When I was very young I read a biography of Charlemagne by his chronicler Einhard, so from that time I’ve had an interest in him and it was for this reason we (my wife, Engogirl and I) visited Aachen in Germany. Aachen’s big claim to fame is that it was Charlemagne’s capitol and he built a cathedral there known as the Dom.
The original Dom was an eight sided church that was originally built 1,200 years ago and it has been so rearranged; added to and redecorated that as our tour guide said, “you will not see any Carolingian decoration, only Carolingian form.
Years ago I visited the famous cathedral in Chartes, France and the guide there said that an analysis of the mathematics of gothic architecture hadn’t led to an understanding of the origins and reasons behind the design style. A few years after I’d been to Chartes, I was lying on my back on an autumn day in the forest in British Columbia; as I looked up at the deciduous trees over arching me with their multicoloured leaves I was suddenly made conscious of where the gothic architects got some of their inspiration from.
In the picture above, of a gothic addition to the Dom you can also see where H R Giger (the designer of the “Alien” movies) may have mined some of his ideas from.
Whilst listening to the guide talk about the various changes that the Dom has been through, I found myself thinking of what Joseph Campbell had to say in his “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” about the oedipal desire in the immature for things to stay the same.
In today’s western culture there is a reverence for things that are old just because of the fact that they are ancient. Cultures like the Japanese don’t care that much if something is old; they are more interested in if it is good on an aesthetic level.
The Dom was changed over the years to suit whatever the prevailing taste of whoever was in charge was. As I thought about the mentality of the people who decided to make the changes, I wondered if they made the changes through a self confident and mature sense of themselves or was it just pure ignorant arrogance. I’m pretty sure it was arrogance, but at least it got me thinking.
Is our reverence for old things, and desire to preserve them a manifestation of an oedipal desire for things to stay the same; the intellectual equivalent of not wanting to grow up? Are we now an anally retentive culture?
If our ancestors had the same attitude to the past and old things as we do, then no new art would’ve been produced to cover or replace the old, and our culture would’ve become as moribund as ancient Egyptian culture which didn’t change that much for thousands of years.
Another thing that caught my attention at the Dom was all the relics. First off there was the garments of Mary, the diaper of Christ and the beheading cloth (WTF!) of John the Baptist.
I wish I was around when that load of crock was sold; I’d have been in with an offer to sell them a bridge.
To be fair to the contemporary people of Aachen, all the descriptions of the relics are prefaced in the tourist literature with, “the so called”. I got the impression that nowadays, no one outside of the church seriously thought that the relics were anything more than the products of medieval con artists. I’d also be willing to bet that there wouldn’t be too many Jesuits who think that the “so called” relics were real.
Then there was the alleged throne of Charlemagne (no one is sure he ever sat in it), said to be made from marble from the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It’s a fairly pedestrian affair (I was reminded of an outhouse seat) but the interesting thing about it and the relics is that that were all used to add legitimacy to Charlemagne’s rule and the rule of those who followed him.
God always seems to get dragged into whatever causes suits those in power. Funny how every side sees god as being on their side. I suppose for many people in power way back then, the fact that they were in power, was proof of god’s favour. It’s sort of similar to the thing that those bible thumping evangelists who are into “prosperity preaching” go on about. I’m rich and powerful, therefore god is my co-pilot or god is my co-pilot and therefore I will be rich. The need for physical proof of the existence of god in the form of relics goes against the whole Christian teaching of the need to have faith alone. I guess back in Charlemagne’s times, Christianity was still on shaky ground. The same could be said for some congregations in parts of today’s affluent cultures.
In the Dom there is also what is left of Charlemagne’s bones. Apparently there are only about 50% remaining, due to various bits and pieces ending up in other churches and hands. It would seem that everyone wanted a piece of the legitimacy that anything to do with Charlemagne bestowed.
All the talk of Charlemagne’s bones reminded me of The Venerable Bede’s book, “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”. In Bede’s book he mentioned about the medical practices of the 8th century. Bede told of how prayers were said over the sick person and “holy” relics (usually the bones of a saint) were waved over the affected area. Since Charlemagne was eventually canonised, his “relics” would’ve held powerful juju in the minds of many believers back in the old days.
It sounds an awful lot like the witchcraft from Africa that is lampooned so often in movies.
When you think about it, twelve hundred years ago isn’t that long ago. If a generation can be considered to be twenty five years, then a thousand two hundred years would be forty eight generations. It might sound like a lot but imagine a group of forty eight, twenty five years olds and you’d be looking at a thousand two hundred years manifest in the flesh in one hit.
We’re not that far ahead of cultures that we think of as primitive.