Aachen … an encounter with a Greek She-Wolf, a touch of the Middle East and dealings with the Devil inside Charlemagne’s grand cathedral at the heart of Germany’s most westerly city

Aachen’s magnificent and world famous Dom is unlike any other cathedral in western Europe. Although the borders of Belgium and the Netherlands are literally just a few bus stops away from Germany’s most westerly city, it is Turkey that appears to have influenced one of the most important buildings in Catholicism, with an interior surprisingly reminiscent of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

Inside Aachen Cathedral, and in its centre the splendid Carolingian Octagon built under Charlemagne's rule in honour of the Virgin Mary. It is also known as the Palace Chapel

Inside Aachen Cathedral, and in its centre the splendid Carolingian Octagon built under Charlemagne’s rule in honour of the Virgin Mary. It is also known as the Palace Chapel

One of hundreds of religiously symbolic mosaics covering the interior of the ambulatory surrounding the central chapel

One of hundreds of religiously symbolic mosaics covering the interior of the ambulatory surrounding the central chapel

The four rivers of the Garden of Eden - Pishon, Gihon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates - protecting medieval Aachen in the centre

The four rivers of the Garden of Eden – Pishon, Gihon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates – protecting medieval Aachen in the centre

The cockerel crowed three times...

The cockerel crowed three times…

That pesky serpent

That pesky serpent

Loaves and fish

Loaves and fish(es)

Aachen Cathedral, ceiling mosaic, flowers detail

Looking up at the angels: the stunning interior of the octagonal cupola over the Palace Chapel

Looking up at the angels: the stunning interior of the octagonal cupola over the Palace Chapel

Although the Palace Chapel is the oldest part of the whole cathedral – completed in 800 AD for Charlemagne’s coronation there – the interior of the cupola is seventeenth century. In fact little inside the cathedral dates back to Charlemagne’s reign.

The brass limbs in shot are from the colossal twelfth century Barbarossa chandelier that hangs several metres down from the centre of the cupola on a large chain

The brass limbs in shot are from the colossal twelfth century Barbarossa chandelier that hangs several metres down from the centre of the cupola on a large chain

The chandelier was a gift from Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa to the cathedral in the year 1165 AD to represent the new Jerusalem

The chandelier was a gift from Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa to the cathedral in the year 1165 AD to represent the new Jerusalem

Aachen Cathedral, Bararossa chandelier and Octogon ceiling

The fourteenth century statue of Our Dear Lady of Aachen next to the entrance from the Palace Chapel into the fifteenth century Choir. The statue comes with a wardrobe of over forty garments and a selection of crowns which are changed to co-ordinate with feast days and holy holidays

The fourteenth century statue of Our Dear Lady of Aachen next to the entrance from the Palace Chapel into the fifteenth century Choir. The statue comes with a wardrobe of over forty garments and a selection of crowns which are changed to co-ordinate with feast days and holy holidays

Between the Palace Chapel and the Choir is the cathedral's main altar. Behind it can be seen the equally golden, but far more religiously significant Shrine of St Mary

Between the Palace Chapel and the Choir is the cathedral’s main altar. Behind it can be seen the equally golden, but far more religiously significant Shrine of St Mary

The Shrine of St Mary contains what is believed to be the loin-cloth Jesus wore when he was crucified, swaddling clothes used to dress the baby Jesus, the clothes John the Baptist wore when he was beheaded, and a cloak worn by the Virgin Mary. All four relics are taken out and displayed once every seven years and thousands of Christians make a pilgrimage to the cathedral to see them.

