The basilica is named after its builder Einhard. He was one of Charlemagne’s most important confidants and author of his biography, the “Vita Karoli Magni”. Charlemagne’s successor Louis the Pious gave Einhard both the area around today’s Seligenstadt and the Mark Michelinstadt in the Odenwald, today’s Michelstadt. Here, between 815 and 827, Einhard had a magnificent church built, as he himself wrote, “of a not inglorious kind, suitable for holding divine service”, in which he later also wanted to be buried with his wife Imma.

Authentic Architecture of the Carolingian Period

Although the appearance of the three-nave building has changed several times over the course of time, its substance dates for the most part from the Carolingian period, as the period between the middle of the 8th and the beginning of the 10th century is called after the Frankish ruling family. The high quality of the craftsmanship of the time is evidenced, for example, by the light-coloured plaster around the windows on the north wall of the nave, which has defied wind and weather there since the beginning of the 9th century.

Alongside the gate hall of Lorsch Abbey, the Palatine Chapel and the Granus Tower in Aachen and the west work of the monastery church in Corvey, Einhard’s Basilica in Steinbach is one of the last examples of authentically preserved Carolingian architecture in Germany.

Einhard's Basilica Michelstadt-Steinbach

Einhard wanted his basilica, which he had built in the Odenwald between 815 and 827, to be “a church of a not inglorious kind”.

Foto: Michael Leukel, 2020
Einhard's Basilica, plaster

The plaster around the windows of the central nave, the so-called clerestory, was applied around the year 827 and is still original today.

Foto: Michael Leukel, 2020
Einhard's Basilica, roof truss

The open roof truss was built of oak beams in 1168, making it one of the oldest roof structures still in existence in Germany.

Foto: Michael Leukel, 2020

Roman Models

Einhard was inspired by architecture and construction during a stay in Rome, where he was impressed by the great basilicas. A basilica was originally a magnificent building in antiquity where courts were held and trades were conducted.

Later, the term was transferred to early Christian churches that were built according to this model. In art history, the word “basilica” refers to an elongated church building in which the side aisles are lower than the central nave.

Relics Should Ensure Salvation in the Hereafter

In order to consecrate a basilica and later use it as a burial place, the relic of a saint was needed. Like the people of his time, Einhard hoped to obtain the intercession of this saint at the Last Judgement by praying to him. Through adventurous means, Einhard obtained the relics of two very famous martyrs of the time, Saints Marcellinus and Peter, which had been stolen from a Roman catacomb.

After only a few months, Einhard decided to move the bones from the Odenwald to Seligenstadt and build another and larger church there. According to legend, the martyrs indicated that they did not want to stay in Michelstadt. In reality, of course, other reasons played a role. Einhard probably hoped to be able to better present the two famous saints in Seligenstadt.

Basilica Remains as a Timber Yard

After Einhard’s death in 840, the basilica became the property of Lorsch Abbey. When Hesse became Protestant as a result of the Reformation, the Erbach Counts bought the complex. For years it served as a shed for hunting equipment and as a wood store for the Erbach court carpenter.

This explains, on the one hand, that Einhard’s Basilica has not been used as a church for centuries and, on the other hand, why the building is so well preserved: the carpenter could only use dry wood and therefore always took care to keep the roof tight.