The Influence of the Carolingians

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The Influence of the Carolingians

Building an Image.

Medieval architecture, in many ways, was defined during the reign of Charlemagne. Not only was the scale of building enterprises unmatched in Europe since the collapse of the Roman Empire four centuries earlier, but Charlemagne also utilized architecture to create the image of his government. In a biography composed around 830, Einhard, the ruler's friend and advisor, wrote that the emperor

set in hand many projects which aimed at making his kingdom more attractive and at increasing public utility. … Outstanding among these, one might claim, are the great church of the Holy Mother of God at Aachen, which is really a remarkable construction, and the bridge over the Rhine at Mainz, which is five hundred feet long. … More important still was the fact that he commanded the bishops and churchmen, in whose care they were, to restore sacred edifices which had fallen into ruin through their very antiquity, wherever he discovered them throughout the whole of his kingdom.

During the reign of Charlemagne, the emperor's builders strove to articulate the ideas of power, order, and Christian faith through the arrangement of spaces and the abstract vocabulary of architecture—columns, piers, walls, windows, ceilings. Their task was not unlike the one that the new republic of the United States confronted around 1800: how to give meaningful physical form to guiding political principles. And just as Washington, D.C., wages an eloquent argument in its pediments, domes, porticoes, and temple forms that the United States is heir to the democratic tradition of Greece and the might of Rome, Carolingian buildings turned to ancient Roman architecture to embody the vision of an empire guided by Christian values that would bring unity and peace to a fragmented and conflict-ridden Europe.

Aachen and the Emulation of Rome.

No project reveals Charlemagne's architectural goals for his new empire better than the palace complex Aix-la-Chapelle at Aachen, in what is now Nord Rhein-Westfalen in northwestern Germany. As another of his biographers, Notker Balbulus (the Stammerer), wrote, "He [Charlemagne] conceived the idea of constructing on his native soil and according to his own plan a cathedral which should be finer than the ancient buildings of the Romans." Built during the 790s, Aachen constituted a palace complex that included a monumental gateway, a chapel, and an audience hall in stone supplemented by residential and utilitarian structures in wood. With this set of impressive buildings, Charlemagne established a permanent and symbolic capital that intended to emulate the great imperial cities of Rome and Constantinople. To make his point clear to the populace, he named his palace "The Lateran," a direct reference to the cathedral and palace, built under Constantine, the first Christian emperor, in Rome. The very plan of Aachen, laid out according to a grid of squares, revived Roman methods to embody the ordered regularity that the emperor wished to impose on his vast territories. Further, the long galleries that linked the three stone structures imitated a feature frequently found in Roman palaces.

Roman Models.

Moreover, the buildings themselves were based on particular Roman prototypes. The palace's great hall, for example, where Charlemagne received visitors and presided over court ceremonies while enthroned in the semicircular space of an apse (a rounded projection from the end of a building), resembled that erected by Constantine around 310 c.e. at nearby Trier on the central western border of modern-day Germany. The palace chapel—this is Notker's "cathedral"—consisting of an outer sixteen-sided polygon enclosing an octagonal central space, looked to a tradition of centralized court chapels found throughout the Mediterranean world from the fourth century on; but it was especially close in form to Justinian's church of San Vitale in Ravenna in Italy (c. 540–548). Charlemagne himself had passed through Ravenna shortly before construction of Aachen was begun and his direct experience of this beautiful imperial church must have been a decisive factor in its design. Like San Vitale, the interior space at Aachen is disposed on two levels: a chapel, dedicated to the Virgin, occupies the ground floor, while the upper gallery level, sheltering the imperial throne and an altar of the Savior, comprises a second chapel. The sturdy piers, the tiers of arches, the sophisticated combination of vaults, and the finely cut stonework of the building are unprecedented in earlier medieval architecture and, once again, suggest that the revival of Roman forms was accompanied by a comparable renewal of Roman building technology. Finally, the decoration of ancient columns and capitals, marble imported from Ravenna, bronze railings and doors, and mosaics all invest the chapel with a dazzling and thoroughly Roman aura. As a whole, Aachen sends the message of Charlemagne as the legitimate successor to the authority of Christian imperial rulership in the West. It was the architectural "first act" of a political drama whose conclusion was staged on Christmas Day 800 with the coronation of Charlemagne as emperor in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Architecture Terms

