog, Churches, Images, Visits

Aachen Cathedral (and associated thoughts)

Two weeks ago I moved to Berlin with my husband. We are planning to be here until August, while I work on a project part-funded by the DAAD, during which time I will be a postdoctoral researcher at the Großbritannien-Zentrum, part of the Humboldt University. We decided to drive from Oxford to Berlin, stopping in Aachen, and ticking off a medievalist bucket list item: Aachen Cathedral. Not all of the photographs in this post are mine, but their attributions should be clear.

Our hotel was over a mile from the town centre and we decided to take advantage of a relatively warm (for April in northern Europe) evening by walking in. This had the added advantage of not having to take our bike rack off the car, or get the car out of the hotel’s Tiefgarage. About halfway there, as we stopped at a traffic light, we realised that a Santiago ‘Pilgerweg’ scallop shell had been stuck onto the lamp-post. Clearly a sign.

Camino scallop shell (photo: Mary Boyle)

After walking all the way around the cathedral in an attempt to locate the door, we managed to get inside with only five minutes to spare before closing. Five minutes to drink in one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen.

Time and space come together in the Aachener Dom. Charlemagne began to build the Palatine Chapel in the 790s, but the intervening 12+ centuries have more than had their say. The church was targeted by Vikings in the ninth century and restored in the tenth. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw Gothic additions, most spectacularly the quire. The Hungarian chapel was added in the eighteenth century, and in 1802, with the foundation of the Diocese of Aachen, the ancient church became a cathedral. This first Diocese of Aachen lasted a mere nineteen years, but was re-founded in 1930, when the church became a cathedral once more. The twentieth century also saw the Domwache: volunteers who, rather than seeking shelter during air raids, instead stayed in the cathedral, putting out fires as they started. And in 1978, Aachen Cathedral became Germany’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. The twenty-first century has already made a contribution, as the cathedral has recently undergone intensive restoration work.


Outside you can see the melding of different architectural styles – most obviously in the form of the nineteenth-century tower perched on top. My mind immediately jumped back to the year I spent living in Trier, where successive generations, from the Romans onwards, made their mark on its cathedral on top of – or next to – those who had come before. The thirteenth-century Gothic Liebfrauenkirche was built adjoining the cathedral, on Roman foundations, but was closed for refurbishment for my entire time in the town.


Charlemagne is thought to have modelled the eight-sided Palatine Chapel (all that remains of his palace) on San Vitale in Ravenna, which he had visited several times, but he was consciously drawing on an architectural tradition of which San Vitale was itself a part: Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem was thought to have been octagonal in shape. Templar churches were often built on this pattern and medieval pilgrims, following the example of the Templars, referred to the octagonal Dome of the Rock as the Temple of Solomon. Pilgrims provided various reports as to what was supposed to be inside, although on the whole they did not attempt to gain entry, as Christians and Jews were barred. A notable exception (or so he claims) was the fifteenth-century German pilgrim Arnold von Harff, who gleefully recounted a night-time excursion to the ‘templum Salomonis’ disguised as a Mamluk. [1]

Aachen Cathedral (all photos mine):


San Vitale (all photos mine):


Templar churches: Temple Church, London (top) and Convento de Cristo, Tomar, Portugal (bottom). All photos mine (apologies for the quality; they were taken on a Nokia in 2007):


Five minutes in Aachen Cathedral was, of course, only enough to whet my appetite, and I don’t think that I can really tick it off my bucket list as yet. So, an excuse to go back to Aachen – and I’d better get back to Trier as well, and finally see the inside of the Liebfrauenkirche.

There’s plenty of information available online about Aachen Cathedral, but the German and English Wikipedia articles are a good starting place, and the Route Charlemagne has various flyers full of information, including one on the cathedral, which I’ve used here, to which I’m linking in German and English. The website is also available in French and Dutch.

[1] Die Pilgerfahrt des Ritters Arnold von Harff, ed. by E. von Groote (Cologne: Heberle (Lempertz), 1860), p.178.


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