Carolingian Buildings at Aachen: Their Dating and Meaning
By Warren Sanderson
Avista Forum Journal, Vol.12:2 (2001)
Introduction: Throughout the twentieth-century, a thorough critical analysis of Aachen’s fundamental Carolingian buildings that would take account of a wide range of pertinent viewpoints has remained a siren-like challenge for architectural historians and archaeologists of Medieval Europe’s beginnings. With the flow of observations that stemmed from the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century restorations and excavations of Charlemagne’s royal palace chapel. with so many literary mentions and later pictorial descriptions of this building in contemporaneous and later texts, and with so many possible architectural inspirations or later reflections of it to be taken into account, there is for this single building a virtual floodcrest of information with which to work. In the essay that follows I will discuss a few aspects of the origins and meanings of the royal palace church at Aachen and also the royal audience hall. Though these buildings are very different from one another, their stories are mutually complementary.
When we turn from the twenty-first century to Carolingian perspectives on Aachen, its palace precinct loses the character of a curiously isolated grouping of some few monumental buildings and takes its place as one of the great building complexes of the early Middle Ages. Of the fourteen palace groups that Charlemagne (768/771-814) sponsored, Aachen’s was of surpassing importance for his contemporaries, according to Einhard’s vita Karoli Magni of the 820s and Notker Balbulus’s gesta Karoli of the 880s. Of the Frankish king’s three favorites, Aachen, Ingelheim and Nijmegen, Einhard (c.770-840) tells us it was not Aachen but rather Ingelheim that ranked first. Ingelheim and more recently Paderborn have been systematically excavated. Carolingian architectural remains have also been excavated at Frankfurt am Main, at Herstal which today is a suburb of Libge? at Regensburg, and at Worrns. We know little with certainty of the Carolingian complexes at Samousy and Thionville. And Charlemagne’s buildings at Compibgne, Quierzy, and Attigny are for us today mostly literary riddles from much later sources rather than architectural realizations.