Aachen Cathedral: The Astonishing Chapel of Germanic Kings

Larger Than Life: Art that inspires us through the ages
December 25, 2020 Updated: December 28, 2020

From 795 to 843, Aachen, in western Germany, was the capital of the barbarian kingdom of Francia, also known as the Kingdom of the Franks. The Franks were Germanic people who ruled large parts of Western Europe from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages. 

In the late eighth century, the king of the Franks and king of the Lombards—Charlemagne—commissioned a palace chapel to be built in Aachen. (Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, went on to become the Holy Roman Emperor in 800.) 

The chapel embraces the classical and Byzantine traditions and was the first vaulted structure north of the Alps since antiquity. It inspired religious architecture from the Carolingian until the early medieval period.

Constructed between 793 and 813, the octagonal Palatine Chapel features two stories, the lower of which has eight pillars supporting arches, and the upper story is adorned with eight Carolingian bronze gates. 

Originally, the chapel dome featured a magnificent mosaic of Christ enthroned and surrounded by the Elders of the Apocalypse, but today’s mosaic dates from around 1880.

Aachen Cathedral had many architectural additions over the centuries of the Middle Ages, and all differ distinctively from the original Palatine Chapel. The Gothic Choir is one example.

Facing the altar, the German kings of the Holy Roman Empire sat on the Carolingian stone coronation throne from the Middle Ages until 1531. 

The cathedral’s treasury houses some of the most significant ecclesiastical treasures of northern Europe, including a 14th-century gold and silver idealized reliquary bust of Charlemagne donated to the cathedral by Charles IV.

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Charlemagne commissioned the magnificent Aachen Cathedral that still dominates the German city today. (Engel.ac/Shutterstock.com)
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Stone figures on the façade of Aachen Cathedral. (Natalia Paklina/Shutterstock.com)
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Aachen Cathedral, in western Germany. (Jennifer Latupersia-Andresen/Unsplash)
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Stained glass windows in Aachen Cathedral. (lingling7788/Shutterstock.com)
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The Palatine Chapel with its eight pillars, arches, and antique marble columns. (Paola Leone/Shutterstock.com)
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Beautiful mosaics from around 1880 grace the octagonal dome of the Palatine Chapel. (lingling7788/Shutterstock.com)
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Golden mosaics with religious motifs adorn the chapel dome. (Paola Leone/Shutterstock.com)
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Eight pillars support the arches in the lower Palatine Chapel. (Takashi Images/Shutterstock.com)
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The Palatine Chapel in Aachen Cathedral, Germany. (Nadezda Murmakova/Shutterstock.com)
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Ceiling mosaic in Aachen Cathedral. (Jaroslav Moravcik/Shutterstock.com)
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The 14th-century gold and silver reliquary bust of Charlemagne is one of the outstanding treasures in Aachen Cathedral. (Beckstet/CC BY-SA 3.0)
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A replica of the golden crown of Margaret of York (1461), Richard III’s sister, decorated with pearls and gems. (Kamienczanka/Shutterstock.com)