Monastic Island of Reichenau – the cradle of western culture (1/2)

As commented by the UNESCO:

The island of Reichenau on Lake Constance preserves the traces of the Benedictine monastery, founded in 724, which exercised remarkable spiritual, intellectual and artistic influence. The churches of St Mary and Marcus, St Peter and St Paul, and St George, mainly built between the 9th and 11th centuries, provide a panorama of early medieval monastic architecture in central Europe. Their wall paintings bear witness to impressive artistic activity.

赖谢瑙修道院之岛: 德国康斯坦茨湖(Lake Constance)中的赖谢瑙岛上完好地保存着贝纳迪克汀修道院(Benedictine monastery)的历史遗迹。该修道院建于公元724年,在宗教、认知和艺术方面都曾有过巨大影响。岛上的圣玛丽与马库斯教堂、圣彼得教堂、圣保罗教堂和圣乔治教堂都建于公元9世纪至11世纪之间,为中世纪早期的修道院式建筑提供了一幅可贵的全景图。教堂里的壁画则是各种影响深远的艺术活动的见证。

In conclusion, the three churches – the Abbey Church of St. Mary and Mark, the Church of St. George and the Church of St. Peter and Paul, together with the monastic buildings and ten other buildings on the island of Reichenau have been declared cultural monuments of outstanding value. The values are especially demonstrated in this island’s contributions to monastic architecture in central Europe from 9th – 11th century, to the history of art from 10th – 11th century and to the religious and cultural role that it played in the early Middle Ages. For example, the three churches make up a splendid example of medieval churches keeping remarkable elements not only of Carolingian, Ottonian and Salian architecture, but also of several stages of construction. In order to understand this, I strongly recommend you visiting the three museums related to the three churches and from there you will see how the structures of them changed over certain periods of time. Its role as an artistic center of its time between the 10th and 11th century is well illustrated by the monumental wall paintings and illuminations, which are of vital importance to the art history in Europe. As for understanding its religious and cultural role of a great Benedictine monastery, the best way is to celebrate at least one of island’s religious holidays, that is to say the “Festival of St. Mark” (25th April), the “Festival of the Holy Blood” (the day after Trinity Sunday) and the “Ascension of St. Mary” (15th August).

During the three religious holidays, if they happen to fall on weekdays, people don’t need to go to work and children don’t need to go to school. You can already imagine how important the holidays are to the residents of the island. All of them proceed as follows:

  • 8:45: parade of the historic militia at the Minster Square
  • 9:00: high mass in the Minster of St. Mary and St. Mark with attendance of the minster choir and orchestra
  • 10:30: shrines with relics will be taken out of the treasury of the Minster of St. Mary and St. Mark and will be carried across the island in a procession, accompanied by historic militia, people wearing traditional costumes and religious associations
  • 11:30: at around this time, the parade of the militia finishes by handing over the flag at the Minster Square

Actually I’m really interested in these religious traditions and I heard that the tradition of the Holy Blood Festival dates back to the Benedictine abbey. As far as I know, only on this day will the visitors have the opportunity to witness the Holy Blood Monstrance. In books I read that this particular monstrance is kept in the treasury of the Minster of St. Mary and St. Mark but when I went there I couldn’t find it. Afterwards I did some more research online and I found out that it’s possible that the Holy Blood Monstrance is kept in the upper part of the Holy Blood Altar, which is located in the east apse of the minster. Below is the back of the altar seen from the east apse close to the treasure.

Since we’ve mentioned the three churches I’ll give you a brief introduction here concerning what the highlights are about them and why they’ve been inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage list.

As for the Abbey Church (Minster) of St. Mary and Mark, the east transept with the crossing, the west transept with the tower, the rich treasury as well as the herb garden north of it are the must-visit “attractions”. When you are inside the Church of St. Peter and Paul, the apse consecrated by bishop Egino of Verona in 799 and the important romanesque frescoes from around 1110 will surely attract your attention. Nevertheless, the most popular destination for visitors on this island is still the Church of St. George with the Ottonian wall paintings decorating the crypt, nave and west tribune, the most important medieval paintings to have survived.

