Often referred to as the ‘Imperial Cathedral’, the Aachen Cathedral (in Aachen, west of Bonn, Germany) is a Roman Catholic church that is the oldest cathedral in northern Europe. The building also held the distinction of being the church of coronation for over 40 German rulers for 595 consecutive years. However, beyond pomp and grandeur, there is more to this medieval building that indirectly pertains to the ‘lost knowledge’ of its original European creators. In fact, the church as a Palatine Chapel was founded quite ceremoniously in 796 AD by the great Charlemagne, who wanted this architectural conception to be the sacred ‘point’ of his thriving capital city. The architects and builders seemingly inspired by such a religious and cultural scope, incorporated enigmatic (as well as mysterious) elements that were rarely achieved or even alluded to in the preceding years of European Dark Age.
A profusion of symbolism
The present octagonal core of the Aachen Cathedral was originally constructed as the chapel of Palace of Aachen – the chief residential, political and religious center of power of Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire. Its base architecture was seemingly influenced by the contemporary buildings of the Eastern Roman Empire, like Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna and the Little Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. However, there is more to this octagonal core that just the exquisite scope of physical architecture. For example, the very nature of the octagon alludes the ‘8th day’ or the Lord’s Day and therefore signifies the Resurrection of Christ and the glory of eternal life. Such numerology-oriented attributes are also found in the dimensions of the Palatine Chapel, with its diameter and height corresponding to 10 by 10 Carolingian feet (equal to 322.4 mm). Ten is also the number of perfection in architectural symbolism developed by the middle ages – and as such, it is often repeated in the spatial scope of the Aachen Cathedral.
The ambit of symbolism is further encountered in the bronze leaf motifs embellishing the porch of a two-story building on the western facade of this Palatine Chapel. Each of these intricate leaves is segregated into eight rectangles, thus once again alluding to the ‘8th day’ in Christianity. Moreover, the complementing decorative box-like arrangements comprise egg-shaped patterns – with egg symbolizing the primary elements life and fertility from antiquity.
An ancient connection?
Intriguingly enough, centuries before Charlemagne decided to build his Imperial headquarters at Aachen, the particular site was sacred to the Celts on account of it having hot springs. In that regard, the entire location and its waters were dedicated to Granus, the Celtic god of healing, mineral springs, and the sun. And, as the years passed by, even the Romans started building their opulent bath complexes and shrines, and thus denoted the site as Aquis Grani. Such ‘healthy’ credentials of this place were perhaps the primary reason that Charlemagne was enticed by Aachen – and he probably even made use of the hot springs prevalent in the area. However, given his political/religious acumen, the Carolingian Emperor also saw the opportunity to consecrate the site with Christian motifs, designs and even relics (including the claimed swaddling clothes of baby Jesus and the loin-cloth worn by Jesus during his crucifixion). These artworks and artifacts inside the Aachen Cathedral symbolically stood against the old pagan ways of ‘dark age’ Europe – thus figuratively establishing a new and enlightened European order.
But paradox seemingly made its way into this allegorical clash of the old and new ways. For example, a few experts (like German photographer Hermann Weisweiler) have noted how the aforementioned octagonal plan of the Palatine Chapel apparently corresponds to the overhead plan of the sarsen stone arrangement (including the lintel ring and inner horseshoe) found in the Stonehenge, a monument built more than 2,000 years before the Palace of Aachen. However, it should be noted that such an occurrence might be purely coincidental – and as such, the ‘similarities’ in these plans are still under debate.
An imposing marble throne illuminated by the sun
Weisweiler made another interesting discovery when photographing the interiors of the Aachen Cathedral, and it related to the element of the sun. To that end, he accidentally found out that sunlight was instrumental in wholesomely illuminating the interior space of the chapel. But even more intriguing was the way the sun-rays were inducted through an eastern octagon window during June 21 (Midsummer’s Day), and then they ‘strategically’ fell on the specific area which would have accommodated the crowned head of the emperor seated on his imposing marble throne. The flurry of sun-rays inducted inside Aachen Cathedral was also analyzed during equinoxes – with researchers finding particular angles of their incidence that were once again focused on the throne.
This magnificent (yet seemingly austere) throne in question was raised on a platform accessed by six-steps, and it was built from marble salvaged from older Roman pillars – thus signifying the allusion to the past. But beyond figurative means, the builders could have also possibly made use of advanced astronomy to place this throne in a specific zone. Such progressive studies (and application) of the sun path, in turn, aided the ‘mystical’ arrangement of the space where the emperor was showcased as being effulgent, basking in the glory of the sun.
Interestingly, when it came to the personality cult of Charlemagne, the emperor and his associates always projected themselves as imperial ‘saviors’ of Europe who were thoroughly Christianized, and thus also wanted to carry on the legacy of the Western Roman empire. Furthermore, Charlemagne was also known to be interested in astronomy – and as such, his thriving court did invite many scholars and scientists from across Europe.