The Fascination of Carolingian Architecture

The ravages of the Thirty Years’ War caused irreparable damage to Corvey’s Abbey Church. In 1665 it was pulled down and the Baroque church we know today was erected in its place. Its magnificent westwork, however, is a relic from medieval times. An independent structure built on a central plan, it permits profound insights into the architecture of the Middle Ages.

World Heritage Status for the Carolingian Westwork and Civitas Corvey

„“The Westwork of Corvey in Höxter on the River Weser is one of the few Carolingian structures of which the main parts have been preserved, and the only example of a westwork building from that time still standing.” This was one of the reasons given by UNESCO for World Heritage Status being awarded in 2014. In the UNESCO committee’s view, Corvey’s westwork reconciles innovation with references to ancient models at a high level, and as a building type it had considerable influence on Western architecture until the end of the Romanesque period.

Impact on European Culture

The capitals on the columns and pillars in the impressive vaulted hall on the westwork’s ground floor reflect a wide range of classical forms. Elements like acanthus leaves or geometric patterns in the surviving fragments of ornamental friezes also show that the artists drew inspiration from classical antiquity. The unique inscribed tablet on the westwork’s façade bears witness to this influence, too, although its valuable original was replaced by a copy in the twentieth century.

World History on the River Weser

Corvey was one of the most important monasteries of the Frankish empire. Founded in 822 on the initiative of Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious, the Benedictine abbey soon developed into an intellectual, economic, political and cultural centre. Also thanks to its advantageous situation on the banks of the River Weser, it became a shining beacon whose rays extended into all corners of the known world.

Traces of Shapes and Colours

Today it takes a feat of the imagination to conjure the westwork’s original interior decoration. In the next few years, however, a virtual experience will be installed to carry visitors back in time. More than 1100 years ago, Carolingian artists hired by the abbot to celebrate the westwork’s inauguration created splendid shapes and colours turning the tall rooms into a fascinating world of images. Ornamental friezes decorated every architectural element, and figurative scenes confronted the monks going about their daily routine with the “dreadful sea of the world” whose temptations they had to resist if they were to enter into the “Heavenly Jerusalem”.

Go North, Young Man

Louis the Pious acted on an idea of his father’s when he asked the monks of Corbie Abbey in Picardie to establish a new monastery. Its name, Nova Corbeia, gradually mutated into Corvey. The precious manuscripts which the monks brought with them from the motherhouse laid the foundations for Corvey’s marvellous monastic library. The first teacher at the new abbey school in which these books were studied was a monk named Ansgar, who went on to become archbishop of Bremen and Hamburg. Known as the Apostle of the North, he brought Christianity to many parts of northern Europe. It was just as Charlemagne had planned: Corvey became an important missionary centre.
Picture: Statue of St. Ansgar in Hamburg