Aix-La-Chapelle And Charlemagne's Tomb
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
For an invalid, Aix-la Chapelle is a mineral fountain—warm, cold, irony, and sulfurous; for the tourist, it is a place for redouts and concerts; for the pilgrim, the place of relics, where the gown of the Virgin Mary, the blood of Jesus, the cloth which enveloped the head of John the Baptist after his decapitation, are exhibited every seven years; for the antiquarian, it is a noble abbey of "filles a abbesse," connected with the male convent, which was built by Saint Gregory, son of Nicephore, Emperor of the East; for the hunter, it is the ancient valley of the wild boars; for the merchant, it is a "fabrique" of cloth, needles, and pins; and for him who is no merchant, manufacturer, hunter, antiquary, pilgrim, tourist, or invalid, it is the city of . Charlemagne.
Charlemagne was born at Aix-la-Chapelle, and died there. He was born in the old place, of which there now only remains the tower, and he was buried in the church that he founded in 796, two years after the death of his wife Fastrada. Leo the Third consecrated it in 804, and tradition says that two bishops of Tongres, who were buried at Maestricht, arose from their graves, in order to complete, at that ceremony, 365 bishops and archbishops—representing the days of the year. This historical and legendary church, from which the town has taken its name, has undergone, during the last thousand years, many transformations. No sooner had I entered Aix than I went to the chapel. . The effect of the great "portail" is not striking; the facade displays the different styles of architecture—Roman, Gothic, and modern —without order, and consequently, without grandeur; but if, on the contrary, we arrive at the chapel by Chevet, the result is otherwise. The high "abside" of the fourteenth century, in all its boldness and beauty, the rich workmanship of its balustrades, the variety of its "gargouilles," the somber hue of the stones, and the large transparent windows--strike the beholder with admiration.
Here, nevertheless, the aspect of the church —imposing tho it is—will be found far from uniform. Between the "abside" and the "portail," in a kind of cavity, the dome of Otho III., built over the tomb of Charlemagne in the tenth century, is hid from view. After a few moments' contemplation, a singular awe comes over us when gazing at this extraordinary edifice—an edifice which, like the great work that Charlemagne began, remains unfinished; and which, like his empire that spoke all languages, is composed of architecture that represents all styles. To the reflective, there is a strange analogy between that wonderful man and this great building.
After having passed the arched roof of the portico, and left behind me the antique bronze doors surmounted with lions' heads, a white rotundo of two stories, in which all the "fantasies" of architecture are displayed, attracted my attention. At casting my eyes upon the ground, I perceived a large block of black marble, with the following inscription in brass letters:
"Carolo Magno. "
Nothing is more contemptible than to see, ex-posed to view, the bastard graces that surround this great Carlovingian name; angels resembling distorted Cupids, palm-branches like colored feathers, garlands of flowers, and knots of ribbons, are placed under the dome of Otho III., and upon the tomb of Charlemagne.
The only thing here that evinces respect to the shade of that great man is an immense lamp, twelve feet in diameter, with forty-eight burners; which was presented, in the twelfth century, by Barbarossa. It is of brass, gilt with gold, has the form of a crown, and is suspended from the ceiling above the marble stone by an iron chain about seventy feet in length.
It is evident that some other monument had been erected to Charlemagne. There is nothing to convince us that this marble, bordered with brass, is of antiquity. As to the letters, "Carolo Magno," they are not of a later date than 1730.
Charlemagne is no longer under this stone. In 1166 Frederick Barbarossa—whose gift, magnificent tho it was, does by no means compensate for this sacrilege—caused the remains of that great emperor to be untombed. The Church claimed the imperial skeleton, and, separating the bones, made each a holy relic. In the adjoining sacristy, a vicar shows the people—for three francs seventy-five centimes—the fixt price — "the arm of Charlemagne"—that arm which held for a time the reins of the world. Venerable relic! which has the following inscription, written by some scribe of the twelfth century:
"Arm of the Sainted Charles the Great"
After that I saw the skull of Charlemagne, that cranium which may be said to have been the mold of Europe, and which a beadle had the effrontery to strike with his finger.
All were kept in a wooden armory, with a few angels, similar to those I have just mentioned, on the top. Such is the tomb of the man whose memory has outlived ten ages, and who, by his greatness, has shed the rays of immortality around his name. "Sainted, Great," belong to him-two of the most august epithets which this earth could bestow upon a human being.
There is one thing astonishing—that is, the largeness of the skull and arm. Charlemagne was, in fact, colossal with respect to size of body as well as extraordinary mental endowments. The son of Pepin-le-Bref was in body, as in mind, gigantic; of great corporeal strength, and of astounding intellect.