A long open narrow area at the sides of a church used to walk through the structure.
The elevated place in a church where rites are performed.
The passageway around the end of the choir.
A series of arches supported by piers or columns.
A vaulted semicircular or polygonal recess in the church at the end of the choir.
Stone that is faced and squared, often with a chipped or irregular surface.
The open courtyard in a castle between the outer ring of fortified walls and the keep.
The low parapet at the top of a fortified wall composed of solid shields of masonry, called merlons, alternating with openings, called crenels.
Any of a number of similar spaces or compartments between the vertical dividing structures of a large interior.
The uppermost portion of a column or pillar, often carved with relief sculpture on several faces.
A small space for private worship off the aisle of a church.
A pattern of angled stripes.
The part of a church to the east of the transept, occupied by monks during the singing of offices.
A portion of the interior of a church rising above adjacent rooftops and having windows to admit light.
A large post-like support holding up an arch or other architectural feature. The tops of columns were often decorated with sculpture.
A short horizontal bracket of stone or timber projecting from a wall and supporting an architectural element.
A battlement (protective wall) with tapered embrasures or squared openings.
A chamber or vault below the main floor of a church, often used as a burial spot.
The great tower or keep of a castle, sometimes thought to be the residence of the lord of the castle.
The front of a church, usually imposing and decorated.
Flying buttress:
A segmental arch transmitting outward and downward thrust to a solid buttress or square column which transforms the force into a vertical one.
A long narrow area open at each end or at sides and sometimes elevated.
Groin vault:
The curved line or edge formed by the intersection of two vaults.
One of a pair of short cantilevered timbers supporting a ceiling arch.
The multi-storied tower that combined living quarters and defensive features in a medieval castle.
A wedge-shaped stone at the summit of an arch serving to lock the other stones in place and create structural strength.
A projecting gallery at the top of a fortified wall with floor openings through which heavy objects or boiling liquids could be dropped on attackers.
A ditch of some width and depth around a fortified area like a castle serving to repel intruders.
A fortification consisting of a timber tower set atop a conical earth mound. The motte often was surrounded by a ditch and wooden palisade.
An enclosed passage between the main entrance and the nave of a church.
The main longitudinal area of a church.
A battlement wall protecting the wall-walk and roof.
A support for the ends of adjacent spans of arches.
A horizontal timber laid flat atop a pier or wall used to attach the ends of rafters.
A heavy iron or wooden grill, set in vertical grooves, that can be raised or lowered by chains to protect the entrance to a castle.
A longitudinal member in a roof frame usually for supporting common rafters between the plate and the ridge.
The beam, usually angled and joined at the top to a similar beam in the form of an inverted V, which is used to support a roof.
A circular high space in a church surmounted by a dome.
A wall made of different sizes and types of uncut stone.
A wooden or iron structure separating the nave from the choir of a church, sometimes called "rood screen" if it had a large crucifix ornamenting its top.
The transverse part of the rectangular body of the church, usually crossing the nave.
The wall at the side of the nave, choir, or transept corresponding to the space between the vaulting or ceiling and the roof of an aisle.
A triangle of timbers used to support compression, used in the construction of a roof.
A wedge-shaped brick or stone used to form the curved part of an arch or vault.
Wattle and daub:
A building material consisting of wattle, a light mesh of laths or interwoven twigs, covered with mud, stucco, or brick.
The monumental western front to a church involving a tower or group of towers and containing an entrance and vestibule below and a chapel above.

The Basilica.

