Briefmarke Deutschland 2000 MiNr2088 Aachener Dom
Briefmarke Deutschland 2000 MiNr2088 Aachener Dom

von Elsa Duval


1 Myth and material: in search of the imperial tomb (constellations)
2 Sanctification and instrumentalization (differences)
3 Mystification and Europeanization (significance)
4 Weiterführende Literatur
5 Zitierempfehlung

Myth and material: in search of the imperial tomb (constellations)

On 28 January 814, Emperor Charlemagne died in his favourite palace at Aachen. He was buried on the same day, in the palace’s octagonal chapel. This could have been the end of the story, but the myths surrounding Charlemagne have continued to develop over the centuries: For the city of Aachen, the emperor’s material relics have turned out to be very useful. The connection between myth and material culture in Aachen has played an important role in the development of the Charlemagne cult over the centuries. During the last 1200 years, many have tried to interlock myth and material by searching for the tomb of Charlemagne in the Carolingian chapel of Aachen, but the mythology of Charlemagne evolved both in parallel and in conflict with what its material relics have to offer.

Charlemagne first became of interest for the Holy Roman Emperors, who wished to link themselves to his memory. The legend of Charlemagne, however was not only political; it also developed in a Christian context. Charlemagne’s mausoleum was also a church and the object of an important pilgrimage because of the presence of four Christian relics of Mary, Jesus, and St. John the Baptist in its treasury. From the tenth until the sixteenth century, the octagonal chapel of Aachen also hosted an important political ritual, the coronation of German kings.

In this context Charlemagne’s bodily remains became increasingly important for his cult. A mystery helped sustain and foster this interest: Since the end of the 9th century, no one knew where in the chapel Charlemagne’s tomb was to be found. The tomb was most likely lost during the Viking invasions in Aachen during the 980s. Subsequently, several important political figures went in search of Charlemagne’s tomb, focusing on his dead body.

The first person to look for the tomb was emperor Otto III in 1000. According to accounts of the discovery, he found Charlemagne’s body intact, seated on a throne fully dressed, missing only the tip of his nose. His nails and hair had grown. Before closing the tomb again, Otto cut his nails, replaced the nose with a golden one, and took a cross from his neck. The next emperor interested in Charlemagne’s body was Frederick I Barbarossa. He ensured that the Antipope Pascal III sanctified the former emperor in 1165 and on that occasion conducted new searches in the chapel. This time, the body was extracted from its tomb and put in a shrine, which was exposed in the middle of the chapel. Over time, Charlemagne’s body, like that of traditional Christian saints, was divided in order to be distributed in reliquaries. The „Charlemagne shrine“ is still visible in the Aachen Cathedral today, alongside other of his reliquaries.

Sanctification and instrumentalization (differences)

From 1165 onwards, the tomb of Charlemagne was empty. This, however, did not end interest in his tomb. Attention resurged at the end of the 18th century, and has grown ever since. Aachen is not the only place where the tomb of a personality of political and religious significance has attracted attention. The most famous example is the location of the empty tomb of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, debated highly controversially by different religious groups, historians and archaeologists. The search for Charlemagne’s tomb is less conflict-ridden but, although it is centred on the much smaller space of the palatine chapel of Aachen, just as mysterious. Indeed, the chapel was constructed to mirror the map of Holy Jerusalem in 800.

Accounts from medieval sources about Charlemagne’s tomb contradict one another. The scholar Einhard, a contemporary of the emperor who reported his burial, described a very simple ritual and tomb marked by a golden arch. This does not match the discovery of a very lavish tomb made by Otto III in 1000. The Ottonian description of Charlemagne’s body and tomb, in turn, does not correspond to the 1165 find. Moreover, the information fits neither archaeological findings nor what we know about 9th century burial rituals. A seated burial, for example, would have been highly unusual at the time.

The mystery of Charlemagne’s tomb evolved alongside the development and differentiation of history and archaeology as academic disciplines. This also called for a change in what the material relics of Charlemagne have come to mean. With the advent of heritage conservation and archaeology, along with the increasing secularization of society, this new, modern interest shied away from the sacred bodily relics and instead focused on the place and mode of burial. While historians were now studying medieval sources in search of answers, several archaeological searches for Charlemagne’s original place of burial took place in Aachen, with powerful political figures involved. Napoleon I, for example, ordered searches in the chapel in 1815. A hundred years later, the German emperor Wilhelm II also sponsored investigations. The debate around the localization and form of Charlemagne’s tomb continues until today. The tomb has yet to be located. Excavations within the chapel in 2010, as well as the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death in 2014, have returned these questions to the spotlight.

Mystification and Europeanization (significance)

On the one hand, the mystery of the tomb highlights the tensions between political or religious mythmaking and the goals of scientific inquiry. The myth generally portrays the contemporary political interests surrounding Charlemagne. In the accounts, Charlemagne’s body and tomb have alternately represented a warrior, a saint, an emperor, and finally a peace-bringing patron of religion and culture. Material testimonies can contradict these accounts. For example, the burial of Charlemagne in a (pagan) Roman sarcophagus was problematic in a Christian context. This explains why the Proserpina sarcophagus, which is thought to have contained the body of Charlemagne until 1165, was rediscovered and restored only in the 19th and 20th centuries.

On the other hand, mythology and archaeology can reaffirm each other, and the mystery continues to feed the cult of Charlemagne. In the second half of the 20th century, Charlemagne and his material relics became symbols of the European project. New political and religious rituals appeared, like the annual „Charlemagne Prize“ for European peace and unity, awarded to politicians since 1950. The symbol of the prize is the bust reliquary of Charlemagne. Contemporary interest in the myth of Charlemagne has also benefitted his mausoleum, the Carolingian palatial chapel at the heart of Aachen Cathedral, which became the first German World Heritage Site in 1978.

weiterführende Literatur

Viola Belghaus, Der erzählte Körper. Die Inszenierung der Reliquien Karls des Grossen und Elisabeths von Thüringen, Berlin 2005.

Max Kerner, Karl der Große. Entschleierung eines Mythos, Köln u.a. 2. Aufl. 2001.

Hans-Karl Siebigs, Der Zentralbau des Domes zu Aachen. Unerforschtes und Ungewisses, Worms 2004.

Elke Silberer, Aachener Dom: Grab von Karl dem Großen bleibt verschollen, in: Der Spiegel, 19.5.2010. URL: <http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/mensch/aachener-dom-grab-von-karl-dem-grossen-bleibt-verschollen-a-695574.html> (accessed 2016-03-10).

Werner Tschacher, Königtum als lokale Praxis: Aachen als Feld der kulturellen Realisierung von Herrschaft. Eine Verfassungsgeschichte (ca. 800–1918), Stuttgart 2010.


Elsa Duval, Aachen, in: Ortstermine. Umgang mit Differenz in Europa, hg. für das Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte (IEG) v. Joachim Berger, Irene Dingel und Johannes Paulmann, Mainz 2016. URL: http://www.ieg-differences.eu/ortstermine/elsa-duval-aachen, URN: urn:nbn:de:0159-2016102000.

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