The so-called Gate Hall or Königshalle (King’s Hall) is the only remaining Carolingian structure from the monastery and, as one of the most famous examples of early-medieval architecture, has helped to spread the Lorsch name beyond the surrounding region. Despite its fantastic state of preservation (maintaining its current appearance since the 14th century), the Königshalle (King’s Hall) is still shrouded in mystery. The structure was dated to the Carolingian period in the early 19th century (by Georg Moller in 1815), yet research has been unable to establish when exactly and for what purpose it was built.
The theory that the Königshalle (King’s Hall) was built for Charlemagne, who returned home from Italy having defeated the Langobards, has recently been convincingly challenged. Based largely on architectural evidence, the date of construction is estimated as the late 9th century, contemporaneous with the ecclesia varia, which was built shortly after AD 876 as the crypt chapel for the Carolingian dynasty of East Francia. Both structures may have had a similar façade; the particularly eye-catching and unusual appearance of the crypt chapel may have even been the reason why it was given the name ecclesia varia (colourful church).
Art history research conducted on the paintings on the upper floor does not preclude a dating in the era of Louis the German (Louis II) or his son Louis the Younger. A fragment of a painted inscription with particularly high-quality calligraphy can be dated to a time between AD 820 and AD 900, using the available techniques of palaeography (Sebastian Scholz). This time period does not exclude the possibility of an earlier dating, somewhere in the first third of the 9th century, as Matthias Exner presumed based on observations of Carolingian mural paintings.
The function of the Königshalle (King’s Hall) is an even greater mystery. The building has been identified as a monument inspired by the architecture of triumphal arches from the Roman Empire, a style revived by Charlemagne. It was a place of judgement, a site for imperial sojourns, and – most recently – a library and an architectural shrine for the public exhibition of relics guarded by the monastery. Most plausibly, Achim Hubel’s theory claims that the Königshalle (King’s Hall) could have been constructed for a liturgical event and ceremony pertaining to the monarch’s reception. The theory of a structure intended for the ruler along the Procession Route to the monastery church thereby gains further credence. In which case, the building’s classification as a secular structure would have to be revised.
Since the mid-1980s, the Königshalle (King’s Hall) has been the subject of detailed art history and architectural research projects, as well as comprehensive conservation and restoration measures, all of which have been carried out on behalf of the Verwaltung der Staatlichen Schlösser und Gärten Hessen (Hessen Administration of State Castles and Gardens). Recent conservation efforts have revealed several layers of plaster and paint, four of which can be discerned today by visitors. The oldest is the inscription fragment on the smoothed jointing mortar, which dates from the time the structure was built. Another finding, dated at about the same period, is a largely preserved architectural mural on dry plaster. Internal conservation measures aim to preserve the original mural painting that covers the surfaces of the walls on the upper floor. This remarkably high-quality mural has only recently been evaluated, and, unlike the reconstruction attempts from the 1930s, its depictions of columns and balustrades are much more vibrant.
The next layer falls between the earlier Carolingian findings and the late medieval form of the room. This can only be seen in one place, to the left of the alcove. Fragments of figurative paintings (probably a representation of the archangel Michael) can be seen on one area of slurry that covers the Carolingian layer.
The fourth clearly visible layer preserves the remains of the late medieval painting in the room. The roof of the Königshalle (King’s Hall) was fundamentally altered in around AD 1380/90 at the latest. The roof and the gable were made steeper and a barrel vault inside replaced the rather flat internal surface. All the wall surfaces received a new layer of plaster, which was then painted with scenes from the life of Mary the Mother of God.
There was a short period when the structure must have been a ruin, after which the Königshalle (King’s Hall) found a new role at the end of the 17th century under Prince Elector Franz Lothar von Schönborn, the Archbishop of Mainz, as a chapel for his small hunting residence. Subsequently, the ‘little chapel’, as the people of Lorsch came to call the Königshalle (King’s Hall), gained a small ridge turret to house a bell as well as some internal fixtures. Preparations made to the wall surfaces for baroque plastering were disastrous; deep grooves and holes were hacked into the walls with a pickaxe to provide support for the new layer of plaster and in some places the historical layers of plaster seem to have been completely removed.
Demolitions carried out by Friedrich Behn (completed in 1935) gave the late medieval form back to the building, which is the form seen today, with only the bell tower acting as a reminder of its latter-day use as a chapel. The northern stair tower had come loose in 1840 due to road construction and was rebuilt on the remaining foundations (at which point it was also observed that the stair apses were built at the same time and were not, as Behn presumed, later additions).
The outer appearance of the building has also changed over the centuries. However, the fact that the elaborate façade decorations from the time of construction have remained virtually unchanged for more than a century is evidence that the Königshalle (King’s Hall) has always been a special monument. The unique and colourful external décor, which was achieved using a combination of Roman construction techniques and impressive coloured building blocks, is justifiably highlighted as something special. The sculptural decorations unite two of the typical characteristics of Carolingian art. On the one hand, the half-columns with Attic bases and composite capitals are a perfect embodiment of ‘classicism’; they may even be reused pieces originating from the Roman era, i.e. spolia. On the other hand, the upper floor façade above a palmette frieze is quite different. It is also the only decorative element (apart from the eaves cornice) on the narrow side of the building. Here, visitors can find fluted pilasters applied flat onto the façade; their stylised capitals seem to carry steep gabled cornices, which, just like the pilasters, no longer hark back to the architectural style of Antiquity, but are instead a kind of laboured appropriation and ‘translation’ of ancient architectural forms in the vocabulary of the contemporary period. The only newer elements are the window jambs on the three western and two eastern windows of the upper floor and the decorative stones around them, which presumably replaced plastered areas in the 1930s; these can still be seen in old photographs.
Dr. Hermann Schefers