An inspection of this armory has a strange effect upon the antiquary. Besides the skull and arm, it contains the heart of Charlemagne; the cross which the emperor had round his 'neck in his tomb; a handsome ostensorium, of the Renaissance, given by Charles the Fifth, and spoiled, in the last century, by tasteless ornaments; fourteen richly sculptured gold plates, which once ornamented the arm-chair of the emperor; an ostensorium, given by Philippe the Second; the cord which bound our Savior; the sponge that was used upon the cross; the girdle of the Holy Virgin, and that of the Redeemer.
In the midst of innumerable ornaments, heaped up in the armory like mountains of gold and precious stones, are two shrines of singular beauty. One, the oldest, which is seldom opened, contains the remaining bones of Charlemagne, and the other, of the twelfth century, which Frederick Barbarossa gave to the church, holds the relics, which are exhibited every seven years. A single exhibition of this shrine, in 1696, attracted 42,000 pilgrims, and drew, in ten days 80,000 florins. This shrine has only one key, which is in two pieces; the one is in the possession of the chapter, the other in that of the magistrates of the town. Sometimes it is opened on extraordinary occasions, such as on the visit of a monarch. .
The tomb, before it became the sarcophagus of Charlemagne, was, it is said, that of Augustus. After mounting a narrow staircase, my guide conducted me to a gallery which is called the Hochmunster. In this place is the arm-chair of Charlemagne. It is, low, exceedingly wide, with a round back; is formed of four pieces of white marble, without ornaments or sculpture, and has for a seat an oak board, covered with a cushion of red velvet. There are six steps up to it, two of which are of granite, the others of marble. On this chair sat—a crown upon his head, a globe in one hand, a scepter m the other, a sword by his side, the imperial mantle over his shoulders, the cross of Christ round his neck, and his feet in the sarcophagus of Augustus—Carolus Magnus in his tomb, in which attitude he remained for three hundred and fifty-two years—from 852 to 1166, when Frederick Barbarossa, coveting the chair for his coronation, entered the tomb. Barbarossa was an illustrious prince and a valiant soldier; and it must, therefore, have been a moment singularly strange when this crowned man stood before the crowned corpse of Charlemagne—the one in all the majesty of empire, the other in all the majesty of death. The soldier overcame the shades of greatness; the living became the despoliator of inanimate worth. The chapel claimed the skeleton, and Barbarossa the marble chair, which afterward became the throne where thirty-six emperors were crowned. Ferdinand the First was the last; Charles the Fifth preceded him.
In 1804, when Bonaparte became known as Napoleon, he visited Aix-la-Chapelle. Josephine, who accompanied him, had the caprice to sit down on this chair; but Napoleon, out of respect for Charlemagne, took off his hat, and remained for some time standing, and in silence. The following fact is somewhat remarkable, and struck me forcibly. In 814 Charlemagne died; a thousand years afterward, most probably about the same hour, Napoleon fell.
In that fatal year, 1814, the allied sovereigns visited the tomb of the great "Carolus" Alexander of Russia, like Napoleon, took off his hat and uniform; Frederick William of Prussia kept on his "casquette de petite tenue;" Francis retained his surtout and round bonnet. The Sing of Prussia stood upon the marble steps, receiving information from the provost of the chapter respecting the coronation of the emperors of Germany; the two emperors remained silent. Napoleon, Josephine, Alexander, Frederick William, and Francis, are now no more.
A few minutes afterward I was on my way to the Hotel-de-Ville, the supposed birthplace of Charlemagne, which, like the chapel, is an edifice made of five or six others. In the middle of the court there is a fountain of great antiquity, with a bronze statue of Charlemagne. To the left and right are two others surmounted with eagles, their heads half turned toward the grave and tranquil emperor.
The evening was approaching. I had passed the whole of the day among these grand and austere "souvenirs;" and, therefore, deemed it essential to take a walk in the open fields, to breathe the fresh air, and to watch the rays of the declining sun. I wandered along some dilapidated walls, entered a field, then some beautiful alleys; in one of which I seated my-self. Aix-la-Chapelle lay extended before me, partly hid by the shades of evening, which were falling around. By degrees the fogs gained the roofs of the houses, and shrouded the town steeples; then nothing was seen but two huge masses—the Hotel-de-Ville and the chapel. All the emotions, all the thoughts and visions which flitted across my mind during the day, now crowded upon me. The first of the two dark objects was to me only the birthplace of a child; the second was the resting-place of greatness. At intervals, in the midst of my reverie, I imagined that I saw the shade of this giant, whom we call Charlemagne, developing itself between this great cradle and still greater tomb.