The Chapel of Charlemagne: Creation of the Armenian Architect Odo of Metz

In the small town of Aachen, located in western Germany a few kilometers from the borders of Belgium and the Netherlands, there is a monument very important to the history of art and architecture. It’s Aachen Cathedral, the heart of which — the Palatine Chapel — was laid by Charlemagne himself. This chapel is of interest to researchers at the Armenian Museum of Moscow because the architect who contributed to its construction is an Armenian named Odo of Metz.

This chapel is so ancient and valuable that UNESCO included it in the World Heritage list as one of the first back in 1978.

The city of Aachen is mentioned as a royal residence since the times of Pepin the Short’s wintering in 765-766 [the first king of the Franks from the Carolingian dynasty. – Ed.]. Later, Aachen became the residence of Charlemagne due to its favorable strategic location for organizing military campaigns against the Saxons. In the last years of the emperor’s life, the city even became the permanent residence of the royal court and retinue. Here Charlemagne died and was buried.

Memory of Charlemagne’s Residence

The Aachen, or Palatine, Chapel is the core of the present Aachen Cathedral. The chapel has been preserved and is considered by art historians to be a unique monument – a harbinger of the Romanesque style in architecture. Once the chapel was the palace church of the great imperial residence of Charlemagne, of which, alas, today only ruins remain. It is believed that the palace complex was one of the most significant architectural ensembles of the early Middle Ages. Here the westwerk architectural style first appeared. In addition, the chapel building is the first building [north of the Alps. – Ed.], covered with a dome.

The construction and formation of the ensemble of Aachen Cathedral took almost 1100 years. The oldest part of the complex is the Palatine Chapel. It has been rebuilt several times – Gothic choirs were added, chapels were completed. Only relatively recently, in the middle of the 19th century, the complex was finally completed.

Charlemagne, wishing to resemble the image of his court to Constantinople and thus strengthen the imperial title of the heir to the Roman Empire, invited the famous architect of those years – Odo of Metz to create a palace church. Very little information about the architect remains, however, it is known that Odo of Metz was an Armenian and served at the court of Charlemagne. In the chapel, as researchers believe, the fascination of the Franks with the architecture of Ravenna is reflected, which is clearly read in the polygonal structure with carefully thought-out facades. The construction of the grand chapel also symbolizes the unification of the West and its spiritual and political revival under the aegis of Charlemagne – the first emperor of the Franks.

Odo of Metz’s Idea of the “Heavenly Temple”

The Palatine Chapel was built in 786-798, consecrated in 805. The church building is centric in plan, has an octagonal shape [eight facets. – Ed.]. The choice of form is not accidental – ideally, the octagon translates the program of the connection between the “material” and the “spiritual”. How can we understand this? There is an interpretation.

Abstractly, the octagon absorbs the shapes of the circle and the square. The square is a sign of the material world, corresponds to the number 4. The circle is a symbol of the Trinity, it corresponds to the number 3. The sum of these numbers equals the number 7, which symbolizes the fullness of material and spiritual life. The product gives the number 12, which means the Christian Church, knowledge of which is carried by 12 apostles to the four parts of the world. In turn, the number 8, which corresponds to the number of corners of the octagon, is a sign of infinity, symbolizing eternal life and harmony of body and spirit.

The octagonal chapel was expanded in 1355-1414. Gothic choirs were added to its sides. But even today, the earliest part is clearly visible in the ensemble of Aachen Cathedral.

The almost equivalent ratio of height, length, and width is also not accidental – all these parameters are equal to 31-32 meters. The key to understanding the meaning lies in the Revelation of John the Theologian, where the vision of Heavenly Jerusalem is described, where “its length, and height, and width are equal”. Striving to liken the building to the “heavenly city”, Odo of Metz took into account these key characteristics and embodied them in the building project.

Architectural Discoveries of Aachen

Indeed, it is in the Aachen chapel that the westwork appears for the first time – a western tower located perpendicular to the central nave. It had a non-religious purpose. This massive addition became a significant contribution of the Carolingians and the architect Odo of Metz, in particular, to Romanesque architecture.

