It is much sturdier than San Vitale, having an unmistakably Roman structure. Like early Roman churches, it was approached from the west through a huge symmetrical atrium (said to have held 7,000 people), the well-defined entrance to the octagon flanked by towers with turret staircases leading to an upper level. Above the entrance was a place from which the emperor could appear to his people. None of the atrium survives. The octagonal central space of the original chapel is crowned with a lofty mosaic-faced dome constructed as a series of groin vaults: opposite the entrance, on both levels, was the sanctuary. The octagon is surrounded at the lower level by an ambulatory with a groin-vaulted dark sandstone ceiling. Those vaults, remarkable for the absence of transverse arches—Odo’s own innovation—are supported at the angles of the octagon on large piers that also carry a semicircular dividing arcade. The upper level of the ambulatory is roofed with an annular barrel vault and separated from the octagon by a screen of two pairs of superimposed marble, porphyry, and granite columns within wide arched openings. At right angles to the main axis of the chapel, and reached at both levels through the sanctuary, were once mirrored north and south annexes.

On the decision of the members of the court, although he wished to be buried at St. Denis, Charlemagne’s remains were interred in the Palatine Chapel in 814. Thereafter, until 1531, it became the imperial coronation church. From 1355, to accommodate the enormous traffic of pilgrims, the choir was rebuilt in the Gothic style, several chapels and a narthex were added, and the building became Aachen Cathedral. It was dedicated in 1414. The original mosaic on the interior of the dome was replaced by one Salviati, a Venetian, between 1870 and 1873. The cathedral was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978. A restoration program began in 1995.

Further reading

Collins, Roger. 1998. Charlemagne. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Conant, Kenneth John. 1973. Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture, 800 to 1200. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Hubert, Jean, Jean Percher, and Wolfgang Volbach. 1970. The Carolingian Renaissance. New York: Braziller.

Chartres Cathedral (Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady)


Chartres, capital of France’s Department of Eure-et-Loir, stands on the Eure River, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) southwest of Paris. An important center in pre-Roman Gaul, it was one of the sacred places of the Druids. Overrun by the Normans, the region later settled down, and late in the thirteenth century it became the appanage of Charles de Valois, who was briefly (1284–1290) king of Aragon and Sicily. François I made it a Duchy in 1528. Louis XIV granted the Duchy of Chartres to the House of Orléans, an arrangement that lasted until about 1850.

Chartres prospered in the Middle Ages because it possessed a precious relic—a piece of oriental silk believed to be the veil worn by the Virgin Mary during the birth of Christ. Chartres therefore became an important pilgrimage site, and the chapter of the cathedral established trade fairs to coincide with the four annual feasts of the Virgin. The late-twelfth-century Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady at Chartres, recognized, as “a reference point of French Gothic art,” is a milestone in the development of Western architecture because it employs all the elements of a new structural system: the pointed arch; the rib-and-panel vault; and, most significantly, the flying buttress.

Only the Royal Portal on the west front (1150–1175) and the crypt remain of the Romanesque cathedral commenced on the site of an earlier church in 1145. The remainder was destroyed by fire in 1194, and, not least because religious fervor was running high in France, construction immediately commenced on a new cathedral, a “turning point in Gothic architecture” that rose upon the foundations of the old. Financed by all levels of local society (which also provided much of the voluntary labor), most of the building was finished by 1223. The cathedral was consecrated in 1260.