Please don’t have the wrong impression that the three churches are enough to represent the history and culture of this monastic island. In order to understand the island, the past and the present, it’s necessary to visit the three museums located close to the churches (Museum Reichenau, Museum of the Church of St. Peter and Paul, Museum of the Church of St. George). They are where the knowledge and secrets are kept. I suggest that before you go to visit each church, go to the relevant museum first to learn about and understand it. In this way, when you visit the churches you will know what is precious about them and how to appreciate them.

In two consecutive posts about this island, I’m gonna introduce to you the history and glory of Reichenau Monastic Island (such as the golden and silver ages, the scriptorium, the St. Gallen Monastery Plan, the poet monk, Hermann the Lame, the holy relics etc.) and of course the three churches (the three churches will be introduced in the second post). As for introducing the Church of St. George and the Church of St. Peter and Paul, I’ll combine the introduction of relevant museums with them. However, considering the first museum (Museum Reichenau) is about both the Minster of St. Mary and Mark and the history of the whole island, I’ll introduce it separately from the relevant church. By the end of the second post, to complete your experience, I’ll provide you with some information about the island’s vegetable-growing, wine-producing and fishing industries. Now let’s get started by visiting Museum Reichenau and travel back in time to see in the past more than 1200 years, what this island has gone through.

1. Museum Reichenau

Please note that the Museum Reichenau is made up of two buildings. An old museum building for the history of the citizens on this island and a new one for the history of the monastery and the construction history of the Minster of St. Mary and Mark. I’ll first of all provide you with some practical information such as the opening hours and entrance fees and then I’ll introduce to you the exhibitions in these two buildings separately with emphasis on the new one.

Opening hours:

  • April – October: daily from 10:30 – 16:30
  • July & August: daily from 10:30 – 17:30
  • November – March, Saturday, Sonday and public holidays: from 14:00 – 17:00

Please note that the opening hours apply to all the three museums on this island. The opening hours of the churches are usually a bit longer (or sometimes the same as the museums) so if you are in a hurry, make sure to visit these museums first.

Entrance fee:

  • Adult: 3 euros
  • Children (7 – 14 years old): 1.5 euros
  • Groups with more than 15 people: 2 euros per person

Please also note that entry to the other two museums next to the Church of St. George and the Church of St. Peter and Paul is free of charge.

1.1 The history of Reichenau citizens (the old museum building)

This exhibition about the history of the Reichenau citizens is presented in the historic “old town hall”, one of the oldest half-timbered houses in southern Germany. The first two floors were built in the 12th century and in the middle of the 15th century two half-timbered floors were added. I read from the official website of the museum and I translated the German texts as follows:

Previous research assumes that the house used to be the seat of the monastery director, who acted as judge over the market and the citizens. After the citizens began to become independent of the monastery, the building was supposed to have served as some sort of a town hall of the community. Later on the house was inhabited by peasant families, until it came into the possession of the municipality in the 1930s and then it was used as a town hall till 1976. In 1982 the museum was born.

This museum consists of three floors plus an attic and features an image of the citizens’ life. I’ll give your a brief tour of it from the ground floor to the attic and the pictures in the gallery above is also in this order. On the ground floor, where the reception and the ticket office are located, you will be able to take a glimpse of the history of agriculture here. Particularly notable are the equipments used for vine-growing and wine-producing. Did you know that Reichenau had been a wine-producing island for a really long time before its transformation to a vegetable-growing one due to climate change in the 1930s? On the first floor, what impressed me most was a series of rooms designed like the old farmhouses of around the 1900s. What’s more, the figures of the Reichenauer Fasnacht (carnival), traditional costumes as well as an artistic room featuring the local artworks invite us to learn about the island’s traditions and customs. I read from the official website that the historical council chamber together with another two rooms are on the second floor and are used to hold special annual exhibitions. When I was there in the autumn of 2017, the exhibition was called “Sickness and healing of the souls, 100 years of psychiatry in Reichenau“. The attic is probably the most interesting place for children and nature lovers. It’s like a natural history museum, using models demonstrating birds and fishes in their natural habitats. Also on display are models of ships, boats and a boat builder’s workshop as well as pictures and equipments related to the fishing industry. One sad aspect about this museum building is that the explanation here is only in German. If you don’t understand German it might be a bit disappointing for you during your visit. Now let’s go back to the ground floor and get ready to enter  the new museum building about the history of the monastery (Just go through the reception desk and you will see the entrance door in front of you). Don’t worry, all the descriptions are both in German and English.