When the relics are not on display, the main draw to the cathedral is the presence of Charlemagne's remains inside the smaller golden sarcophagus behind the Shrine of St Mary, at the back of the Choir

When the relics are not on display, the main draw to the cathedral is the presence of Charlemagne’s remains inside the smaller golden sarcophagus behind the Shrine of St Mary, at the back of the Choir

The white slab by the foot of the Shrine of Charlemagne (centre) is the sarcophagus of Emperor Otto III. The Emperor was important enough to be placed so prominently in the cathedral, but going by the lack of bling surrounding his remains, his divinity clearly didn't come close to Charlemagne's

The white slab by the foot of the Shrine of Charlemagne (centre) is the sarcophagus of Emperor Otto III. The Emperor was important enough to be placed so prominently in the cathedral, but going by the lack of bling surrounding his remains, his divinity clearly didn’t come close to Charlemagne’s

Aachen Cathedral, Madonna

As well as housing the remains of Charlemagne and holding relics of great Christian importance, Aachen Cathedral is also the site where over thirty German Kings were coronated. Unlike the gilded and jewel-crusted shrines and altars on the ground floor of the cathedral, the imperial marble throne used to crown Charlemagne and his successors until the sixteenth century, strangely lacks any decoration at all. It is located on the upper floor of the cathedral but can only be seen as part of a guided tour. When I visited Aachen Cathedral back in July 2015, there were no further tours taking place that day and so I was unable to see the throne up close.

I did however, come close to an ancient Greek She-Wolf inside the cathedral.

The 'She-Wolf' guarding the guide books by the entrance to Aachen Cathedral. The statue is in fact a female bear believed to date back to the second century

The ‘She-Wolf’ guarding the guide books by the entrance to Aachen Cathedral. The statue is in fact a female bear believed to date back to the second century

The ‘She-Wolf’ statue is believed to symbolise the legend behind the building of the cathedral; when the money ran out to finish the Dom at the end of the eighth century, it is said that the devil stepped in and offered to fund the completion of the project in exchange for the soul of the first mortal to enter the completed building. So desperate to finish the building in time for Charlemagne’s coronation, the city agreed to the terms. Not wanting the sacrifice one of their own however, the people of the city captured a wolf and let it loose in the cathedral making it the first mortal to step inside the completed Dom. Unaware, the devil apparently ravaged the wolf and took the creature’s soul before realising he had been tricked. In a fit of rage, the devil slammed the doors of the cathedral trapping and severing his thumb in the process. To this day visitors are invited to feel inside the mouths of the two lions’ heads adorning the ninth century Carolingian bronze ‘Wolf’ doors to the Dom and if they are (un)lucky, they will feel the devil’s severed thumb inside one of the mouths.

I can't help seeing a resemblance to the late entertainer Cilla Black

I can’t help seeing a resemblance to the late entertainer Cilla Black

This gargoyle outside the cathedral looks like he is collecting rain water rather that spouting it out

This gargoyle outside the cathedral looks like he is collecting rain water rather that spouting it out

Although I had no luck capturing the sheer height of the Gothic Choir and its stunning stain glass windows with my camera whilst inside the cathedral, I had some success in doing so outside (although the result is a little blurred)

Although I had no luck capturing the sheer height of the Gothic Choir and its stunning stain glass windows with my camera whilst inside the cathedral, I had some success in doing so outside (although the result is a little blurred)

With its numerous chapels of varying shapes and sizes tacked on to almost every side of the central octagonal Palace Chapel, capturing the exterior of the cathedral in the one shot also proved difficult to achieve

With its numerous chapels of varying shapes and sizes tacked on to almost every side of the central octagonal Palace Chapel, capturing the exterior of the cathedral in the one shot also proved difficult to achieve

A slightly more successful attempt at capturing the whole cathedral in one shot, standing in the middle of Katschhof

A slightly more successful attempt at capturing the whole cathedral in one shot, standing in the middle of Katschhof

At last, the cathedral exterior captured in full, albeit using a scaled model of the cathedral found close to the entrance to the real Dom. One can see how higgledy-piggledy the architecture is with five hundred years worth of chapel extensions added to the original Palace Chapel

At last, the cathedral exterior captured in full, albeit using a scaled model of the cathedral found close to the entrance to the real Dom. One can see how higgledy-piggledy the architecture is with five hundred years worth of chapel extensions added to the original Palace Chapel

The cathedral is not the only medieval building in Aachen to have its architectural foibles.