As the words of Einhard, quoted above, imply, the Carolingian era witnessed a surge of church construction. Although centralized plans were often favored for aristocratic chapels, they were not easily adaptable to the needs of churches that required space for large congregations or housed monastic communities whose liturgy involved processions to altars located throughout the interior. Once again, Carolingian patrons and builders looked back to early Christian Rome for a model that was at once functional—accommodating crowds of worshippers and the processional liturgy of the Mass—as well as historically resonant and symbolically potent. The basilica fit all three requirements. Adapted from large Roman halls that served a variety of functions, including law courts or public assembly, the Christian basilica is characterized by its longitudinal space organized around a central axis and formed by a dominant central area flanked symmetrically by lower aisles. The usual model contained a long hall or nave, an entry portico on the west side, and an apse (usually semicircular in form, but sometimes polygonal or square) in the east, which usually contained the altar area. The entry and altar were almost always on the short sides of the rectangular configuration, with the altar facing the city of Jerusalem. A large open courtyard or atrium, a feature eliminated in the later Middle Ages, and an entry vestibule, called a narthex, frequently fronted the body of the basilica. This axial sequence of spaces lent itself naturally to hierarchical divisions, marked by barriers, curtains, screens, and differences in decoration. The nave served as the congregational space while the apse enclosing the altar was reserved for the clergy.

Symbolic Shape and Number.

In Abbot Fulrad's rebuilding of the abbey of Saint-Denis between around 754 and 775, the Roman inspiration was evident. The church took the shape of a cross through the addition of a transverse space, termed a transept, inserted between the nave and the apse. The transept appeared earlier only at the great martyrs' basilicas of St. Peter's and St. Paul's in Rome, presumably to provide a suitably impressive spatial setting around the tomb of the saint, but once revived, this cruciform plan became common in Christian architecture. Used at Saint-Denis, it served the dual purpose of linking the local saint with the prestige of the apostle Peter and of equating the Frankish kings, many of whom were buried there (including Charlemagne's father Pepin the Short), with Constantine, the patron of St. Peter's. To judge from its plan, a nearly exact replica of the transept and apse of St. Peter's was also erected over the tomb of St. Boniface, missionary to the Germans, at Fulda in the early ninth century. Another impressive example can be found in the abbey of Saint-Riquier at Centula in northern France, where the cruciform shape of the church combines with an insistent use of three in its plan to emphasize the Trinity. The importance of number in the church's design is characteristic of medieval architecture. Based on a passage in the Wisdom of Solomon, "you have ordered all things in measure and number and weight," Christian theologians from Augustine, writing in the fifth century c.e., on interpreted numbers symbolically. Numbers revealed the underlying harmonies of the universe and their incorporation into the designs and visual rhythms of medieval architecture intended to convey the beauty of divine creation. In all of these basilicas, the references to early Christian Rome served not only as a political symbol,

of Churches and
Religious Structures

Abbey church:
The church of a monastery under the supervision of an abbot or a convent of nuns under the supervision of an abbess.
A Roman Catholic church or cathedral given ceremonial privileges by the pope. Christian basilicas were formed out of ancient Roman buildings (originally assembly halls, courts, and exchanges) or built on a similar design.
The principal church of an archdiocese or diocese, the regional administrative districts of the Church. The throne—or cathedra—of the archbishop or bishop is located in the cathedral.
A separate area in a church or home, having its own altar and intended for private worship.
The enclosed part of a monastery or convent where monks or nuns live and, in some cases, laypeople are not allowed to enter. The term can also refer to the covered walkway around the interior courtyard of a monastery or college.
The living quarters of nuns or the dwelling of a community of friars.
The complex of buildings, including an abbey church, in which a group of people, observing religious vows or rules, lives together. A convent often designates a female religious community. A double monastery refers to one that includes both monks and nuns.
Parish church:
The church of a parish, a small division of the larger diocese. The parish church was the focus of religious activity of the local population, who were ministered to by a rector or sometimes a curate whose living came from the rent provided from the lands of that community.
Pilgrimage church:
A large church on the major pilgrimage routes, such as the road leading to the shrine of St. James at Compostela. Pilgrimage churches often offered shelter, and provided maps and information about the route.
An alcove for a tomb, holy relics, or a religious icon in a church.

