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Monastic Island of Reichenau Germany

The remains of the Reichenau foundation bear outstanding witness to the religious and cultural role of a great Benedictine monastery in the early middle Ages. The Monastery of Reichenau was a highly significant artistic centre of great significance to the history of art in Europe in the 10th and 11th centuries, as is superbly illustrated by its monumental wall paintings and its illuminations. The churches retain remarkable elements of several stages of construction and thus offer outstanding examples of monastic architecture in Central Europe from the 9th to the 11th centuries.

Monastic Island of Reichenau
Continent: Europe
Country: Germany
Category: Cultural
Criterion: (III)(IV) (VI)
Date of Inscription: 2000

The History of the Island of Reichenau

For over 1,000 years the history of the island of Reichenau, which lies in the northern reaches of Lake Constance, was closely intertwined with that of the monastery. The first Abbot, Pirmin, was given the task of building a monastery in honour of the Virgin Mary and Saints Peter and Paul. He oversaw the building of the first abbey, a wooden building, at Mittelzell on the northern shore of the island, as well as a three-winged cloister against the north side of the church. The whole building was gradually rebuilt in stone by 746. The monastery received generous endowments of land, and the island, an integral part of the abbey lands, was given over to agriculture. The monastery became a famous centre for teaching and creativity in literature, science, and the arts. The church was consecrated in 1048, in the presence of Emperor Henry III.

At the western end of the island of Reichenau, Egino, a former Bishop of Verona, built the first church of St Peter at Niederzell, consecrated in 799. The church was twice rebuilt and slightly altered in the 9th-10th centuries. The monastery buildings lay to the north, near the lake. In the late 11th and early 12th centuries the church was rebuilt and its two east towers were completed in the 15th century. Now dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, it became a parish church and was decorated in Rococo style in the 18th century. Abbot Heito III built the church of St George at Oberzell in the eastern part of the island in honour of the relic of the saint's head, which he brought back from a voyage to Rome in 896, the year of the church's consecration

Monastic Island of Reichenau Germany
Monastic Island of Reichenau Germany

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The former abbey of St Mary at Mittelzell features three aisles and opposed transepts. It retains its rectangular west tower, flanked by narrow porches and the broad west transept dating from the mid-11th century. Beneath this high tower lies the apse, in front of which stands the altar. The 12th-century nave with its wooden roof opens out into the east transept whose crossing is defined by four identical broad arches and the liturgical choir of the church dedicated in 816, the oldest parts of the church. The Flamboyant Gothic choir is flanked by a sacristy and treasury. The monastery built in the 17th century on the southern side of the church now houses the town hall and the presbytery.

The church of St Peter and St Paul at Niederzell is a Romanesque structure of three aisles culminating at the eastern end in three hemispherical apses concealed within a central block and flanked by two impressive bell towers. The central apse retains fine wall paintings from 1104-34 laid out in three rows. A figure of Christ in Majesty in a mandorla is surrounded by symbols of the Evangelists, the patron saints of the church, and cherubim. Above stands a row of Apostles and another of the Prophets. Other fragments of 12th-century wall paintings survive, particularly in the north chapel where they represent the Passion Cycle.

In the church of St George at Oberzell a two-storey porch and a western apse dating from the early Romanesque period lead into the Carolingian church consisting of three aisles and a west choir of complex structure topped by a tower. The walls of the nave are decorated with remarkable early medieval wall paintings depicting the miracles of Christ. Each of the scenes is framed by decorative bands while painted busts feature between the arches of the arcade and figures of the Apostles between the windows. The chapel of St Michael on the first floor of the porch is also decorated with wall paintings depicting the Last Supper.

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