The chapel is covered by an octagonal dome, supported by eight powerful pillars. And this is the first domed structure in the medieval period north of the Alps: earlier domes in such a territory were “barbarically” covered with a monolithic slab, or a “false” dome was created – when the shape of a dome is created by overlaying one brick on another with a slight shift.

The history of the dome’s decoration is complicated and very rich. Originally the dome was decorated with frescoes, but they have practically not been preserved, as at the turn of the 9th-10th centuries, the frescoes were filled with mosaics. The tesserae, in turn, are also lost – they were destroyed by a fire that occurred in the mid-17th century. A little later, in the 18th century, the barely noticeable mosaic pattern remaining after the fire was recorded with baroque frescoes.

Mosaics inside the chapel – stages of restorations

At the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, work was initiated to reconstruct the chapel. Belgian artist Jean-Baptiste Bethune created the dome’s design, which we can observe today. All mosaics are made in the early Christian tradition that developed in Ravenna. At the center is Christ, sitting on a throne, flanked by the symbols of the evangelists. Below the figures are saints, dressed in white robes, carrying crowns of martyrdom in their hands. Almost all free space is densely filled with shining stars.

Further restoration work in 1898 was taken over by Hermann Schaper. He completed the mosaic work, inlaid the walls and floors with colored marble, tidied up the bronze on the grills and doors made in the 8th century in the workshops of the Carolingian dynasty. He also worked on updating the choir’s stained-glass windows, but the latter were unfortunately lost during World War II. Today’s stained glass windows were made in the 1950s. The church still has quite a lot of beautiful, richly colored carpet mosaics, which are located on the drum, vaults in the galleries of all tiers, and near the windows.

The Spiritual Weapon of Charlemagne’s Chapel

The interior of the chapel’s space was made of luxurious expensive materials. To affirm the status of the successor to the Roman Empire, some decorative elements – mosaics, marble, spolia – were brought from Rome and Ravenna.

Aachen Cathedral houses many historical and religious relics. Just as the Byzantines from the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople made a “spiritual fortress of Christians”, collecting mystical weapons – relics and shrines, everything most valuable and dear to the heart of the Franks was also collected in the Palatine Chapel. Thus, the relics of Charlemagne are kept in the chapel, in an artistically made sarcophagus. The sarcophagus is 2 meters long, lined with sheet gold and silver, decorated with bas-reliefs, precious stones, enamels, and filigree.

What other relics does ancient Aachen hold?

When you’re there, pay attention — under the dome above the pews, there is a 4-meter diameter gilded bronze chandelier, brought as a gift by Frederick Barbarossa in the 12th century [King of Germany from 1152. Barbarossa — is a nickname given to the king by the Latins because of his red beard — barba, “beard”, and rossa, “red”. — Ed. note]. This chandelier reminds of a crown of a grand scale.

In the chapel’s gallery is Charlemagne’s marble throne, created in the image and likeness of the biblical King Solomon’s throne. Quite simple in appearance, without any decorations, it was used for the coronation of all German emperors.

Here in 813, the son of Emperor Louis the Pious was baptized. This coronation initiated the tradition of the coronation of German emperors in Aachen until 1531. The custom remained unofficial for a long time — the tradition was documented only in the middle of the 14th century. But a century later, in 1562, the coronation ritual was transferred to Frankfurt am Main. From that moment on, Aachen began to lose its key significance for the empire, and the cathedral gradually fell into decay.

Today Aachen Cathedral attracts not only believers, art historians, architects, but also ordinary tourists. The magnificent interior and exterior decor of the cathedral and the priceless relics leave no doubt about the necessity of visiting this place of pilgrimage, relevant to this day, for all lovers of Christian history.

Journalist Alina Shagieva specifically for the Armenian Museum of Moscow

Translation: Vigen Avetisyan

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