Last December my daughter Toni and I made a long-dreamed-of visit to Charlemagne’s chapel at Aachen. It’s a magnificent structure that has been in continuous use for 1200 years—a gift from the Carolingians of the early Middle Ages to their descendents and the people of the world.
Sources seem to agree that Aachen
was not more than a hunting lodge when Charlemagne first held court there. Yet, the sulphurous hot springs—with waters of 160 degrees F—had attracted settlement as early as the Bronze Age. About 100 AD the Romans had built two-large pool areas—each capable of holding 100 people comfortably—and between them a forum surrounded by colonades. The ample ruins loom quietly in the middle of a bustling city.
Those hot springs attracted Charlemagne more and more as he aged. Summers he traveled—always on the move—but when drifting snow obscured what passed for roads at the time, Charlemagne chose to sit in the warm waters of his spa with several dozen of his closest friends and plan the world they would build.
So Charlemagne built his capitol and magnificent chapel next to those Roman baths.
Reports say that Charlemagne planned to build the chapel for God first. Yet the palace was in use before the chapel was completed. When I saw Aachen, I understood. The chapel was built entirely of stone, with footings extending 15 feet below ground level. It stands today; the other buildings do not.
It takes some imagination to see the chapel as it looked in Charlemagne’s day. Much of the red sandstone walls are now covered with panels of white marble which were added over the centuries, perhaps each a gift from a special patron. Structures have been added—including a room with soaring stained-glass walls. Still, much is the same.
The bronze doors—five of seven known to exist in the world—are still there. And the slender upper columns—which bear no weight—are the ones that Charlemagne had taken from ruins in Italy and brought over the Alps in ox carts.
The soaring dome—for centuries the highest north of the Alps—is again covered with colorful mosaic, created 100 years ago in an effort to replicate the original.
And on the second floor balcony sits Charlemagne’s throne–a square, uncomfortable structure with a facade of yellowish stone. It’s believed that these slabs once floored a holy site in Jerusalem where Jesus himself may have trod.
Twelve hundred years ago Charlemagne built a shrine bathed in history and holiness that continues to awe and bless multitudes today. It is the physical representative of the legacy he left Europe.