The famous choir ruin of Heisterbach. It is all that is left from the medieval church that once was the biggest of the region, surpassed only by the gothic cathedral in Cologne.When you come from Oberdollendorf to Heisterbacherrott, you see already from far at your right the monastery’s baroque portal (18th century). A little later you arrive at the famous choir ruin of Heisterbach. This is all that is left from the medieval church that, in those days, was one of the biggest of the region, surpassed only by the gothic cathedral in Cologne.
The Monastery of Heisterbach was founded in 1189 by Cistercian monks. Back than, archbishop Philipp von Heinsberg of Cologne, a very powerful man in the Empire, had asked for them to come to the Seven Mountains and help strengthening his position. The monks first settled on the Petersberg mountain and built a chapel there, but only three years later they moved to the valley of Heisterbach. Under the second abbot Gevard (1196-1209) and third abbot Heinrich I. (1208-1240) the great church was built. Today we only have the ruin of the choir and reconstructions. We see a building in late Romanesque style, and also that the architect knew the new Gothic style coming from France. He was lead by his wish to reconcile exquisite architecture and the Cistercian ideal of simplicity.
The most famous monk of Heisterbach is Brother Caesarius, who lived there from 1198 to 1240, was a well known chronicle writer. Thanks to him we know quite a lot about the lives of the monks in those days: they prayed, built their church and tilled their soil. Already soon they had more than they needed for themselves, and so they could feed the poor in times of need. Caesarius writes about a great famine in 1198 when 1.500 people found help at the monastery’s gate. Another, surprising passage in Caesarius’ chronicle sheds light on how things were like in his time. When some monks were, on their way, assaulted and robbed by brigands, he didn’t get angry about the brigands or the bad times, no, he blamed his fellow brothers: “That serves them right”, he wrote, “the monks are greedy. Business men, that’s what they are, God cannot tolerate their greediness” (quoted from “Siebengebirge – Ein Streifzug durch das Mittelalter” (The Seven Mountains, a Brief Survey of the Middle Ages) by Heinrich Blumenthal and Gudrun Blumenthal).
In Caesarius’ time, the High Middle Ages, there were worldly and clerical rulers who possessed extensive estates and political influence; one of them was the Archbishop of Cologne. The monks were no destitute humans who had renounced the world, but mostly members of the Rhenish nobility. It was also the time of the crusades: many knights wanted to go to Palestine and needed cash for that, so they offered their estates and castles for low prices. Also the business-minded monks in the Monastery of Heisterbach bought land close to the Monastery and rounded off their property. They also bought the castle of Rosenau – just to tear it down. But as to the history of this castle and the part that the Monastery Heisterbach played in it, we are still faced with a riddle.
The Monastery of Heisterbach belonged to the Archbishops of Cologne until 1803, when Napoleon redrew the political map of the German Empire and most of the clergymen were dispossessed, including the Archbishops of Cologne. The monastery of Heisterbach was done away with and its demolition ordered. Yet, the choir and other parts of the wall of the Monastery of Heisterbach still stood, because in 1818 the Prussian authorities (since the Congress of Vienna, the Rhineland belonged to the Kingdom of Prussia) had stopped further demolition – although the state chancellery did mention that the population showed only little patriotic interest in saving the monuments.
So today we only have the ruin of the choir. If you think of the Seven Mountains, you will also see the Monastery of Heisterbach appear in your thought. The choir is a well known site for taking pictures, but it is also a wonderful place to come to for some time of peace and contemplation. Yet, as interesting as it may be as motive for photos, it also is an “evidence of barbarity”, as Hermann José Roth says in his article in the German book “Das Siebengebirge, Natur, Landschaft, Kultur”, Köln 2002.