Reichenau: a monastic island with an artistic history

Columbanus and his 12 monks were the fathers (and grandfathers and great-grandfathers) of more than 100 monastic foundations in continental Europe…a pretty astounding accomplishment by any measure. A “daughter house” of St. Gallen was another monastic community on the Bodensee at Reichenau Island. Established by St. Pirmin in the 8th century, it became home to a renowned scriptorium whose manuscripts are still found in libraries in Germany and Switzerland. (Though it is very close to the Swiss border, Reichenau is in modern Germany, very close to the city of Konstanz.)

St. Georgkirche, Reichenau

Today Reichenau is mostly a destination for hikers and bikers seeking a nice lakeside get-away. (I had lovely dinner table companions from Bonn at a small Weinstube one evening, and we conversed the entire evening in my lousy German, which improved with wine.) But I wasn’t there for the hiking or biking…I was there for the monastic art! While there is still a large monastic church in the center of the island (whose treasury is chock-full of relics…purportedly even a bit of Matthew the evangelist!), the murals in the smaller St. Georgkirche are astounding. Frescoes are made by painting directly onto wet plaster, but the murals in the Georgkirche were done with a dry technique. The bad news: as in many churches, they were plastered over when that style of painting went out of vogue. The good news: the plastering protected them for centuries, until a clergyman discovered them in the 19th century and started to peel away the layers of history and plaster. Today, only two groups of visitors are allowed in each day with a guide. To control the humidity in the church, the inner and outer doors are never opened at the same time.

Three illustrations from Reichenau (top: St. Columbanus and St. Gall on the Bodensee. Middle: manuscript illustration of stilling the storm. Bottom: mural of stilling the storm. Similarities abound!

One of the most interesting aspects of the murals is that they are very similar to medieval manuscript images of the same era produced at the abbey scriptorium. Imagine how cool it would be to walk into a church in Ireland or Iona and find that the monks who made the Book of Kells had also illustrated the walls of the church! (Well, in fact they did leave some great high crosses! The images of the St. Martin’s Cross on Iona have parallel illustrations in the Book of Kells…which was like written on Iona.)

Eight murals comprise a cycle of illustrations of the miracles performed by Jesus. They were made circa 1,000 AD and are the largest surviving cycle of murals north of the Alps from the early medieval period.

I’ll include some all-around photos as well as some of the individual illustrations. I have used different “filters” to pump up the visual effect, which can otherwise be hard to see.

Here are some of the murals themselves.

The images depict (top) the raising of Lazarus and (bottom) Jesus driving demons from a man into swine at the Lake of Gennesaret.

There is more art and architecture from Reichenau to come, so stay tuned!