The little village of Maulbronn, located 45 km / 27 miles North West of Stuttgart is as charming as can be. Once you step inside the Medieval walls surrounding the monastery, it gets almost unreal, a bit like you have stepped on a movie set. So picturesque, so beautiful! The gigantic timber frame houses, the fountain, the trees around the city square… You can picture Belle from Beauty & the Beast arriving and signing her way through the crowd!
The Maulbronn Monastery is a Cistercian Monastery and was founded in 1147. It stands proudly on one side and watches over the square like it has been doing so for centuries. Build from the 12th to the 15th century, it is remarquable and cited as “one of Europe’s most complete and best preserved Medieval Monastery Complexes” and as such, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1993.
Big renovation work in progress when we visited!
Since, for some reasons, my pictures of the monastery have turned out to be really really bad and I’m like grrrr… I wanted to hopefully, make up for it by giving you explanations of what is a Cistercian Monastery and what consequences it has on its architecture!
What is a Cistercian Monastery?
A Cistercian Monastery is a place where Monks, from the Roman Catholic Cistercian order, follow the particular religious rules set by Saint Benedict.
There are amongst the Roman Catholic many different religious orders: Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, Cistercians, Trappists, etc. The Benedictin order, which traces its origins as far as the 6th century, was (and is still) the most important one. By the 11th century, it had undergone many reformations and some sought a more literal application of the Saint Benedict rules and created the Cistercian order.
All these religious orders have their specificities based on which particular religious rule they follow. The most common being the Rule of Saint Benedict, Saint Augustine, or Saint Basil, each of which stresses different aspects of religious life. However, they all have many common rules such as community prayer, community meals, labor, private prayer, study, and of course religious vows (poverty, chastity, obedience).
Originally, for the Cistercian order, the emphasis was on manual labour and self-sufficiency. Agriculture and brewing beer were amongst the 2 main activities of the Cistercian Monks. With time and over centuries, education and academic pursuits came first in their daily life.
In Maulbronn, the agriculture past can be imagined through the surrounding landscape and the education activities still remain through the Evengelical Theological Seminary, still active today.
What are the distinctive architectural features of a Cistercian Monastery?
The Cistercian order is a contemplative order. As such, they have little interaction with the outside World and sought to be self-sufficiency and independent, at least at their origin. This way of life was appealing to people in the 11-12th century as they wanted a more intimate relationship with God.
Why am I telling you this? Because it explains some of the architectural features of the Cistercian monasteries:
First of all, Cistercian monasteries tend to be quite large. Many included several hundred Monks. They might have lost part of their estate but they originally were vast. The size of the Church of the Maulbronn monastery and its refectory shows it was quite a big order.
Second, as the monks sought self-reliance & independence, while having little interaction with the World, the monasteries were usually established far outside of cities where the monks could find the fertile lands they needed to cultivate. It might not be obvious with the Maulbronn monastery which is now surrounded by the city but chances are that it wasn’t the case in the 11th century. (Check out the Abbaye d’Orval for a great example of a monastery which remained isolated)
Third, as the Cistercian order sought a more restrained life than the Benedictine order, the monastery architecture tends to reflect this. Less ornementation, less decoration… more reflection!
The main church, built in a style transitional from Romanesque (notice the lower row of vaulted arcades) to Gothic (look at the ceiling), was consecrated in 1178 by Arnold, Bishop of Speyer.
This is a terrible picture! so sorry!!
Again, this last point might not be obvious when you see how beautiful the monastery church is with its Romanesque arcades and Gothic roof as well as all the other painted decorations you can admire around. But churches are, for the Catholic religion, the house of God, so no expenses were spared. And it sure doesn’t mean the life of the monks was confortable. In fact, they Cistercian order, was tough with strict rules and long hours.
The Maulbronn monastery had a tumultuous life: pillaged repeatedly (especially after the Cistercian order was reformed), transformed into a hunting lodge, changed into a Protestan monastery… it is kind of a miracle it is still in such good condition today.
One of the highlight of the visit: the fountain house… but not for us as it was in renovation.
The Technical bits:
The official website: www.kloster-maulbronn.de
Guide tour are in German only but there is an audio guide.
I totally recommend you to Google the monastery to see incredible pictures of the place. My pictures aren’t great at all, to say the least and are not doing justice to this beautiful place.
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