Heisterbach Abbey

Ruin of the medieval choir Heisterbach
Ruin of the medieval choir

You may have seen the choir ruin of Heisterbach on picture postcards or flyers about Siebengebirge tours. Once, the Heisterbach’s abbey church was the biggest in our region, surpassed only by the gothic cathedral in Cologne. The famous choir ruin is all that has remained.

Since 1919, Cellites have been living at Heisterbach, and last year they could commemorate their centennial.

Time of prosperity

Let us go back to the high middle ages at the end of the 12th century. The powerful Archbishop of Cologne, Philipp von Heinsberg (1167-1190) had asked the Cistercian monastery of Himmerod to send monks to the Siebengebirge. They were to settle onMount Stromberg, as Mount Petersberg was called back. This was also a political coup, because where the archbishop’s monks founded their monastery, no count or duke could build his castle. So on 22 March 1189 twelve monks from Himmered, led by abbot Hermann (1189-1196), came to the Siebengebirge and settled on Mount Petersberg. But already in 1193 they moved down to Heisterbach valley.

The Abbey Church

Under the second abbot Gevard (1196-1209) and third abbot Heinrich I. (1208-1240) the great church was built. It was one of the largest in the region back then, only the Cologne Cathedral was larger and higher. The stones for the construction were mined at the nearby Stenzelberg mountain.

Today we only have the ruins of the choir and drawings of what it might have looked like back then. Heisterbach is an important example of late Romanesque architecture in Germany. At the same time, the architect was familiar with the new Gothic style coming from France. Here at Heisterbach he wanted to harmonize architecture and the Cistercian ideal of simplicity.

Caesarius of Heisterbach

The most famous monk of Heisterbach is Brother Caesarius, who lived there from 1198 to 1240, was a well known chronicle writer. At first he was a novice master and wrote teachings which were copied over and over again and used in many monasteries.

In his most famous work, the “Dialogus miraculorum”(1219/23), he described the everyday life of the monastery in miraculous tales. The Cistercian monks wanted to live in seclusion according to the Benedictine rule “ora et labora” (pray and work) and run their monasteries on their own. Soon they had more than they needed for themselves and were able to provide for the poor in times of need. Caesarius reports of a great famine in 1197, when 1,500 people were helped at the monastery gate. “The hand of the poor is God’s sacrificial box,” he said. A hospital was also built. In 1254 Countess Mechthild, the widow of Henry III of Sayn, donated 13 new nursing homes for the poor.

So thanks to Caesarius, 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, 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.

Years of prosperity

Heisterbach was not quite so isolated, of course, and the Heisterbach abbots of the Staufer era were also politically important men. Abbot Heinrich I was in contact with Emperor Friedrich II, King Heinrich (VII) and the Pope. The Archbishop of Cologne, Engelbert I. von Berg (EB 1215 -1225) was closely associated with the monastery. When he was murdered in 1225, Abbot Heinrich I. moved with the funeral procession to Frankfurt for the court day and brought charges against the murderers.

Places of pilgrimage

As the years of prosperity went by, Heisterbach Abbey got into financial difficulties. The maintenance of the abbey swallowed up large sums of money which the monks could no lo longer earn themselves.

At the beginning of the 14th century, the chapel on Petersberg and the abbey church in Heisterbach became places of pilgrimage. Here, indulgences were granted, i.e. people could join a procession on a church holiday or make a pious donation and have their sins forgiven. Papal proclamations of 1312 and 1319 confirmed this. Since then, pilgrims went up to Petersberg and Heisterbach Monastery for many years.

Still the abbey remained in debt, so severe church punishments were imposed and abbots were deposed. Due to staff shortages, servants had to be hired and parts of their possessions were leased. In 1469, the abbot of Heisterbach was even suspected of illicit trading with relics.

Heisterbach in early modern times

The Truchsess War of 1583-88 devastated the Rhineland. Heisterbach monastery was burned down and suffered badly.

In 1650 Heisterbach received the pontificals, i.e. the abbots were almost equal to bishops. Down in Königwinter-city they had their own residence. 1750 the baroque gatehouse was built.

Secularization and demolition

For a some six centuries Heisterbach Abbey had been the religious center of our region and also the largest landowner. Then the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte swept away the Old Empire and the old order. When the left bank of the Rhine fell to France in 1801, the princes who had lost territories there were to be compensated by territories on the right bank of the Rhine. But to do this, the ecclasiastical states had to disappear from the map. By the Imperial Recess of 1803 (Reichsdeputationshauptschluss), the Archbishopric of Cologne was dissolved, the clergymen were disposessed.

Still in the same year, on 12.09.1803, the government of the Duchy of Berg abolished Heisterbach Abbey and offered the church for sale. In 1809, it was purchased by the French entrepreneur Piautaz, who quarried stones here for the construction of the north canal between Venlo and Neuss.

After the victory over Napoleon, the Rhineland fell to Prussia. The Ehrenbreitstein fortress was also built with stones from Heisterbach. Fortunately, the Prussian authorities stopped further demolition in 1818 – 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.

Romanticism

In 1820, Count Wilhelm Ernst zur Lippe-Biesterfeld acquired the former abbey grounds and, in the spirit of his time, created an English landscape garden. Then the romantics discovered Heisterbach. The poet Wolfgang Müller from Königswinter (1816-1873) took up the old legend and wrote his poem “The Monk of Heisterbach”. Painters like Wilhelm Steuerwald (1815-1871) discovered the ruined choir and the dilapidated walls in the middle of the landscape garden as a motif. Later it was a picture book motif for picture postcards.

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