but also as a representation of the true Christian faith that Charlemagne and his theologians took as their mission to protect and proclaim.


introduction: During the reign of Charlemagne, the Western Church experienced both a rise in the use of Roman liturgy and an increased interest in the cults of saints. Church architecture responded by providing additional pathways for processions and spaces for the exhibition of relics. This architectural tendency is illustrated at the Abbey Church of the Royal Monastery of Saint-Riquier, near Amiens in northern France, where the abbot was a theologian and court-poet known as Angilbert of Saint-Riquier. Born in the late 750s to one of the families of Frankish aristocracy, Angilbert received his schooling in the entourage of Charlemagne and was closely connected to the emperor's family. In his treatise entitled De perfectione, Angilbert provides a narrative account of his personal rebuilding of the abbey and treats the elements of the buildings and treasures of the monastery. The excerpt provided below shows how movement around the church to multiple altars and stations had become an important part of worship. The titles preceding the paragraphs have been added for clarity. They do not appear in the original document.

The Liturgy

At all Vespers celebrated in the normal way, when everything has been completed at [the altar of] Saint Richarius, let the brothers proceed by singing psalms up to the holy Passion. When the prayer has been completed, let the choirs be divided into two, of which one proceeds to [the sculpted relief of] the Holy Resurrection, the other to [the sculpted relief of] the Holy Ascension. Then when the prayer has been done, let one choir come to [the altar of] Saint John, the other to Saint Martin. And then afterward [proceeding] through [the altars of] Saint Stephen and Saint Lawrence and the other altars by singing and praying, let them come together at the [altar of] the Holy Cross… But when Vespers and Matins shall have been sung at [the altar of] the Holy Savior, then let one choir descend to [the sculpted relief of] the Holy Resurrection, the other to [the sculpted relief of] the Holy Ascension, and there, praying, let them just as above process singing to [the altars of] Saint John and Saint Martin; when the prayer has been completed, let them enter here and there through the arches of the middle of the church and let them pray at [the sculpted relief of] the Holy Passion. Thence let them proceed to [the altar of] Saint Richarius, where, when the prayers have been said, they shall divide themselves again just as before and shall come through [the altars of] Saint Stephen and Saint Lawrence, singing and praying, up to [the altar of] the Holy Cross. …

The Relics

These [relics] having been collected … honorably and fittingly in the name of the Holy Trinity, we have with great diligence prepared a principal reliquary decorated with gold and gems, in which we have placed part of the above-mentioned relics, which we have been eager to place … under the crypt of the Holy Savior. Moreover, we have taken care to divide the relics of the other saints, which are noted above, into thirteen other smaller reliquaries decorated most handsomely with gold and silver and precious gems, which we merited to collect … and we have placed them on the beam that we have established on the arch in front of the altar of Saint Richarius [in the apse of the church], so that in every corner in this holy place it will be fitting that the praise of God and the veneration of all of his saints always be adored, worshiped, and venerated.

source: Angilbert of Saint-Riquier, De perfectione, in Faith, Art, and Politics at Saint-Riquier: The Symbolic Vision of Angilbert. Ed. Susan Rabe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995): 118, 121–122.

Innovations in Planning.

