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

Following the first post about the Monastic Island of Reichenau, which focuses on the outstanding values as well as its history and glory (such as the golden and silver ages, the scriptorium, the St. Gallen Monastery Plan, the poet monk, Hermann the Lame etc.), this post is gonna focus on introducing the three churches on this island. As I mentioned in the previous post, while introducing the Church of St. George and the Church of St. Peter and Paul, I’ll combine the introduction of relevant museums with them.

The highlights in this post would be in the Abbey Church (Minster) of St. Mary and Mark, the east transept with the crossing, the west transept with the tower and the rich treasury; in 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; and in the Church of St. George, the Ottonian wall paintings decorating the crypt, nave and west tribune. After presenting the three churches I’ll also give you a glimpse of the vegetable-growing and fishing industries as well as an introduction to the highest point of this island, from which you can not only enjoy a panorama view of Reichenau Island and Lake Constance, but also see some cities or towns in both Germany and Switzerland. Now let’s get started with the Abbey Church (Minster) of St. Mary and Mark, the center of this monastery complex.

1 The Abbey Church (Minster) of St. Mary and Mark

Originally there were more than 20 churches on this island but over the centuries, only three left, among which, the Minster of St. Mary and Mark demonstrates the best the monastery’s history. It’s constructive stages can be seen and understood in the church and from the Reichenau Museum. In summary, the oldest part in the minster is the east transept with the crossing (816). Nevertheless, the west transept with the tower, built under Abbot Bern (1008-1048), is equally important. In the last section of this chapter, I’m also gonna introduce to you the rich treasury where the Holy Blood Monstrance, the relics of St. Mark the evangelist and the “Pitcher of Kana” are kept.

1.1 The construction history of the minster

Once you enter the minster, it might not seem as fancy as the basilicas in Rome or Paris. However, this Carolingian cruciform basilica of Mittelzell, consecrated in 816 is particularly valuable due to its size and exceptional state of conservation. The crossing and the east transept are the oldest parts of it (816). The west transept and apse (tower) linked to them by the nave were built under abbot Bern (1008-1048) and are of equal importance. Do pay attention to the old crossing here because it is a major example of this particular type of crossing (ausgeschiedene Vierung) in Europe. In a typically oriented church (especially of Romanesque and Gothic styles), the crossing gives access to the nave on the west, the transept arms on the north and south, and the choir, as the first part of the chancel, on the east. When I first entered this minster, I was a bit confused because I couldn’t find where the crossing was. After reading more about this specific minster online I noticed that there are actually two crossings here and one is in front of the west apse and the other one in front of the east apse. As for understanding why there are two apses and two crossings in this minster, we need to start by learning about the history of it. 

During Abbot Heito’s term of office (806-823), he had a new abbey church built, devoted to the Mother of God St. Mary. Certain parts of it can still be seen nowadays. Then in the 9th century, probably built by Abbot Hatto (888-913), a second church devoted to St. Mark in late Carolingian style was added to the west of the Church of St. Mary. Unfortunately, a big fire in 1006 almost destroyed the church but it was restored by Abbot Bern (1008-1048) and was redesigned with a west transept and a central tower consecrated in 1048. The “Norman” roof in the shape of an upside-down ship was erected in 1236 and in 1453 the late Gothic choir was attached, before which, the “East Church” hasn’t been changed since 816. If you feel it’s a bit complicated to understand these modifications, I strongly recommend you visiting the first floor of the new museum building in Museum Reichenau. You will see clearly how and when the constructions and changes took place from an info board, explained in detail by models and drawings of floor plans.

