The cathedral at Aachen incorporates more than 1200 years of history into one building. The heart of the church is the octagonal Palatine chapel. It was built during the reign of Karl Der Große (Charlemagne ca A.D. 800) as a two story church. Many renovations, demolitions and expansions have produced the current structure. Thirty kings and twelve queens were crowned here over the centuries.
The image above was taken from the original chapel looking toward the 14th century choir that was modeled after Ste. Chapelle in Paris. The reliquary or shrine in the lower center reputedly contains the robe of Mary, the swaddling clothes and loincloth of Christ, and the beheading cloth of John the Baptist. The shrine is opened periodically for viewing.
The image below shows the verticality of the original chapel. At the time of construction it was the tallest building north of the Alps. The mosaic in the ceiling is a 19th century creation in the mode of medieval mosaics. Some of the columns are thought to have come from Rome. The 12-sided chandelier hanging from the roof represents the heavenly Jerusalem. It was donated by the emperor Frederic Barbarossa in 1165.
The arches and vaults of the ambulatory around the chapel shift kaleidoscopically as one walks around.
In this view of the church, the Palatine chapel is bracketed by the gothic addition and the Gothic superstructure over the original narthex.
The choir, with its stained glass walls, contrasts with the heavier central chapel. The reliquary at the bottom of the photo is reputed to contain the bones of Charlemagne. At the very least it contains the bones of a tall man who died early in the 9th century, so the tradition has credibility.
Dedicated to St. Andrew, this church lies a short block from the more famous Cathedral of Cologne. The nave, aisles and west end were built between 1180 and 1245 in the romanesque style.
The choir and apsidal transepts were added in the 15th century in the high gothic style. The choir is longer than the nave, almost making two churches that meet at the crossing. Yet, the overall effect is very unified.
This church is the repository of some remarkable relics (giving them the benefit of the doubt for the moment). St. Andrew’s arm bone is reputedly contained in a reliquary in the apse of the choir. The south transept holds a 16th century gilded reliquary that reputedly contains the bones of seven Jewish brothers and their mother. The apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees records their torture and death at the hands of Antiochus. When the synagogue near which they were buried was converted to a Christian church, their bones were recovered and eventually found their way to Cologne in 1164.
When the choir was built, the crypt underneath was sealed up. After WWII, the crypt was reopened and renovated. A chapel was opened up underneath the crossing to house the relics of Albertus Magnus, a Dominican scholar and scientist of the 13th century. The sarcophagus is a roman artifact once held at the nearby St. Ursula church. Albertus was canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1931.
As unique as the shrine of the Jewish martyrs is, the reliquary in the vestibule (with St. Andrew in the background) is perhaps the strangest. I thought at first it was a baptismal font. It is in fact supposed to contain the blood of the virgins who were martyred with St. Ursula in the 3rd or 4th century. The stone “font” itself is 16th century.
The unique decagonal nave of this church opens to east into a choir which was completed about 1156. Much of the original furniture was destroyed in WWII and the structure required significant repairs. Yet the heavy, round-arch, romanesque design elements are evident.
The apse retains most of the original wall paintings, including the enthroned Christ, St. Gereon, and a bishop brandishing a sword. The windows are modern.
Opening off the south side of the decagon is a baptistry built 1242-45. By that time the gothic style had taken hold in German lands. The font itself is of a somewhat earlier date.
Opposite the font is a late gothic altar. The wall paintings date to the mid-13th century, about the time of construction.
One of the most striking features of the church is a chapel with a 19th century pieta. Although the gilded vault and variegated marble panels are eye-catching, the monochrome sculpture stands out even more.
St. Gereon Kirche is unique north of the Alps. The lower levels date to about 350-65. The central structure is oval with semicircular niches that may have once held memorials to early noble families. Some of the stone in the vaults of these niches was recycled from Roman structures. The upper portions of this structure were renovated and extended several times during the past millennium. The visual splendor can only be approximated in photos, but this view of the ceiling gives some idea of what it is like to stand in the center of this remarkable church.
Each of the niches mentioned has a different pieced glass window. Here are a few of them. They are just another indication that modern ideas of unified design did not obtain in the Middle Ages.
A fascinating aspect of these ancient churches is the stories they have to tell about the people who inspired them, built them and worshipped here.
St. Gereon was, according to tradition, one of fifty Roman soldiers from Egypt who were beheaded for refusing to deny their Christian faith. They were thrown into a well on the site of this church. Excavations after WWII failed to locate such a burial, but there are sarcophagi here from Roman times. These same excavations uncovered coins minted after 345, disproving the tradition that the church was founded by St. Helen. However, it is certain that the main oval structure was begun during the 4th century.
This sculpture of Gereon´s head is in the park adjacent to the church. It weighs 8 tonnes and measures about 8 feet from the neck to helmet. An international project in some sense, it was created by a German-Turkish sculptor in Thailand.
Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, who is entombed at Magdeburg, appointed his brother Bruno as Archbishop of Cologne. Bruno found St.Pantaleon in need of repair and began a massive renovation. He died in A.D. 965 and is buried in the crypt. In 972, Otto arranged the marriage of his son, Otto II, with Theophanu, a princess of the Byzantine Empire. After Otto’s early death, Theophanu ruled the empire as regent during the minority of her son, Otto III. She installed her daughter Adelheid as abbess at St. Serviatus, Quedlinburg. She funded the extension of the westwork of St. Pantaleon, and on her death in A.D. 991, was entombed at St. Pantaleon.
Sarcophagus of Archbishop Bruno
Sarcophagus of Theophanu
The church is a quick guide to the history of art and architecture from roman times to the present. Beneath the choir, excavations have uncovered the foundations of a roman villa dating to the 3rd century.
Later this plot of land became a cemetery and a simple chapel was raised on the site in the 7th century. In the 9th century, under Bruno, this was lengthened and remains as the nave of the church. Theophanu’s contribution was the western extension with these bi-color arches that were characteristic of 9th and 10th century Rheinland churches.
In the 12th century, side aisles with groin arches were added, a gothic rood screen followed in the early 16th century with further additions of a gothic apse, stained glass windows and a massive baroque altar (1747-9).
Rood Screen from 1503.
Gothic Apse, 1620, and Baroque altar 1740s.
The central nave was vaulted in the 17th century. But after damage in WWII, it was restored as a coffered ceiling more in line with the original design. The religious symbols etched in the panels are executed in a very 20th century style.
The gothic style first appeared in France at St. Denis in A.D. 1147. The style came to Germany 60 years later. I’ve often wondered why it took so long. How the style came to Magdeburg is clear however. Archbishop Albrecht II von Kefernburg (in office 1205-1232) had studied in Paris and seen the building of Notre Dame Cathedral. The 300 year old church in Magdeburg burned in 1207. Albrecht razed the ruin and re-built in the new style beginning in 1209.
Although the church includes pointed arched and ribbed vaults, there are no flying buttresses, and the overall visual effect is a blend of the late Romanesque and early Gothic. Some of this blend can be observed in the chancel: mixed round and pointed arches, mixed groin and arched vaults and thick rectangular piers with half columns supporting arches.
On entering the cathedral, one is tempted merely to absorb the immensity, the repetition of lines and curves, and 800 years of history.
There are many details to study as well. (Click each thumbnail for bigger images).
Cowgoyle at west portal
The parable of the ten virgins and the last judgment. North Transept.
I didn’t catch his name, but he’s looking right at me.
Pieta with Flowers
Screen inside West Portal
Otto I (d. 973) who was instrumental in consolidating and extending the German Empire, is entombed in the center aisle of the choir. We attended an Anglican evensong service here (in English, mit deutscher Übersetzung). The sound was glorious.
One evening, we were reading the notice board at the entrance to the Cathedral when a man on a bike paused to speak with us. He told us how, as a student in the DDR (East Germany), during a two week work period before the term, he had helped lay the cobblestone paving of the churchyard. The statue is St. Mauritius a third century African Roman soldier honored by the cathedral.
When we arrived just before sunset to photograph the west front of the Cathedral, a boy and his father were kicking a soccer ball in the plaza. I was waiting quietly, but impatiently, for them to move on. After about 5 minutes they did.
In the 11th century, jewish merchants and bankers from Italy and France migrated to the city of Speyer on the River Rhine. Under the protection of the bishop, they established a community that thrived for 400 years. Talmudic Scholars from Mainz also arrived and Speyer to became an internationally recognized center of jewish learning by the 13th and 14th centuries.
The largest jewish neighborhood was immediately to the west of the bishop’s palace. There is nothing left of the medieval houses, due to a major file in 1689 which also nearly destroyed the cathedral, but the ruins of the synagogue and mikvah survive. A fine museum has been established at what is called the Judenhof. It contains tombstones from the jewish cemetery and a recovered treasure hoard that had been buried during a period of persecution.
The mikvah is a special point of interest. This ritual bath was use for ceremonial cleansing. The bath itself is located 10 meters below the street level, where “living” groundwater was available.
A stairway leads from ground level to a changing room and from there a semicircular stair leads to the level of the water. Windows above let dim light filter down. There was some debris in the water when I was there. Presumably someone would have been tasked with skimming it off when it was in daily use.
Consecrated in the early 12th century, the synagogue was probably built by some of the same craftsmen who worked on the nearby cathedral. One assumes this was a result of the bishop’s protective oversight. The stonework is rough, more like the earliest, eastern section of the cathedral than like the finely finished stone of the nave. It probably was plastered over in any case. In the image below, the red stone was the original wall while the brick section on the left was an addition built for the use of the women.
The Jews were driven out of Speyer about A.D. 1500. The synagogue became a storage facility. Today little is left of the interior. The outline of the tabernacle where the Scriptures were stored can be seen in the image below on the wall under the round window. The women’s section on the right was separated from the men’s by a wall. Holes in the wall allowed them to hear the proceedings.
Speyer is only about an hour’s drive from Heidelberg. Though the magnificent cathedral is the main draw, this museum and ruins are definitely worth a visit. interpretive signs are in German, English and French. A selection of brochures are available in other languages as well.