1.2 The history of the monastery (the new museum building)

Please note that the new museum building is made up of two floors, with the first floor dedicated to the history of the monastery and the second one dedicated to Abbot Waldo and the golden age of the monastery. Unfortunately the exhibition on the second floor is only in German again. Considering you can already learn quite some about the “Golden Age” on the first floor, in the next sections I’m gonna focus on the first floor only. What I wanna say about the second floor is that if you understand German, the multimedia devices (as you can see from the picture above) together with the historical documents will largely enhance your understanding and knowledge of the most glorious period of the monastery.

As for the first floor, trust me, there’s so much to see and so much to learn. I could easily spend one hour or two here, but of course, the length of time that you wanna spend here depends on how much you want know about the monastery. (I have one more small tip for you, which is if you don’t have enough time to read the texts in the museums, you can purchase a book called “The Monastery Island of Reichenau in Lake Constance – Cradle of Western Culture” by Timo John. Though less interactive and lively than the museums, the book contains as much knowledge. A big proportion of the introduction and explanation in this post is also based on what I read from the book.)

In this chapter, I’m just gonna list some highlights (the golden and silver ages, the scriptorium, the St. Gallen Monastery Plan, the poet monk, Hermann the Lame, the holy relics etc.) and make a general introduction of them to you. Otherwise I’m afraid I can even write a small book about it. As you can see from the first picture in this section, the exhibition room is mainly arranged with huge info boards with written texts, pictures, maps, models and even screens (Please remember that these info boards are double-sided). Once you enter the room, it won’t be difficult to notice that right in front of you is the central wall featuring the theme “ScriptoriumBook Production in the Middle Ages”. This specific “function” of this monastery contributed to a large extent to its reputation as an artistic and cultural center of Europe in the 10th and 11th century. Now let’s start by taking a look at the first info board on your left and learn about the founding of Reichenau monastic island.

1.2.1 Abbot Pirmin, the founder of Reichenau Monastery

It is said that in 724, the itinerant bishop Pirmin together with about 40 monks founded the Benedictine monastery on Reichenau Island in honor of Mary and the apostles Peter and Paul. In the first quarter of the 8th century, he acted on order of the Merovingian major-doom Karl Martell and as an itinerant bishop, Pirmin traveled through the empire and founded many other monasteries in the Ortenau region of Germany and in Alsace in France. In 753, he died in the Hornbach Monastery in the Palatinate, which he founded in 740. The arrival of bishop Pirmin at Reichenau Island was described in the 10th century as follows (Pirmin vita, RTP 9, Pg. 75):

As the worshipper of the Lord, Pirminus, set foot on said island (Reichenau), it occurred on God’s command that the entire terrible brood of various and unusual worms sought the path into deep water crawling and squinting from the other side. And for three days and nights the surface of the lake was covered by an astonishing number of hideous snakes. Then Pirminus ordered the soldiers of Christ to tear out thorns and thistles, bushes and useless underbrush, as well as all shoots of no use to man, with hoes and other iron tools. With his own hands and with the help of others he created a nice open area in three days by clearing it. Then he built a lovely house on it for the living, true God and left behind shared lodgings for his disciples.

Next, let’s admire this monastery’s most glorious days.