1.2 The treasury of Minster of St. Mary and Mark

In the Middle Ages, the worship of the bodily remains of saints or objects related to the crucification and resurrection of Christ was very popular. This was based on the belief that seeing or even touching these holy relics will make miracles happen. Considering that Reichenau Monastery has no graves of its founding saints such as St. Gallus, St. Otmar or St. Wiborada, it started collecting relics from all of Europe in the 9th and 10th century and because of this, a large number of mediaeval relics are kept in valuable shrines in the Abbey Church Treasury nowadays. The most important ones are without doubt the bones of St. Mark the Evangelist, the Holy Blood relic, the pitcher from the wedding at Kana and the skull of St. George, which is kept in the crypt of the Church of St. George in Oberzell. Some other shrines also include the bones of St. Januarius, St. Felix, St. Regula, St. Genesius, St. John, St. Paul and St. Fortunata.

Probably the most famous relic, the Holy Blood relic, came to this island as a donation between 923 and 925. I read online that this relic is actually the sand within which Christ’s blood was absorbed and the sand is enclosed in a Byzantine abbot’s cross. In 1630, during the 30 Years’ War, the Reichenau monk Maurus Speth brought this relic to the Cistercian monastery of Günterstal for safety. Then, on the 26th May, 1738, in a festive procession, the Holy Blood relic was carried back and was kept in a Baroque monstrance. In 1739, the Holy Blood Altar (as shown in the first photo in this section) was erected to celebrate its return. It is said in the book that the monstrance with the holy blood relic is kept in the Abbey Church Treasury but I couldn’t find it there. Later on, I did some more research online and came to an assumption that the monstrance is still kept in the upper compartment of the Holy Blood Altar and only during the three religious holidays (as I mentioned at the beginning of the first post) will it be taken out and shown to the public. Please contact me if you somehow find it in the treasury or you know where it is exactly. Thanks in advance.

As for the shrine of the relics of St. Mark the Evangelist (as shown in the second picture in this section) and the “Pitcher of Kana” (as shown in the third picture in this section), I can confirm with you that they are in the Abbey Church Treasury. The former was brought to this island by Bishop Ratolt of Verona in 830 and the latter was brought here by Abbot Hatto III in around 900. Please note that this pitcher of the Greek and later Reichenau monk Simeon is one of the oldest Kana pitchers worshipped in Europe.

As for the relic, or skull of St. George, it is said to be kept in the crypt of the Church of St. George and we will talk more about it in the next chapter.

2. Church of St. George

This church is especially famous for the wall paintings about the miracles of Jesus and the relics of St. George. Now let’s start exploring them.

2.1 The church and the relic of St. George

This church was probably built (by the end of the 9th century) for the relic of St George and has preserved its original state of the 10th and 11h century. I assume that the St. George here is the one who’s in the legend about St. George and the Dragon because I saw a statue of him defeating the dragon. Wow, think about it, the head of the saint who killed a dragon is here! Now, let’s have a look at how the skull came to be here.

The founder of the church was Abbot Hatto III, who was also the archbishop of Mainz and the arch-chancellor of the empire, which made him probably the most important abbot in politics from Reichenau Monastery. In 895, he accompanied King Arnulf of Kärnten to Rome, who was in 896 crowned emperor by Pope Formosus. In this occasion, Hatto received the head of St. George from the pope as a gift. It is said that this relic is now kept in the crypt hall under the square area in the east. Unfortunately, both doors to the crypt were closed and I wasn’t able to enter, otherwise it would be really exciting to see it.

What’s also important but unaccessible to the visitors in this church is the wall painting “Return of Christ for the Last Judgement” in the Chapel of St. Michael located on the upper floor of the entrance hall. This painting is one of the oldest monumental depictions of this theme in the early Middle Ages (around 1050/60). Nevertheless, fortunately, in the nave, the most amazing mural wall paintings, the most important early Medieval ones that have survived are open to the public.