The grand thirteenth century Marschiertor (also known as the Burtscheider Gate), once the main gate into the then walled city. It may well be one of the first great sights visitors see on arrival at Aachen's main train station just a few hundred metres away, but it has one glaring architectural problem...

The grand thirteenth century Marschiertor (also known as the Burtscheider Gate), once the main gate into the then walled city. It may well be one of the first great sights visitors see on arrival at Aachen’s main train station just a few hundred metres away, but it has one glaring architectural problem…

...how does one reach the door to get inside it?

…how does one reach the door to get inside it?

Aachen, tower along Franzstrasse, steps

A statue of an eighteenth century Aachen soldier by the elevated 'steps' of Marschiertor, pondering how he is going to scale them

A statue of an eighteenth century Aachen soldier by the elevated ‘steps’ of Marschiertor, pondering how he is going to scale them

Although it appears to have stuck with the one architectural style compared to the cathedral opposite it, Aachen's fourteenth century Rathaus - seen here from Katschhof - looks rather like a Gothic Disney palace

Although it appears to have stuck with the one architectural style compared to the cathedral opposite it, Aachen’s fourteenth century Rathaus – seen here from Katschhof – looks rather like a Gothic Disney palace

Aachen, Rathaus detail

From the front facing Markt, the Rathaus is less garish and more stately, covered with life-sized statues of the various German kings coronated in the neighbouring cathedral...

From the front facing Markt, the Rathaus is less garish and more stately, covered with life-sized statues of the various German kings coronated in the neighbouring cathedral…

...including (of course) Charlemagne who also stands proudly on top of the centrepiece fountain in the middle of Markt

…including (of course) Charlemagne who also stands proudly on top of the centrepiece fountain in the middle of Markt

The cathedral and the Rathaus, seen from the top of Aachen's Lousberg Hill

The cathedral and the Rathaus, seen from the top of Aachen’s Lousberg Hill

 

Useful information

Aachen can easily be reached from Cologne, Bonn and Frankfurt. Outside Germany the city has good transport connections with Brussels. High speed trains to Cologne and Frankfurt leave Brussels Midi station three times a day and pass through Aachen in less than 90 minutes.

On two occasions however, I have been incredibly unlucky and on arriving at Brussels Midi I learnt the fast trains to Aachen had been cancelled (the first time was due to Belgian industrial action, the second time was due to maintenance work on the main line over-running). On both occasions I took the much longer train journey (two hours) from Brussels Midi to the Belgian border town of Verviers and picked up a connecting train (a further twenty minutes) to Aachen from there.

The best way to get around Aachen is by foot. It is not a large city, and all the main sites are within walking distance – usually in pedestrianised zones – close to the cathedral. There are plenty of buses from the main train station that will take energy-conserving passengers to various parts of town.

Aachen Cathedral is open daily to visitors until 6pm, except during Mass and special religious events. Entrance to the ground floor of the Dom is free. Guided tours of the Dom giving access to the Imperial Marble Throne on the upper floor and the sarcophaguses in the Dom Choir have to be booked in advance. Most tours are in German, but there is an English tour daily at 2pm. Bookings can be made at the Visitors’ Centre outside the cathedral on the day or can be booked by phone. There is a small fee of a few Euros per person for the tour.

The next Aachen Pilgrimage where the holy relics will be put on display in the cathedral will be in June 2021.

More information on opening times, events and tour prices can be found on the official cathedral’s website here.

TLT x


 

Feet in Germany, knees in the Netherlands, camera in Belgium

Feet in Germany, knees in the Netherlands, camera in Belgium

The Drielandenpunt, close to Vaals and Aachen. An obelisk marking where three countries meet, found in the Netherlands. Or is it in Belgium? No, it’s definitely in Germany.

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1 Response to Aachen … an encounter with a Greek She-Wolf, a touch of the Middle East and dealings with the Devil inside Charlemagne’s grand cathedral at the heart of Germany’s most westerly city

  1. Danial says:

    I have enjoyed reading your work, and play. Good photos too. Thank you for putting these texts and images out for us to relish.

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