1.2.2 The “Golden and Silver Ages”

If the farmers cultivated this island with fruits, vine and vegetables, the monks cultivated it with intelligence and art. In the early Middle Ages, with the chapels, churches and an expansive monastery complex, Reichenau Island was one of the empire’s most famous schools specializing in poetry, music, book illumination and wall painting. When I first saw the half body statue of the emperor I remembered that I “met” him before. After thinking about it, I realized that I saw his stucco statue in St. John Monastery in Müstair, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. I also remembered that he is the emperor Charles the Great, who was caught in a snowstorm while crossing the Umbrail Pass but managed to escape. In order to thank god for his escape, he is said to have founded the Monastery of St. John.

The “Golden Age” of the monastic island was mainly under the rule of Emperor Charles the Great and Ludwig the Pious. Among around 700 monasteries of the Carolingian Empire, 80 were Imperial Abbeys committed to the king, which also played the role of Europe’s educational and training centers. The Reichenau Monastery stood out in these 80 Imperial Abbeys because of its outstanding schools, library, scriptorium as well we the abbots who acted as advisors, government officials, educators of princes and diplomats. During the “Golden Age”, two abbots are especially worth mentioning due to their contributions to the educational reform. The first one is Abbot Waldo, who is regarded as the founder of this age. He was much trusted by Charles the Great and the emperor called him to Verona as a teacher for his son Pippin. In 806, Abbot Waldo was also appointed by the emperor as the abbot of St. Denis Monastery near Paris, which was the highest ranking monastery of the Carolingian Empire. The second one is Abbot Heito, who was also a confidant of Charles the Great and he attested the emperor’s last will and testament in 811. One great and influential contribution that he made to this monastery is that he reformed it in the aspect of the rules. When the monastery was first founded, the monks were living under the rule of Benedict and old Gallic rules of Irish-Columbian monasticism. It was not until 817 that the pure rule of Benedict was introduced at Reichenau Monastery and throughout the empire.

The “Silver Age” of the monastery was in the 10th century and it (the monastery) was under the rule of the Saxon Emperors. During this period of time, busy building activities began and the Reichenau School of Painting reached its peak. Emperor Otto (I) the Great particularly won the service of the clerics by transferring secular duties and extensive possessions to them while in return, they were supposed to increase their political and military service to the king. Reichenau Monastery followed the Ottoman Kingdom closely and in return, it received numerous gifts and privileges. The two most important abbots during this period of time are Witigowo and Bern (or Berno). Abbot Witigowo is called the “right hand” of Emperor Otto III because of his great influence on the politics of him. The famous wall paintings in the Church of St. George were most likely created during his term of office. Abbot Bern was one of the most famous scholars of his time and he was a huge supporter of architecture and painting. Being open to innovations, he made a fundamental redesign of the abbey church (now Minster of St. Mary and Mark) and added the west transept. Unfortunately, he was the last important abbot of the monastery and his retirement brought an end to the monastery’s glorious days.

1.2.3 Scriptorium – book production in the Middle Ages

Now if you move forward to the central wall, you will learn about another achievement of this monastery, which is that in the 10th and 11th century, it probably possessed the largest scriptorium and  the most influential school of painting in Europe. In around 820, the collection of books was around 400 volumes. However, the manuscripts were not only interned for internal use. They were also produced for “export” purposes for example, for the imperial bishops, kings, emperors and popes. Judging by the targeted “customers”, you can already imagine the excellent quality of the books. Produced by the “Liuthar Group”, the magnificent works are among the best in the field of book illumination. For example, you will be able to see the copies of “The Evangelary of Otto III”, “The Bamberg Apocalypse”, “The Lectionary of Emperor Heinrich II” and “The Egino Codex” (You can see them in the gallery above. However, the originals are kept in deferent libraries of different cities.) It was also here on this island that an independent style of book illumination developed, placing more emphasis on intellectual content over reality.

Since you’re here, you will see some drawers with labels saying “Pull”. Don’t be afraid to open them because they will reveal to you the secrets of the “Book Producing Industry”. You will have an opportunity to see the tools such as ink horns, goose feathers, sheep parchment as well as binding, gilding materials and dyes used at that time by the monks while copying books. Don’t forget that more than 1200 years ago, there were no printing machines and each book had to be hand made and that was not an easy task. In the following scribe from the 8th century you will have a better understanding of the reason. (In the museum you can also learn about how a book was produced within a team of monks.)