2.2 The wall paintings of the Miracles of Jesus

Please trust me that in order to understand these wall paintings, the best way is to go first to the museum of the Church of St. George located 2 mins away by foot from the church. As for the opening hours, you can check it in the first post about this monastic island and the entry is free of charge. In the museum you will not only learn about the history and structure of the church, the arrangements and meanings of these Ottonian wall paintings but also how the paintings were painted, rediscovered, protected and preserved. To be honest, these real mural paintings are not that clear and if you wanna try to figure something out in them just by yourself, it could be very difficult. For me, after visiting the museum, these paintings all of suddenly became so precious and wondrous to me because I finally understood the values in them.

The paintings were probably commissioned during the term of office of Abbot Witigowo and are the only complete and largely preserved scenic church wall paintings north of the Alps, which are dated before the year 1000. Do you know that there’s a specific way of reading the paintings? I learnt it from the info board in the museum and from the book. It is said that you should start on the north wall from west to east and the you will reach the altar. After it, you should continue on the south wall from east to west and at last your attention will be attracted by the “Last Judgement” (1708/09) on the wall of the west apse, “which the believer walks through in reality and in faith right before going through the exit door”.

In order to understand these paintings, it’s important to understand the mains scenes as well as the surroundings. For example, each picture panel with the miracles of Jesus Christ is accompanied by a latin inscription called Tituli (title), summarizing the content, as well as an meander frieze specifying the reading direction of the scene. Do you know what’s the origin of the horizontally arranged three-part structure of the wall panels? Can you spot the seven doves on each wall and do you know what they symbolize? Are the portraits above the columns of the abbots? You will find your answers in the nearby museum.

Having learnt how to read them, now let’s see what the eight miracles depicted here are. Based on what I saw in the museum and what I read from the book, I’m gonna list the names, authors and some Tituli (titles) of the eight wall paintings based on the order I mentioned above.

  1. “Healing of the Demon Possessed Man of Gerasa”, Mark 5: 1-9. Titulus: “The demon is driven out, which bears the name Legion. Then (the demons) enter the swine. They throw themselves into the open sea.”
  2. “Healing of a Man with Dropsy”, Luke 14: 1-11. Titulus: “A man with dropsy comes straight toward the path and is healed. He goes there loaded. He returns freed of the burden.”
  3. “Calming of the Windstorm on the Sea of Galilee”, Matthew 8: 23-27. Titulus: “God sleeps in his bodily form; east and south in particular break loose. With sovereign power he gives the command. Wind and water are calm.”
  4. “Healing of the Man Born Blind”, John 9:1-38.
  5. “Healing of a Leper”, Matthew 8:1-13.
  6. “Raising of the Young Man of Nain”, Luke 7:11-16. Titulus: “Dead one, rise quickly, ‘and by rising and at the same time saying’, return to life! And so drive away all sadness of your widowed mother!”
  7. “The Daughter of Jairus Restored to Life and A Sick Woman Healed”, Matthew 9:18-26. Titulus: “See, the faith of the ruler encourages you, Jesus, to say. By the power of (my) right and (my) force I want to, ‘Magdalena, now arise’!”
  8. “Lazarus Raised from the Dead”, John 11:1-45. Titulus: “‘Lazarus, come forth!’, you who have already been buried four days! ‘Leave the delay in death.’: Thus speaks the Father’s image.”

Do you know that it was not until 1879 that these paintings were rediscovered? Before that, the first changes were made in the 14th century and at the end of the 18th century, almost the whole church was whitewashed. After the rediscovery, the paintings were also restored and repainted. However, all the overpainting previously applied was removed for the authenticity of them. The last restoration of the Church of St. George was completed in 1990 and no new changes were added to the paintings.

