The new architecture, inspired by the forms of antiquity, abandoned the small boxlike shapes of the Merovingian period and used instead spacious basilicas often intersected by vast transepts. In some churches, such as Fulda and Cologne, the central nave ended in semicircular apses. An innovation of Carolingian builders, which was to be of incalculable importance for the later Middle Ages, was the emphasis given to the western extremity of the church. The facade, flanked symmetrically by towers, or simply the exterior of a massive complex (westwork), became the focal point of the structure. The function of the westwork is still debated. It had an elevation of several stories, the lowest a vaulted vestibule to the church proper, and above, a room reached by spiral staircases, which may have served as a chapel reserved for high dignitaries.
The outstanding structure of the Carolingian period still in existence is the palatine chapel at Aachen, dedicated by Pope Leo III in the year 805. It is centralized in plan and surmounted by an octagonal dome. The design of the palatine chapel appears to have been based in part on the 6th-century Church of San Vitale in Ravenna. Other important structures still partly preserved, or known through documentary evidence, include the churches of Corbie, Centula (Saint-Riquier), and Reichenau.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.