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The monastery island of Reichenau.

"Reichenau, blossoming island, how you are blessed before others, Rich in treasures of the knowledge and holy purpose of the inhabitants, Rich in the fruit of the fruit tree and swelling grape of the vineyard: You are always in bloom and in the lake is reflected the lily, Your fame resounds afar into the misty land of the Britons." --Abbot Emerich of Ellwangen, 9th century

On my last visit to Germany, I was eager to visit the Monastery Island of Reichenau off the southwestern tip of the country. The island has an idyllic location, situated in Germany's largest lake, Lake Bodensee (Lake Constance in English) whose shoreline is shared by Liechtenstein, Austria, and Switzerland. With a surface of over 210 square miles and a volume of 400 million barrels of water, the lake sits in the foothills of the Alps.

Reichenau has an amazing Catholic history, which begins in the 6th century with the arrival of Bishop Pirmin of the Irish-Franconian Catholic tradition who established a Cathedral there. Because of its historical, cultural, and religious uniqueness, the Monastery Island of Reichenau was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in November 2000. At that time, it was cited as "a cultural landscape giving an outstanding testimony to the religious and cultural role of a great Benedictine Monastery in the Middle Ages. The well-preserved churches of the island offer clear examples of monastic architecture from the 9th to 11th century. The carefully renovated wall paintings show Reichenau as an artistic centre of great importance for European art in the 10th and 11th centuries. The monastic era has strongly characterised the image of the island--its countryside as well as its economic structure--in a way that is perceptible to the present day. Visitors today can tour the three Ro manic churches there, the museums and the rich agricultural enterprises on the island.

Actually, Reichenau is no longer an island. In 1838 it was connected to the mainland by an embankment, thus making it accessible to motorists and cyclists. Approximately 3500 inhabitants live on the island with another 1500 on the mainland. As you cross over you can smell the unique fragrance of herbs, gardeners, fishermen, and vine growers. As someone once described the view: "Greenhouses, vineyards and fields of lettuce alternate here with precious old churches."

How was it that the itinerant Bishop Pirmin, former bishop in the Irish-Franconian monastic tradition in a town near Paris, came here in 724 AD? He was sent by Merovingian King Karl Martell to found a Benedictine Abbey on the 4.5 km long and 1.5 km wide island, the largest of the three Lake Constance islands. According to a 10th century manuscript, it was crawling with a "terrible breed of various and unusual worms" when he arrived. He commanded them into the deep water. "For three days and three nights the surface of the lake was covered by an astonishing number of hideous snakes." However, he enlisted some soldiers to clear the bushes and underbrush to create an open area where he built his church. From that day on, "the place had healthy air, pleasant flowing water, fertile soil, shady trees and very productive vineyards?'

Pirmin brought with him about forty Benedictine monks and remained with them for three years, founding numerous other monasteries in the Ortenau region of Germany and in Alsace. He died in 753. By the early Middle Ages, this monastery school was one of the most famous in the Holy Roman Empire. It cultivated the arts of poetry, music, book illumination, and wall painting. One of its famous students was the talented Walahfird Strabo, considered the first great monk poet of the Middle Ages. One of his poems, the "Visio Wettini" is considered to be the precursor of Dante's "Divine Comedy" Herman the Lame, a talented musician, was another monk who lived from 1013-1054. During his residency at Reichenau he devised a system for measuring time before and after the birth of Christ, which has been used ever since. He also published two important works on the astrolabe.

The reason the Reichenau establishment was so influential was because it was one of 80 out of 700 monasteries in the Carolingian empire that was an educational and training centre where abbots acted in some cases as educators of princes, diplomats, and traveling envoys. Teachers of distinction--theologians, politicians, scientists, poets, and musicians--taught there. Medical lore was collected by the monks and preserved in books. The "monk's medicine" was developed in step with the herb gardens. Its monastic library, the "Reichenauer Malschule" (painting school for wall and book illustrations) and the art of its goldsmiths were famous. From the 8th to the 11th century, the abbey became one of the spiritual centres of the western world. It was in the Reichenau scriptorium in the mid-800s that the architect's plans for the renowned Swiss St. Gallen's Monastery were drawn up--another model of a monastery town like Reichenau in which economic, living, and liturgical rooms are arranged in a functional manner. The Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire or Reichskrone was made here for the coronation of Otto the Great in 962. It was also later identified as the Crown of Charlemagne, which Napoleon later used to crown himself Emperor.

