Bust of Charlemgane © Aachen Dom - Andrea Herrmann

Charlemagne in Aachen 2014

Charlemagne – Power, Art and Treasures – are three exhibitions mounted in Aachen this summer, commemorating Charlemagne.

It is 1200 years since Charlemagne died. Celebrations have been underway for some time, but the major exhibitions in Aachen this summer are definitely a-must-see.

Located at three avenues, the exhibitions focus on three different aspects of the world of Charlemagne – The Powerful Places of Charlemagne, The Art of Charlemagne and The Treasures of Charlemagne.

The most recent reconstruction of Aachen features at the exhibition 2014 © Ristow 2013
The most recent reconstruction of Aachen features at the exhibition 2014 © Ristow 2013


These three aspects have obviously been chosen in order to reflect the interests of the scientific community of “Carolingian Scholars” today. But they have also been chosen in order to reflect present-day anxieties amongst the European Elite.

The overall question has obviously been: How did Charlemagne fuse his empire together? What practicalities were involved? What symbolic capital had to be invested? But the overall question has also been: What are the modern-day inspiration, we can draw from this? What does it take to mould Europe into more than an economic and political reality? How do we create a common European Identity? Should we?

Places of Power

The largest of the three exhibition is located in the Coronation Hall in the Aachen Town Hall, built on top of the ancient palace, where Charlemagne lived, and wh bits and pieces of the original building may still be seen (The Tower of Granus or Granusturm).

This part of the exhibition invites visitors to explore the daily life at the time of Charlemagne and the symbolic capital, which he and his court (and other dependents) invested in signalling their powers.

Turning left at the entrance it begins by raising the questions of the practicalities. How do you establish and maintain your power in a vast empire reaching from Northern Spain, via France through Western Germany into the Balkans and further south to Rome?

Carolingian Soldier © Karl der Grosse 2014
Carolingian Soldier © Karl der Grosse 2014

One answer is of course you ride, sail or walk through it, constantly touching base with the more or less powerful magnates spread through your territory – and at the same time working diligently to be seen by as many ordinary people as possible, while networking with locals, wherever you go.

According to some estimates [1] Charlemagne and his entourage for instance travelled at least 4884 km in 162 days in AD 800 – 801. Of course that year he went to Rome and was crowned, but his movements through the Carolingian world were to say the least astounding. That much was already told in the first Charlemagne- exhibition in Aachen in 1965. New, however, are the impressive results of the archaeological excavations during the last 50 years, which have resulted in so much new knowledge about numerous tiny details. This is witnessed by the exhibition, where highlights are for instance reproductions of river-boats and riding-gear from the 8th century.

But what did they look like, roaming about Europe through the 8th and 9th centuries? One answer is provided by  a reconstruction of an armed Carolingian warrior, which will later be transferred to the Centre Charlemagne round the corner from the Town Hall. Complete with spear, sword, shield, spurs and coat of mail he must have frightened all and everyone, who were getting glimpses of armies mustering thousands of soldiers and cavalry men on the march from one place to another on the old Roman roads, which Charlemagne was busy trying to get renovated and cleared up.

Stuttgarter Psalter © Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart
Stuttgarter Psalter © Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart

What followed was of course throngs of pilgrims, merchants, diplomats and just peasants pushing to market. All in all a lively and busy scene…

All this demanded a well-organised economy with abundant resources. Again archaeologists have brought us much closer to a better understanding of the actual deployment of rural technologies and possibilities around AD 800. In themselves the artefacts exhibited may not be impressive. But together with the illuminations from some manuscripts it becomes possible to flesh out the story. Next follows the story of the craftsmen and their tools and finally, what they were building: the grand Carolingian palaces, of which we now know so much more than 50 years ago.

This is of course the main story and is witnessed not least by reconstructions, models etc. of Aachen, Paderborn and Ingelheim. However, as stated in the accompanying catalogue: we may perhaps know much more about the actual palaces now than in 1965. But we still know too little about the layout of the surrounding countryside, the buildings of economy, the houses for the dependants and slaves etc. Although the exhibition tries to tell the story, it would actually be nice to get a better feeling for how people moved through these palaces.

Finally, of course there is the church. And naturally the curators have zoomed in on the former palatine chapel of Charlemagne’s: The present Cathedral.

Pieces of Power – The Art of Charlemagne

The second installation of the exhibition is mounted in the newly built Centre Charlemagne in Katschhof and shows a vast collection of the fabulous treasures, which still exist in hidden repositories or climate-secure bank-boxes throughout Europe.

Godescalc Gospels- the fountain commemorating the baptism of Pepin
Godescalc Gospels- the fountain commemorating the baptism of Pepin. Source: Wikipedia

Here the visitor may experience unbelievable beauty produced in the so-called “Palatine School of Aachen” where (perhaps) artists like Godescalc, Dagulf and Demetrius had their daily work cut out. Ivory, gold, textiles and illuminated manuscripts dominate.

