The English pilgrim Margery Kempe made her way by foot and wagon, from Danzig, via Wilsnack, to Aachen in the fifteenth century. This is a long journey of over 700 miles and it was, for Kempe, through hostile territory. She was an elderly woman, in poor health, and throughout her journey she was both bullied and subject to considerable misfortune. Nevertheless, she stuck to her route, crossing the Rhine and reaching Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) to see the showing of the famous Aachen relics, which were brought out once every seven years. What kept Margery Kempe moving?
The Book of Margery Kempe says almost nothing about what Kempe saw at Aachen, other than that she viewed the famous relics: of the Virgin Mary’s smock, Christ’s swaddling clothes, the decapitation cloth of John the Baptist, and the Christ’s loincloth from his Passion. Kempe must have thus visited the cathedral, where the relics were shown and were stored in the remarkable shrine of the Virgin Mary, an oak box decorated with silver gilt, made in Aachen between 1220 and 1239 (pictured below).
Kempe had already visited Jerusalem, Rome, Canterbury, Walsingham, Wilsnack, and Santiago de Compostela, so she had visited all the most important pilgrimage sites in Western Europe; but the journey to Aachen complemented her journey to Jerusalem. In part, she was emulating St Birgitta of Sweden (1303-73), who had also gone to Jerusalem, Santiago, and Aachen. Whilst it is not made explicit in The Book of Margery Kempe, Aachen itself had long styled itself as a kind of ‘New Jerusalem’: indeed, the city’s founding by the Emperor Charlemagne (742-814) was an attempt to create an imperial city which combined the splendour of a New Rome with the spiritual promise of a New Jerusalem. The mathematical and geometrical dimensions of the cathedral have long been recognised as referring to the apocalyptic Jerusalem: an eight-sided dome, a sixteen-sided ambulatory, and eight arcades of columns, as eight represented perfection and harmony; the circumference of the octagon is 144 feet, the cardinal number of the Heavenly Jerusalem Apocalypse [Revelation]. 7:4, 14:1 etc.). This was mirrored in the remarkable chandelier (the ‘Barbarossa Chandelier’) given to the cathedral by Emperor Frederick I, and made in Aachen about 1165-70.
The chandelier, which Kempe would most probably have seen, is an image of the Heavenly Jerusalem, according to Apocalypse, chapter 21. Its theme is, like the dome in which it hangs, the number eight. It resembles the city walls of Jerusalem, and has sixteen towers (with bases which speak to the person standing underneath), engraved with scenes from the life of Jesus, from the Annunciation to Christ in Majesty. 48 candles represent the twelve apostles, the twelve martyrs, the twelve confessors, and twelve virgins, recalling the liturgy sung when Roman kings were enthroned in the building.
Kempe’s eye for material luxury would also have been drawn to another Jerusalem scene in the cathedral: the sumptuous ‘Palo d’Oro’, a gold ‘sheet’ across the high altar, made in Germany about 1020, which is one of the earliest strip-art scenes of the Passion and looks forward to the Stations of the Cross/Via Dolorosa tradition.
It’s perhaps hard to make out the individual scenes from my images, but the scheme starts in the top-left corner (Entry into Jerusalem); the Flagellation can clearly be seen in the far-right panel of the middle row; the scheme ends with the Women at the Tomb. The scenes of the Passion like a montage of devotional ‘stills’, clearly anticipating the vivid tableaux summoned in the ‘mind’s eye’ of medieval mysticism, and a series of loci, like the later schema of the Stations of the Cross
Finally, the Byzantine-style mosaics, at the main entrance, which were renewed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, feature images of the City of God – civitas Dei – surrounded by personifications of the four rivers of Paradise, making manifest the Heavenly Jerusalem built in this German city.