Danford, Rachel:

Reimagining the Carolingian Past in the Westwerk at Corvey

This paper approaches the question of Carolingian authenticity by asking how the late Carolingian monastic community at Corvey understood their own early Carolingian past. I focus especially on the Westwerk’s decorative program.

Corvey was founded as an outpost to solidify the church’s presence in Saxony following Charlemagne’s war against and conversion of the Saxons. However, the Westwerk was built sixty years later when priorities had shifted, the abbey functioned mainly as a royal Memorialstiftung, and interest in Corvey’s early history was high. Monks in Corvey’s scriptorium copied texts in Old Saxon, and the Poeta Saxo reimagined the Saxon war in a new epic poem. The Westwerk’s program must be interpreted within this context.

Six figures in stucco relief, four in military dress and two female figures in veils, occupied the spandrels of the atrium. Frescoes in the narthex depict marine subjects, including Odysseus and Scylla, a siren, a sea-centaur, naked riders on dolphins, and ships. Rather than reading the frescoes through the problematic lens of the Carolingian renovatio, I argue that the Westwerk uses the distant paganism of antiquity to comment on the more recent paganism and conversion of the Saxons, an integral part of the abbey’s history. The presence of military figures in stucco was also meaningful at Corvey, where the notion of monachus as miles Christe had special purchase, as expressed in the biographies of the abbey’s founders.

The Westwerk is a late Carolingian monument where the early Carolingian past of just two generations before was invoked as a basis for identity formation and legitimation.
The early Carolingian past was vital to how the late Carolingians thought of themselves, but Carolingian identity was not stable across time or uniform throughout the empire, even in the ninth century. The question must be approached on a case-by-case basis. Thus, I stress the unique, historical circumstances surrounding the Westwerk’s construction.

Rachel Danford is a ph.D. candidate at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She currently lives in Munich, where she holds a Samuel H. Kress Institutional Fellowship in the History of Art at the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte. Her dissertation explores the use of stucco as a material for figural sculpture in the early Middle Ages, addressing questions of materiality, the semantics of technologies of production, and the interplay and boundaries between media.