Here is the real reason to travel to Aachen this summer. Hopefully this is not the last chance in my lifetime to see the Godescalc-Evangelistar next to the Dagulf-Psalter or the covers of the Lorscher Evangeliars. But it is definitely not very often we are treated to such compressed pleasures.

And yet, not everything is shown. At first more than 400 pieces were on the list; soon reduced to 60, then 30. Obviously some notable pieces were either not invited or the owners declined to lend them. One such manuscript lacking is the ostentatious Gospels of Saint-Riquier, which are on show this summer in a small local exhibition at Saint-Riquier near Abbeville. This manuscript was probably a personal gift from Charlemagne to his confidante and son-in-law, Angilbert in 800. It might have been nice to know what was the story behind “the missing pieces”.

In a sense this is the real reason to go to Aachen this summer: there is really so much to see and enjoy.

Lost Art

Virgin Dexiokratousa © Cleveland Museum
Virgin Dexiokratousa © Cleveland Museum

Finally there is a third installation down at the Treasury of the Cathedral focusing on pieces of art, which were looted, pinched or just carried away from the treasury in the last 1200 years. Early on his grave was opened and treasures looted by medieval German Emperors. Later Napoleon acted like a thief, when he accepted an Ottonian ivory casket as a gift from Bishop Berdolet to present to his wife, Josephine. Amongst these were real iconic pieces, for instance the Talisman (now in Reims) and the Pendant icon with the Virgin Dexiokratousa (now in the Cleveland Museum); both were claimed to have been worn around the neck of Charlemagne. The first one was recently copied by a group of jewellers.

It is obviously still painful for the city of Aachen to have lost all this, whether through neglect, greed or just plain thievery.


This is a well-rounded story curated from a historical and archaeological point of view (in the Town Hall) and from an art-historical point of view (in the Centre Charlemagne). To this should be added the story about the continuing importance of the legacy of Charlemagne as told through the “lost treasures” presented in the Treasury of the Cathedral.

But it is obviously also meant to bolster the city of Aachen as the centre of Europe, squeezed as it obviously is between Cologne and Brussels. Accordingly it is also a fragmented story. Yes, Aachen was the main residence of Charlemagne in the last 14 years of his life. And yet his empire and the mark, which he left on it was so much more.

A pity is for instance that the curators have chosen not to focus on the great monasteries as corresponding “Places of Power”. What for instance about Saint Riquier by Abbeville near the coast of Picardy, built by the son-in-law of Angilbert? Or Corvey, which is currently (June 2014) vying for World Heritage Status? Or for that matter San Vincenzo al Volturno South of Rome? Places of Power, which were all important in the social and art-historical landscape of Charlemagne?

It has obviously not been an easy exhibition to mount. One sign of this is the curious fact that the three exhibitions are being marketed together; yet the catalogues have been published by different publishing houses. Another cold shut has obviously been the prolonged problems of getting the future Centre Charlemagne finished in time. Originally the centre was scheduled to have opened in January 2014. The final date ended up coinciding with the opening of the special exhibitions, thus mixing the general presentation of the life and times of Charlemagne in Aachen with the new permanent exhibition of the history of the city. One curios consequence is that the brand new model of the Palace in Aachen, which was recently finished, is located in the Centre and not in the Townhall, where it – perhaps – was more pertinent to have been exhibited next to the series of reconstructions from 1925 an onwards presented there.

If you go for the wow-factor, this is alright. Lots and lots of multi-media will keep you entertained. If you really want to know, though, about the explanation of the phenomenon, Charlemagne, which the exhibition offers, you have to consult the catalogue. Alas, this is – as is usual in a German context – only published in German and emphatically not available for Kindle, Ipads or other readers. (Instead it weighs a tonne). Moreover it seems that the German professors (‘die wissenschaftlicher Beirat’) responsible for the exhibition (intentionally or not) forgot to involve the English medievalists [2], who for years have worked to rethink than man and the myths surrounding him.


Karen Schousboe


[1] Rosamund McKitterick: Charlemagne. The Formation of a European identity. Cambridge University Press 2008, pp. 181 – 82

[2] For Instance the article by Matthew Innes: People, Places and Power in Carolingian Society. In: Topographies of Power in the Early Middle Ages. Ed. by Mayke de Jong et al. Brill 2001 (The Transformation of the Roman World vol 6), pp. 397 – 437, is not mentioned in the list of literature. The article in the same volume by Janet Nelson on Aachen as a Place of Power (216 – 241) is mentioned. However, one point she mentions – the importance of Aachen as a Carolingian Spa – is not mentioned at all.


Karl der Große / charlemagne
Drei Bände im Schubert
By Frank Pohle, Peter van den Brink, Sarvenaz Ayooghi (eds)
Sandstein Kommunikation 2014
ISBN 978-3-95498-094-9

Verlorene Schätze. Ehemalige Schatzstücke aus dem Aachener Domschatz.
Ed. Georg Minkenberg and Sisi ben Kayed. Verlag Schnell & Steiner, Regensburg 2014.


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