Kornelimünster. The Early Modern Buildings at the Imperial AbbeyCopyright: © Carsten Hensgens
The Early Modern Buildings at the Imperial Abbey of Kornelimünster. Display of Relics and Imperial Representation at a Foundational Site of the Holy Roman Empire
Founded between 814 and 817 by Louis the Pious and thus not only imbued with historical connotations but also endowed with prestigious relics – in particular three pieces of cloth from the Passion of Jesus Christ, which originally came from Charlemagne's collections – the Imperial Abbey of Kornelimünster was an important memorial to the founding of the Holy Roman Empire by the Carolingians. From the early 16th century onwards, its abbots therefore sought to prominently showcase both the relics and their own role as their custodians. To this end, they erected two additional naves with a devotional balcony and a display window, an octagonal chapel at the main apse and, from 1721, new convent buildings in the form of a cour d’honneur of Baroque inspiration.
However, while the medieval parts of the abbey church were comprehensively examined even in the 1960s, the later interventions have hardly received any attention. In 2017, the Chair of Architectural History, together with kunsthaus nrw and various student research teams, has therefore started a detailed investigation into the chronology and use, as well as the architectural ideas and motivations of the Early Modern abbey buildings, based on the methods of building archaeology. Key themes include the abbot's residence with its façade and its sequence of Grand Staircase and Imperial Hall, the visitors' wing with its apartments and banqueting hall, the structures used for the actual presentation of the relics, and the resulting consequences for the format and rituals of the presentation ceremony.
It became clear that the layout of the complex, especially in a place like Kornelimünster, can only be explained by the desire to provide the aristocratic pilgrims’ route towards the relics with an adequate architectural backdrop. The study also showed that the buildings and their decoration must have been intended to elevate the relics to imperial status and thus make them materially legitimize the idea of empire, newly relevant in the aftermath of the War of the Spanish Succession, right before the eyes of the pilgrim nobility. In consequence, the insights gained in Kornelimünster also serve as a starting point for further research into the representation of the imperial idea at the peripheral sites of imperial tradition, and into the combination of Italian and French influences within the formal language of the specific ensemble, which in turn became a model for the subsequent architecture of the Aachen region.