Maria Laach Abbey (Abtei Maria Laach or Kloster Maria Laach) is a Benedictine abbey in northwestern Germany. Picturesquely located on the wooded shores of a crater lake, Maria Laach's abbey church is a beautiful and important example of German Romanesque architecture.
History of Maria Laach Abbey
The Abbey of Maria Laach was founded in 1093 by the Count Palatine of the Rhine Heinrich II (d.1095) and his wife Adelheid (1100). They were unable to have children and donated what would have been spent on a dowry on the foundation of a monastery across the lake from their castle. The founding document read:
The foundation was accepted and overseen by the Archbishop of Trier and the first monks came from the monastery of St. Maximin near Trier. Built on the west side of the lake now known as the Laacher See, the monastery became known as the Abbatia ad Lacum, "Lake Abbey."
Laach is the Old High German word for "lake" and has been preserved in the name of the lake and the abbey. But the modern German word for lake is See, so the lake is called the Laacher See. The addition of "Maria" to the abbey's name did not happen until the 19th century.
Heinrich hired builders from Lombardy to construct the monastery. The foundations of the church were already laid by the end of 1093 and the crypt and 10 feet of the walls were completed when Heinrich died in 1095. Upon Countess Adelheid's death in 1100, construction came to a stop.
In 1112, Count Palatine Siegfried of Ballenstedt, stepson of Heinrich, gave the monastery to Affligem Abbey in modern-day Belgium. Laach monastery became a Priory and its 40 monks were led by Prior Gilbert of Affligem from 1127. In 1138, Laach became an independent abbey with Gilbert as its first abbot.
Building work finally continued in earnest under Gilbert's successor Fulbert (1152-77), and the crypt, nave and west choir were consecrated by the Archbishop of Trier on August 24, 1156.
A donation from Countess Hedwig von Are in 1170 allowed the completion of the east tower and west gallery by 1177.
The west porch with courtyard, or "Paradise," was added in 1220-30 under Abbot Gregory (1217-35). It was constructed by builders from Burgundy, France, who also completed the western towers and replaced the flat timber roof with a stone vault.
Under Abbot Diedrich II von Lehmen (1256-95), some modifications were made in the Gothic style and monastic life and economy were revived. Farms, vineyards and relics were among the abbot's many purchases. Diedrich's contributions were so extensive that some historians have dubbed him the abbey's "second founder." In 1270, he commissioned the monument of the first founder, Abbot Gilbert, which was placed in the center of the nave. Today it stands in the west choir.
The abbacy of Simon von der Leyen (1491-1512) coincided with the period of Rhenish monastic humanism and Laach Abbey became an important center of learning. It was a fertile period for art as well; the three large frescoes at the west end of the nave survive from this period.
The late 17th and early 18th centuries, especially under Abbot Placidus Kessenich, saw extensive renovations in the Baroque style. All the furnishings were replaced, including the altars, pulpit, choir stalls, and organ. The founder's monument was moved to the west choir where it remains today. The Late Romanesque baldachino was also moved there, but has since been returned to the east apse.
Laach Abbey was dissolved on August 6, 1802, as part of the "Secularization" of all lands west of the Rhine under Napoleon. The abbey became the property of the occupying French, and then the Prussian state in 1815. Most of the monastic buildings were sold to private owners. The monastic buildings were badly damaged by arson in 1855, but the church was spared.
In 1864, the abbey buildings and the farm were acquired by the Jesuits, who renamed it "Maria Laach" and established a school there. They rebuilt the front wing, which remains today, and added some new barns. The church remained owned by the Prussian state, which restored it and kept it in good repair. The Jesuits were exiled from Prussia in 1873 during the Kulturkampf.
Benedictine monks from Beuron Abbey acquired the monastery in 1892 and in 1893 Maria Laach attained abbey status once again. The first abbot, Willibrod Benzler, later became Bishop of Metz. Extensive restoration of the church was initiated by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1897. The choir stalls, altars and pews were replaced and the east apse was decorated with mosaics (the latter beginning in 1905). Wilhelm specified that the apse mosaic be based on the Christ Pantocrator of Monreale Cathedral.
Maria Laach Abbey played a significant role in the 20th century, particularly in the field of liturgy under Abbot Ildefons Herwegen (1913-46) and after the Second Vatican Council.
In 1956, the church was restored and fitted with new stained glass windows to mark the eighth centenary of its dedication. More changes to the furnishings and the addition of six more bells occurred in 1985-2000. A restoration of the church's famed west porch is currently underway, with much of it now covered in scaffolding and white plastic. The work began in January 2008 and is expected to be completed by the end of 2009.
What to See at Maria Laach Abbey
The church of Maria Laach is widely considered a masterpiece of German Romanesque architecture. Its relatively short length and multitude of towers and turrets give it the appearance of a fairy-tale fortress, which is further accentuated by its scenic lakeside setting.
The east end, which overlooks the lake (and parking lot), has a round apse flanked by twin square towers. Over the transept crossing is a broad cupola with cone-shaped roof. The west facade features a west choir with apse flanked by round twin towers. Rising above the choir is a square central tower with arcaded gallery.
Extending from the west end is a unique feature known as the Paradise - a single-story, colonnaded porch surrounding a small courtyard. Added in about 1225, this feature reflects the architecture of Early Christian basilicas. Its open arches rest on slender twin columns and the portals and capitals are richly carved, many of them with fascinating mythical figures. The imaginative mason is known as the Laacher Samson-Meister or "Master of the Laach Samson." The Lion Fountain in the courtyard was added in 1928.