Carolingian church architecture was more than historical and spiritual nostalgia for early Christian Rome. It enriched its borrowings from the past by contributing a greater complexity to spatial planning. In part, this was a response to the promotion among Charlemagne's ecclesiastical allies of the Roman liturgy, whose worship services featured processions through and around the church. With the rise of the cult of saints as a significant component of medieval Christian worship, auxiliary spaces were required for the exhibition of relics with pathways providing access to the tomb or shrine. The underground corridor that was excavated in the apse of St. Peter's in Rome around 600 during the reign of Pope Gregory I (the Great) allowing the faithful to circulate around the saint's burial site was copied at Saint-Denis and San Prassede in Rome (c. 820). An elaborate two-story crypt was added outside the choir of the original church of Saint-Germain, Auxerre, in France in the mid-ninth century. Passages, connecting a series of chapels, including a rotunda dedicated to the Virgin Mary, provided circulation around the sixth-century tomb chamber of Saint-Germain as well as space for six new altars. A similar multiplication of chapel spaces was echoed above ground in the 870s at the abbey church of Corvey in Germany, where an axial cruciform chapel and two lateral chapels were linked by a curving aisle that wrapped around the choir. These experimental schemes anticipated the development of the ambulatory (an aisle surrounding the end of the choir) and chapel arrangement of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. A further modification of the standard basilica was the "double-ended" plan, found at Fulda in Germany and in the Plan of Saint-Gall in Switzerland (a series of blueprint-like drawings), where the saint's shrine and the main altar were placed in apses at opposite ends of the church, a solution that had a long life in German church design.

Proud Towers.

Proclaiming the majesty of the church, towers represent one of the most daring contributions of medieval architecture, for they existed more for the sake of their visual impact and symbolic resonance than they did to fulfill any functional purpose. Concentrated at the "crossing," that is, the intersection of the nave and choir of the basilica, towers accented the area of the main altar, the focal point of the church. At Saint-Denis, a 30-foot-high tower rose above the crossing while at Saint-Riquier, a multi-stage polygonal lantern (a tower-like structure admitting light) flanked by two slim stair turrets formed a monumental vertical cluster that contrasted dramatically with the 275-foot length of the body of the church. This embellishment of the crossing, often formed by a central tower with taller towers placed at the ends of the transept, continued through the next major architectural period (the Romanesque), as at the third abbey church of Cluny in France or Tournai Cathedral in Belgium, and then into the culminating period of medieval architecture (the Gothic) at the cathedrals of Laon and Chartres in France, and Milan in Italy, where the towers were likened to the "four evangelists surrounding the throne of God." Towers appeared most commonly as integral elements of the façades of church buildings. Twin towers are mentioned at the Carolingian Saint-Denis, an arrangement repeated in the reconstruction of the abbey's new entrance block in the 1130s. However, Carolingian architecture is most notable for its invention of the "westwork," the monumental entry composed of a dominant central element enclosing an upper chapel reached by lateral stair turrets (that is small towers on each side). Described as a castellum ("castle") or turris ("tower") by contemporary writers, the westwork of churches such as Saint-Riquier and Corvey served as a virtual vertical church for the staging of important religious services. In addition, because the façade block housed the emperor's throne at Aachen, it has sometimes been interpreted as an imperial architectural form. Roman city gates, it should be remembered, had included towers and upper chambers used in imperial ceremonies. At the Abbey of Lorsch in Germany, a freestanding triple-arch gateway that probably "copied" the Arch of Constantine in Rome coupled with the church's westwork behind to create a spectacular entry sequence. The tower, like the inventive mix of Roman and medieval forms of Carolingian architecture in general, resonated on multiple levels as it invested the church with the aura of imperial power, triumphal authority, and transcendental spirituality.


Kenneth Conant, Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture 800–1200 (New York: Penguin, 1974).

Paul Dutton, ed., Carolingian Civilization: A Reader (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1993).

—, The Politics of Dreaming in the Carolingian Empire (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994).

Einhard and Notker the Stammerer, Two Lives of Charlemagne. Trans. Lewis Thorpe (London: Penguin, 1969): 71.

Louis Halphen, Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire.

Trans. Giselle de Nie (Amsterdam: North Holland, 1977).

Rosamond McKitterick, The Frankish Church and the Carolingian Reforms, 789–895 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977).

Lawrence Nees, A Tainted Mantle: Hercules and the Classical Tradition at the Carolingian Court (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

Susan Rabe, Faith, Art, and Politics at Saint-Riquier: The Symbolic Vision of Angilbert (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995).

Richard E. Sullivan, Aix-la-Chapelle in the Age of Charlemagne (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963).

J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, The Frankish Church (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).

see also Visual Arts: The Carolingian Restoration of Roman Culture

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The Influence of the Carolingians

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