Most of the treasures in the museum postdate Charlemagne, yet his presence dominates all. The great horn, for certain not the one blown by Roland at the battle of Roncevaulx, is still able to evoke that image. Jewellery belonging to later mediaeval figures such as Elizabeth of York suggest his influence. There is also the atmosphere of the galleries, more suited to the cathedral nearby than one finds there, with cameras at work and guided tours in all parts.
Nonetheless, amid the splendour, one humble item is characteristic of what Charlemagne represents. It is also the one undoubtedly contemporary exhibit: a door constructed in oak and small enough to require anyone but a child to stoop in passing through. When it is finally mounted as planned I hope it will not lose any of its humility.
Contrast the little door with one of the largest brooches ever made. And who was it made for? No great warrior but a priest, to be worn on his cope. Hardly the image of the early fathers but clearly the kind of ostentation that in later times was to excite the fury of Martin Luther and give rise to tales such as Robin Hood and the Abbot. There must have been many European equivalents told around smoky fires of a winter evening.
Church utensils also on a grand scale seem to reflect the features of Charlemagne. It was clearly uppermost in people’s minds to reflect his grandeur rather than spirit. And then, how much do we really know of his personality, any more than Alfred’s, also ‘the Great’?
Long after their time, in the middle ages rushing towards the Renaissance, Elizabeth of York, guarantor of the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty, somehow managed to have a coronet with a small replica deposited in Aachen; very beautiful they are.
Not in any sense beautiful unless you were wielding it in conflict is a short sword or long dagger from back in the period of Charlemagne. It is necessary of course to remember that the Holy Roman Empie, like all religious entities, was founded on the battlefield.
Five images can give only a fragment of a vast and magnificent collection that includes among it display contemporary with Charlemagne, a reliquary containing bones from arm and the astounding crowned portrait head. Like the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin this alone is worth the cost of admission. Like Berlin also, Aachen is a city well worth anyone’s time if they in the area.