O happiest of readers, wash your hands and grasp the book, turn the pages gently, hold your fingers far from the letters. He, who does not know how to write, does not believe that this is work. O how difficult writing is: it clouds the eyes, squeezes the kidneys and at the same time brings agony to all members. Three fingers write, the entire body suffers

V. Trust, Scriptorium, 1991, Title Page

1.2.4 The St. Gallen Monastery Plan

When I read in the museum that the St. Gallen Monastery Plan was produced here in the scriptorium of Reichenau Monastery between 825 and 830 I suddenly became very interested. This is because I’ve been to the monastery of St. Gallen, which was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1983 and I still remember the wonderful library that it contains. This plan is Europe’s oldest surviving architect’s plan from the Middle Ages and was probably produced by the monks based on the structure of their own monastery complex. One piece of evidence is that on the St. Gallen plan, a separate building for a library with a scriptorium was added to the monastery, and it was planned in exactly the same place as where the Reichenau library and scriptorium were located in the Reichenau Monastery.

This plan also demonstrates the close relationship between the two important monasteries in the early Middle Ages. They did not only engage in active exchange of ideas and texts but also in knowledge and skills. Abbot Waldo and Abbot Werdo made a contract of prayer brotherhood between the abbeys of Reichenau and St. Gallen and “it is the oldest set of agreements of this kind“. Only the books of prayer brotherhood from monasteries Reichenau, St. Gallen and Pfäfers in Switzerland have been preserved till today.

1.2.5 The Poet Monk – Walahfrid Strabo

During the age of the Carolingians and Saxon Emperors, the literature written was intended to strengthen the Christian faith and to spread knowledge. The monk and later abbot Walahfrid Strabo was the most important and the greatest monk poet in the Middle Ages in Europe. He gained such reputation particularly because of two of his works, that is to say, “Visio Wettini”, which made him the founder of medieval afterlife poetry and “De cultura hortorum”, the earliest medieval description of gardens and plants. Nowadays, a small herb garden described in this poem can still be visited north of the Minster of St. Mary and Mark. I was rather attracted by the small screen in the info board, where you can not only see the layout of the garden but also touch and learn about the facts about specific herbs (as you can see on the right side of the picture above). Below is an extract about sage from Walahfrid Strabo’s poem “De cultura hortorum”.

Sage blooms in vivid colors at the very front at the entrance of the Garden,

Sweet in smell, full of effective powers and healing to drink.

Many an ailment of the people to heal, it proved itself useful,

To stand eternally in green youth, it has earned through this.

But it bears a perishable dispute in itself: for the flowers’ young, if it is not hindered, cruelly destroys the main shoot,

Allows in greedy envy the old branches to die.

Walahfrid Strabo, “Hortulus”, Stoffler, 2000, Pg. 129

1.2.6 Hermann the Lame – miracle of the century

Above we just talked about the most important poet of the European Middle Ages. Now, let’s have a look at the most outstanding monk scientist of this monastery, Hermann the Lame, praised by his contemporaries as “miracle of the century“. Though seriously lamed, he acted as a teacher, theologian, mathematician, musician and historian, who composed music, wrote poems and a large chronicle of the world, constructed clocks and invented a system of musical notation. As I read from the book, “he placed in the absolute context of the Christian counting of the year for the first time and introduced his calculation of time “before and after Christ” which is still valid today”.

We are finishing our visit to Museum Reichenau soon. However, another very important section in this museum is about the holy relics that this island possesses. Considering they are kept in the treasury of St. Mary and Mark’s Minster, I’ll explain more about them when we are inside the minster. In the next post, I’ll focus on the three churches including the holy relics, the construction of them and the amazing wall paintings. By the end, I’ll also briefly introduce to you the vegetable-growing and fishing industries as well as the view point (highest point) of this island. See you soon.

Monastic Island of Reichenau – the cradle of western culture (1/2) was last modified: January 5th, 2019 by Dong

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.