The mural wall paintings in the nave together with the early Medieval condition make the Church of St. George an extremely popular destination for tourists. However, this popularity also brings threats to the church itself and trouble to the people and organizations that are trying to preserve it. I read from the UNESCO World Heritage website that the growing number of visitors at the Church of St. George is resulting in a change of the interior climatic conditions. The rise in humidity, pollution and moulds are actually damaging the paintings. At the beginning, I didn’t think about this specific issue because I took it for granted that how can my visit affect the condition of a church. Nevertheless, after reading about it, I realized that it makes sense. When I was there, I already saw several groups of people coming and going and that was just in half an hour. Can you imagine how many visitors come in an hour? in a day? in a month? in a year? in 10 or even 100 years? In fact, since 1980, the climatic conditions in this church have been continuously recorded by experts from what is now the University of Stuttgart and they found evidence or reasons to be worried. In order to cope with this situation, relevant departments have established a strategy to control visitors’ access such as replacing individual visits by guided tours in high seasons. As individuals, it is usually not that easy or natural to realize the impact that we might have as a big community. Also, we need to understand that all the heritage should be shared among us of the current generation as well as among our future generations. In one word, all that we need to keep in mind is “respect“, because remembering it, consciously or subconsciously, we will help to preserve our common heritage.

3. Church of St. Peter and Paul

Now it’s time for the last church on this island, the Church of St. Peter and Paul. At the very beginning this Church was only called Church of St. Peter and it was consecrated by the bishop of Verona. When you’re in it, you probably wonder that this three-nave church with a central apse looks rather simple but why is it so important? Why did the name of it change from Peter to Peter and Paul? To answer these questions, again I recommend you first visiting the museum of the Church of Peter and Paul located only 1 min away from it by foot. Based on what I learnt from the museum and from the book that I mentioned before, I’m gonna focus on the history the church, the mural paintings in the apse, the name inscriptions in the underside of the altar slab and the choir screen panels discovered during excavations.

3.1 The history of the church and its fresco in the apse

Considering the origins, this is the second oldest church on this island that survived till today. In order to understand the history of it, it’s necessary to know something about its founder, Bishop Egino of Verona, who was the first Alemannic bishop of Verona under the Carolingian rule but local political resistance caused him to leave the town. Probably at that point he had some connection with Abbot Waldo of the Monastic Island of Reichenau, he started “bombarding” the abbot with requests to allow him to stay on this island. Due to Egino’s high status and reputation, Abbot Waldo granted him a small monastery cell at the edge of the island. When you visit it, you will realise that the location is indeed a bit far from the centre. Nevertheless, one of the most important buildings of the Carolingian age, the Church of St. Peter, was created here in Niederzell and was consecrated in 799.

In 1080, the Church of St. Peter was torn down and Abbot Ekkehard of Nellenburg had the new church, the Church of St. Peter and Paul as we know nowadays, built on the old foundations. This columned three-nave basilica without any transepts but with a three-part choir was completed in 1134 and its mural paintings of exceptional quality in the apse is one of the earliest depictions of Christ in Majesty (Maiestas Domini) surviving north of the Alps. I read on the info board of the museum that

Christ is enthroned in a mandorla on a rainbow. Evangelist symbols frame the picture of the Majestas Domini. This is flanked by what are probably the two church patrons Peter and Paul, as well as six-winged angles. Below the arcades the twelve apostles are depicted with books and the prophets with banners.

Actually the fresco was not rediscovered until 1900. Together with the remodelled Rococo decorations, it makes the Church of St. Peter and Paul at Reichenau-Niederzell another popular and unique attraction on this island.

3.2 The altar slab and traces of the choir screen

I read from the book that before the current church was erected, the original building of Bishop Egino was “richly painted with figured scenes and leads to the assumption that monumental painting on Reichenau Island already experienced a heyday in the 9th century”. The painting technique can be tracked down to Northern Italy Lombard wall painting. What’s more, “sculpture fragments together with woven ribbon ornamentation are also evidence of a rich decoration”. Unfortunately, because of the torn-down, we won’t have the opportunity to see its glory anymore. However, we can still take a glimpse of its characteristics and history from the traces of the choir screen and the altar slab.

Before you enter the nave of the church, you should be able to see two screen panels on the floor in the side chapel. They were once part of the choir screen in the original building of Bishop Egino and were discovered during excavations from 1970 to 1976. The woven-ribbon-work shows a characteristic of North Italian wall painting.