After the golden years, which witnessed the reign and patronage of Charles Martel, Pippin III, Pippin the Short, and Charlemagne, the monastery increasingly lost importance and began to spiritually and economically decay. In 1540, the monastery was converted into a priory and it was eventually dissolved by Pope Benedict XIV in 1757. Yet the three Romanesque churches on the island remain as outstanding illustrations of monastic architecture from the 9th to the 11th century. Their wall paintings alone show Reichenau to be an artistic centre of great importance in European art history during the 10th and 11th centuries.

I visited three churches while on the island. The first was the Basilica of St. George. Although unadorned on the exterior, the inside is magnificent. In the three-nave Romanesque columned building are found eight wall paintings depicting the miracles of Christ. This cycle of paintings was begun around the year 1000 and completed by about 1060. They were commissioned by Abbot Witigowo of whom his biographer wrote: "He created an earthly paradise that glitters from the light in which the adornment of the church shines and sparkles far and wide."

But by 1620 the exquisite paintings were covered over and by the end of the 18th century the entire interior of the church had been whitewashed over. Fortunately, in 1879 the paintings were rediscovered. However, the last restoration was not completed until 1990. Underneath the main floor of the church is the crypt with the relic of St. George's skull, given to King Arnulf when he was crowned Emperor in 896 by Pope Formosus.

The church of St. Peter was built in 799 by Bishop Egino, who introduced many changes into the type of script used in the scriptorium. Two hundred years later a bigger church was built called St. Peter and St. Paul. Later, wall paintings were again covered and not rediscovered until 1900. In the 1970s some of the choir screen panels from the original church were recovered and are now preserved. In 1976 the old altar slab was turned over and the names of those who were to be remembered in the liturgy--the living and the dead--were found, having been inscribed in the early 10th century. Three hundred and two out of the 400 names are still legible--monks, clerics, and laypeople.

The Abbey church of St. Mary and Mark is the last of the original thirty churches to survive. It is named after the relics of the bones of St. Mark which were brought to the island in 830 by Bishop Ratolt of Verona. The Holy Blood Relic (which explains why the stained glass windows are done in red glass) stands as the most important feast day in Reichenau church life. It's kept in the Abbey Church Treasury and brought out on Monday, following Trinity Sunday for procession. On 25 April the bones of Mark the Evangelist are processed in another major feast day celebration and, on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on 15 August, another Festival is held.

Today life goes on in a manner reflecting the island's origin as a "monastery town." In 2001 two Benedictine monks founded a small "cella" here, which was officially approved by religious authorities in 2004. Outside the monastery buildings there is a thriving agricultural community which has an international reputation for its vegetable harvests. The island inhabitants are able to have three harvests a year with 170 hectares of farmland and 50 hectares of greenhouses. Reichenau is Germany's southernmost vine-growing area, due to a relatively high sunshine duration--1250 hours on average from May to October. In addition, the large area of the lake around the island reflects light and heat, conveying warmth to the vineyard slopes particularly in the autumn. Like a huge natural air-conditioning plant, the lake ensures minimal variations in temperature, preventing frosts in spring and autumn.

The first vine was planted in 818 at the time of Abbot Heito I. However, a devastating hard frost killed off most of the vines in 1929. Regrouping of agricultural land carried out in the 1970s led to renewed success in vine growing. Today, the vine growing areas once again comprise approximately 20 hectares. Very little is exported because Germans consume most of this favoured product.

Herb growing also has deep roots. In the 800s, Abbot Walahfrid Strabo wrote the didactic poem "De cultura hortorum" (on the culture of gardening) about the herb garden of the island monastery. "HORTULUS" is the first awareness of horticulture in Germany. In 444 verses, Strabo described 24 medicinal and cooking herbs as well as ornamental plants, which still enrich the gardens today. In 1991, the herb garden was re-established in the former monastic garden according to Strabo's design.

Fishing is also an island industry, with approximately twenty professional fishermen on the island. Large sections of the island are designated nature reserves and migrating birds flock to them. With these wetlands along the banks, the landscape is thus preserved just like Pirmin, who established the monastery, found it. The remarkable "blossoming Island" continues to shine in all its glory.

(For more information, contact the German National Tourist Office at

Lorraine O'Donnell Williams, MSW, retired psychotherapist, is an author, freelance writer, and book reviewer and a member of St. Patrick's Parish in Markham, Ontario. Her most recent book is Memories of the Beach: Reflections on a Toronto Childhood (Dundurn Press, 2010).
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Author:Williams, Lorraine O'Donnell
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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