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When Aachen was the centre of Europe – and Charlemagne ruled the known world

30 April 2014

10:50 AM

30 April 2014

10:50 AM

A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978, Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) will this summer become the focus of European attention. From June to September, the Aachen Palatinate, Europe’s best surviving Carolingian palace complex, plays host to three inter-related exhibitions commemorating the 1200th anniversary of the death of Charlemagne. The exhibition entitled Charlemagne. Power. Art. Treasures. occupies three separate parts of the former palace complex: the town hall, the Centre Charlemagne (a new visitor centre on the site of the original inner palace courtyard) and the Cathedral Treasury.

Charlemagne, king of the Franks from 768-814, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope in 800 and hailed the ‘father of Europe’ by a poet of his own day. He was a military, itinerant king whose empire extended across Europe, and he converted the palace complex in Aachen to become his principal residence, transforming it into the centre of his European empire. Situated on the borders of Germany and Holland, no fewer than thirty-eight rulers were crowned here between 813 and 1531.

Power is staged, appropriately enough, in the town hall’s magnificent first floor coronation hall. This impressive building stands on the site of Charlemagne’s original council chamber, where, from 813, Holy Roman Emperors swore their coronation oaths. 3D film presents the latest research on the development of Charlemagne’s magnificent palace complex. The exhibition also examines the Franconian tradition of itinerant kingship and the way in which Aachen became the political and religious centre of imperial power.

Art, the second part of the Charlemagne trilogy, is on display in the Centre Charlemagne’s new galleries. Under Charlemagne, Aachen was an acknowledged centre of culture and his palace Scriptorium saw the production of a number of exquisitely decorated manuscripts. Some of these are returning home for the exhibition, including the richly decorated large-format Godescalc Evangelistary (pictured below) commissioned by Charlemagne and Queen Hildegard in 781. Also on view are the beautiful Dagulf Psalter, c.780, written in gold except for the crimson headings and the Lorsch Gospels, c.810.

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The most dazzling section of the exhibition is the third part, Treasure, which is on view in the Cathedral Treasury. Together with the Palatine Chapel, its contents include the most iconic religious objects in the world, whose magnificence astounded painter Albrecht Dürer in 1520. Dürer, visiting Aachen for the coronation of Emperor Charles V, noted in his diary:

‘There I saw every glorious delight, the likes of which no one living among us has seen.’

The silver-gilt plated shrine of Charlemagne (1182-1215) and the reliquary bust of Charlemagne (after 1349) are only two of the delights on display. An unmissable exhibit is the exquisite crown of Margaret of York, sister to English  king Edward IV. Made in England in about 1461, it is beautifully hammered and gilt and decorated with silver, pearls, enamel and precious stones. Margaret may have worn it at the coronation of her brother Edward IV and at her wedding to Charles the Bold of Burgundy in 1468.

The exhibition benefits from the return of a number of objects which had left the Treasury either through gift or sale. These include the Pendant icon with the Virgin Dexiokratousa (pictured below), dating to the 1100s, originally said to have encircled Charlemagne’s neck, which was given to Empress Josephine in 1804. Also on loan from various locations are fragments of fabric from the coronation gown of Richard, Earl of Cornwall (1209-72). (Richard was the crusading brother of King Henry III of England and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Aachen in 1257).

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A visit to Aachen this summer offers a number of surprises and the opportunity to enjoy objects of breathtaking beauty. 1200 years after Charlemagne’s death, the exhibition demonstrates the enduring significance of his legacy as Christian emperor, mighty conqueror, patron of the arts and focus of national identity. His rule provided ideologues with a powerful model for their imperial ambitions such that Napoleon saw himself as a second Charlemagne. The extent to which Charlemagne’s legacy lived on beyond his death is exemplified by Napoleon’s choice of the Emperor’s magnificent Roman tomb sarcophagus to accompany him on his triumphal procession through Paris in 1798, followed six years later by his coronation as Emperor by the Pope.

Dr Susan Jenkins is an art historian and curator

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