As for the altar slab, in 1134, when the new church was completed, a new box altar was also erected. However, the old mensa slab was reused and turned over. It was in 1976 that the name inscriptions scratched into or written with ink on the underside of the slab was discovered during restoration work. The names were written from the 10th to the 11th century and have been recited in prayer during the “memento” while celebrating mass. As I mentioned in the first post, the Reichenau monks initiated a book of brotherhood in 824 for the same reason. If you are interested, please visit the relevant museum to learn more about it in a more interactive way. By the end of the museum, you will see a small area separated from the main hall by a few steps. That’s where you will take a glance at the vegetable- and vine-growing, wine-producing and fishing industries. In the next chapter I’ll tell you a bit about these industries as well as the highest viewpoint on this island.

4. The vegetable-growing and fishing industries and the highest viewpoint

As I mentioned in the previous post about this island, since the end of the 1960s, because of the change of climatic conditions, the main industry has been shifted from vine-growing to vegetable-growing. In the last 50 years, many efforts have been made to increase the production. For example, sprinklers have been installed all over the island, greenhouses, which cover a total area of 98 acres have been created and a wholesale business for packaging and the sale of vegetables has also been established. Once you are on this island, you will see the fields, sprinklers, greenhouses and all kinds of vegetables everywhere. All these measures made it possible that an agricultural land covering only 296 acres could produce a total amount of 12,000 tons of vegetables in 2-3 harvests every year. The main vegetable that this island grows are different kinds of lettuce, tomatoes, radish, green beans, leek and cucumbers.

Though there was a big transformation in industry from vine-growing to vegetable-growing on this island, it doesn’t mean that all the vineyards have disappeared. Nowadays, the majority has turned to be the minority but they have certainly occupied an advantageous area of the island, the “Hochwart“. This is the highest point of the island and I strongly recommend you going there to not only have a look at the vineyards, enjoy a panorama view of Reichenau Island, Lake Constance and some cities or towns in both Germany and Switzerland, but also to take a seat, have a cup of coffee or maybe a glass of wine and relax yourself. As I said before, if you are a wine lover, all the vineyards are basically concentrated here and you can not only follow the wine trail to learn about different kinds of grapes but also take part in a special wine tasting session during the right season in the cellars.

Considering Reichenau is an island, I guess it’s not too difficult to imagine that the fishing industry here is also developed. Actually, fishing on this island has been controlled by the monastery for many centuries. However, in order to protect and preserve the endangered species, a fish breeding center was established on this island in 1927 and was extended in the 1960s. Nowadays there are around 20 professional fishermen living on this island and the main species of fishes are whitefish, pike, trout and perch. I strongly recommend you having a fish dish in one of the restaurants here on this island, maybe also with a glass of wine of the local brand? What’s a better way to complete your experience by enjoying some local special delicacies?

I guess till this moment, I’ve completed my task of telling you what I experienced or learnt during my visit to Reichenau Island. Nevertheless, I can assure you that there’s much more to discover. If you can manage a simple walk for 2-3 hours, I suggest that you take a self-guided round tour along the island following the designed route called “Inselrundweg”, Island round way (You can take a map of the island from the Tourism Office and the route will be marked on it). The three churches are located across the whole island and if you take the “Inselrundweg”, you will not only visit the museums and churches but also take a look at the vegetable-growing industry and vineyards. For me, this is a much better way to have a complete image of this island. It is also my this visit that taught me learning about religion is not about whether to believe in god or not, it is about history, culture and art. Therefore, please don’t take it for granted that monasteries or churches are only for religious people. They are always for history, culture and art lovers. Nevertheless, do keep in mind that they should be respected because they were created for the whole world and for the past, present and future generations. All in all, as a global citizen, it is our responsibility and obligation to protect, preserve and spread all the values of the world heritages.

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