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Charlemagne celebrated in Aachen

On the 1400th anniversary of his death, the father of Europe is remembered through religious and cultural exhibitions

A reliquary bust of Charlemagne, a gift of Charles IV in 1349

Charles the Great or, as he is known to English- and French-speakers, Charlemagne (742-814) can be said pretty much to have drawn the map of modern Europe. His greatness lies not just in his establishment, by military might and organisational expertise, of an empire that encompassed what is now the Benelux nations, France, Switzerland, Germany as far as the Elbe and the northern half of Italy, but also his legacy of law, learning, the arts, as well as the reform and promotion of the Roman Catholic Church, all of which he vigorously cultivated during his 46-year-long reign. The culmination of his career was his coronation as Roman Emperor by the Pope in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome on Christmas Day, AD800.

This year marks the 1,400th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death, and major celebrations are taking place in Aachen where he maintained his principal court and where he is buried. The cathedral, once his palace chapel, is holding a series of special liturgies, not least of which is the exposition of relics that were given by Charlemagne’s successors, the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, who were crowned there as German kings. Under normal circumstances, these are shown only once every six years and then for short periods of time. Now, they will be exposed for several months in the cathedral and in the nearby Kornelimünster. The faithful will be able to venerate the Virgin’s robe, Christ’s nappies, his loincloth and the towel or apron he wore at the Last Supper, among other objects.

A tripartite exhibition, “Charlemagne: Power, Art, Treasure” (26 June-21 September) taking place at the Rathaus, the Centre Charlemagne and the cathedral, illustrates the riches of the political, ecclesiastical and artistic patronage of “the father of Europe”. When doubts are rife about the European Union and its faltering currency, it may be that Charlemagne’s legacy provides some intellectual and moral insight.

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