The church is entered through either of two heavy doors, decorated with zodiac and heraldic symbols (1956), into the south and north aisles. Inside, the visitor is greeted by the colorfully painted Monument of Heinrich II (1270), topped with a larger-than-life effigy of the Count Palatine holding his church. Paintings of abbots and monks adorn the sides of the Early Gothic monument.
The stained glass windows of the west apse, including a charming depiction of Adam and Eve, were designed in 1956 by Wilhelm Rupprecht. The side walls of the west end display the tombstones of Johann Friedrich von der Leyen (d.1610; south aisle) and Friedrich von Lowenstein (d.1587; north aisle).
The interior is quite dark (when not assisted by the modern chandeliers), with sunlight admitted only through small Romanesque windows high in the nave and in the two side aisles. The nave has five bays, supported on square piers and round arches of black stone. A small chapel on the south side (the Kerzenkapelle) houses a 15th-century Pieta statue and a multitude of candles lit by visitors.
The two west pillars bear large murals of about 1500. On the north pillar is St. Christopher, who was often painted near the entrances of churches. Across the nave on the south pillar is St. Nicholas, one of the patron saints of the church, with the donor Abbot Simon von der Leyen (d.1512) kneeling at his feet. The west side of the same pillar has a fresco of St. Benedict (with raven and open book) donated by Father Benedict Fabri of Münstereifel (d.1517), cellarer of the monastery.
Apparently older murals, quite faded, adorn the east sides of the nave's middle piers. The one on the north side depicts a bearded saint holding a book and an open scroll with Latin lettering; the one on the south is badly damaged but shows a cloaked saint holding a book with his/her robes. These are not mentioned in the church guide and I have so far been unable to find information on them.
The west sides of most nave pillars are adorned with statues and shrines. The southwest pier has a 16th-century statue of the Virgin and Child from the Friuli, Northern Italy. The next pier east has a relief plaque with scenes from the life of St Martin of Tours (2002).
The south pier nearest the choir displays the reredos of the former Altar of the Sacred Heart (1939), depicting the Crucifixion with the personified Church receiving Christ's blood in a chalice. The upper part is in the style of a classical building, decorated with the Early Christian symbols of birds and Chi Rho.
On the north arcade, artworks include a mosaic of the Archangel Michael (1939), a statue of St Benedict (1939), and the Reliquary of the Holy Cross. The reliquary contains a relic of the True Cross donated to Maria Laach around 1230. Reliefs on the closed doors depict two angels holding the Cross; inside are reliefs of Emperor Constantine the Great and his mother St Helena.
The elevated east choir (chancel) has choir stalls of about 1905. Here the Benedictine monks gather five times a day for prayers and community Mass. In the apse is a Late Romanesque baldachino over the 19th-century high altar donated by Kaiser Wilhelm II. The east windows (c.1957) depict the Virgin Mary (representing the church), Moses (representing the Law) and Elijah (representing the Prophets).
The central apse mosaic of Christ Pantocrator, based on that in Monreale Cathedral, was completed in 1911 by Father Andreas Goeser and dominates the interior. The Latin inscription in Christ's open book reads, "I am the way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6). Below are portraits of the Four Evangelists - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - unusually depicted without their animal symbols.
Mosaics also adorn the east apses of the transepts. The southeast chapel is the Sakramentskapelle, containing the Altar of the Blessed Sacrament. It has a mosaic of the "Throne of Mercy" - God the Father with the crucified Christ and the dove representing the Holy Spirit. Below are precursors of Christ including Adam, Abel, Moses, Melchizadek, Abraham with Isaac, Noah and John the Baptist.
The north transept is home to the Muttergotteskapelle, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. This has a mosaic (1919) of the Adoration of the Three Magi and portraits of Old Testament prophets. Also here is a Madonna from Burgundy (c.1400) and stained glass windows depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary (1956).
The small crypt is entered from a stairway in the north aisle. Vaulted with striped arches, its capitals are plain except for one with a small human face in the northwest corner. In the center is the grave of Abbot Gilbert (d.1152) marked by a mosaic tombstone. The mosaic is a replica of the original, which is at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn.
The small, red-and-white-painted St. Nicholas Chapel in the monastery garden dates mostly from 1756-66 but its west tower dates from the 12th century. A partial view of its tower can be had over the wall from a peaceful wooded path, which runs along the west side of the abbey.
If time allows, the Laacher See ("Lake Laach") is well worth a visit. The beautifully blue crater lake was formed by a volcanic eruption about 10,000 years ago and is populated with quacking ducks. The surrounding hills are volcanoes as well. The lake is encircled by excellent (and popular) walking trails that begin at the abbey parking lot.
Quick Facts on Maria Laach Abbey
|Names:||Abbatia Lacensis · Abtei Maria Laach · Benediktinerabtei Maria Laach · Kloster Maria Laach · Maria Laach Abbey|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||50.402356° N, 7.252221° E|
|Address:||Maria Laach, Germany|
|Phone:||+49 (0) 2652 59-0|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Maria Laach Abbey|
- Personal visits (January 13 and 22, 2008).
- Informational handouts provided in the church
- Abtei Maria Laach - official website (with virtual tours including nearly every room of the monastic buildings!)
- Abtei Maria Laach - German Wikipedia
- Idlephonsus Herwegen, "Maria-Laach." Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. IX (1910).
- Photos of Maria Laach Abbey - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Maria Laach Abbey
Below is a location map and aerial view of Maria Laach Abbey. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.