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A Benedictine abbey in Germany

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Maria-Laach (ABBATIA BEATAE MARIAE VIRGINIS AD LACUM, or BEATAE MARIAE LACENSIS), a Benedictine abbey on the southwest bank of Lake Laach, near Andernach in Rhineland, Germany. It was founded in the year 1093 by the Palsgrave Henry II of Lorraine who probably was a descendant from the line of the Counts of Hochstaden (P. Adalbert Schippers, O.S.B., “The Palsgrave Henry II‘s Charter of Foundation for Laach” in the “Trierisches Archiv”, XV, 1909, 53 sq.). In the year 1112 his stepson Siegfried of Ballenstadt renewed the foundation (P. Ildefons Herwegen, O.S.B., “The Palsgraves of Lorraine and the Benedictine monasteries of the Lower Rhine” in “Annalen der historischen Vereins far den Niederrhein”, LXXXIX, 1910, 46 sq.). The monastery, which was handed over to the Cluniac Benedictines from the abbey of Afflighem in Belgium, welcomed its first abbot in the accomplished Gilbert, in 1127, and thus became independent. His memorial tablet in mosaic with portrait and epitaph is in the Rhine Provincial Museum at Bonn. A facsimile of the same has found a place in the cloister at Maria-Laach. Until the middle of the fourteenth century discipline was severe. Abbot Fulbert (1152-1177) did good work for the library and promoted scientific activity, while the Abbots Albert (1199-1217) and Theoderich II (1256-1295) directed their energies towards the structural embellishment and artistic decoration of the church and monastery. The last named erected the tomb of the founder, one of the finest pieces of thirteenth century sculpture on the Rhine (Hasak, “Gesch. der deutschen Bildhauerkunst im 13. Jahrhundert”, Berlin, 1899, page 92 sq.). He also succeeded in ti-ding over a serious economic crisis.

In the fourteenth century there began in Germany, owing to the unfavorable conditions of the time, a deterioration in the spiritual life of the Benedictine Order. Under the thirteenth abbot, Johannes I (1328-1333), it came gradually into notice in Maria-Laach as well. It was only in the second half of the fifteenth century, through an alliance with the congregation of Bursfeld, that the monastic spirit began once more to flourish. A number of the monks held out against reform, but the sagacity and energy of the celebrated Abbot Johannes IV of Deidesheim (1469-1491) prevailed finally on the side of discipline. With improvement in discipline there came a new literary life. The Humanities were ably represented by Siberti, Tilmann of Bonn, Benedict of Munstereifel, and above all by Prior Johannes Butzbach (1526). Most of Butzbach’s poetical and prose works remain in manuscript in the University Library at Bonn, and have not all been published. His best known work is his “Hodoipsorikon”, an account of his years of travel before his entry into the monastery at Laach, issued by D. J. Becker (Ratisbon, 1869) as the “Chronicle of a Travelling Scholar”. His “Auctarium in librum Johannis Trithemii de scriptoribus ecclesiasticis”, a supplement to the Abbot von Sponheim’s “Scholars’ Catalogue”, is also noteworthy. The abbey chronicle written by Butzbach has unfortunately been lost. The world famous story of Genevieve, the scene of which is at Lake Laach, goes back, in the oldest form that has come down to us, to Johannes von Andernach, a contemporary monk at Laach (Brull, “Andernach Program, 1896-97”; Idem, “Prumm Program, 1898-99”). The Abbot Johann Augustin (1552-1568) left behind a book on “The practices and customs of Laach” (Rituale monasticae Hyparchiae coenobiilacensis) that is now numbered among the manuscripts in the library of Bonn University.

Until the dissolution of the abbey in the great secularizing movement of the year 1802, Maria-Laach remained a center of religious and literary activity. The church and monastery went first to the French and then, in 1815, to the Prussian government. In the year 1820 the monastery became private property and in 1863 was acquired by the Society of Jesus. The abbey church has remained to this day the property of the Prussian Exchequer. The Jesuits made Maria-Laach a home of learning. It became a place of study for the scholastics and a meeting place for the leading savants of the Society. Among them P. Schneemann distinguished himself as chief worker on the “Collectio lacensis” (“Acta et decreta sacrorum conciliorum recentiorum”, 7 volumes, Freiburg, 1870-1890), which represents a valuable continuation of the older collections of the Councils. P. Schneemann issued vols. I to VI (1682-1870); P. Granderath vol. VII (1870-1882) dealing with the Vatican Council. Here also was begun the “Philosophic lacensis”, a collection of learned books on the different branches of philosophy (logic, cosmology, psychology, theodicy, natural law) and published at Freiburg, 1880-1900. The “Stimmen aus Maria-Laach”, however, bore the name of the monastery farthest. Under the direction of P. Schneemann the first series began in 1865, and appeared as occasional pamphlets. They were undertaken at the suggestion of the provincial, P. Anderledy, in defense of the Encyclical “Quanta cura”, and the Syllabus of Pius IX (1864) against the attacks of Liberalism. P. Florian Riess had a meritorious share in the publication of a second series at the time of the Vatican Council. Since 1871 the “Stimmen” has been a regular periodical dealing with every department of knowledge. The “Stimmen” retained its old name when the Jesuits were banished from Maria-Laach during the Kulturkampf in 1873.

The Benedictines of the Beuron Congregation moved into the monastery in 1892. In the year 1893 Maria-Laach was canonically raised into an abbey. The first Abbot, Willibrod Benzler, was appointed Bishop of Metz in 1901. Fidelis von Stotzingen succeeded him as second abbot (1901). The community numbers (1910) 41 monks and 74 lay-brothers. The new tenants of the abbey have been allowed the use of the church by the state, but in return have been made responsible for the upkeep and furnishing of the building stripped as it is of all its appointments. The restoration was inaugurated by Kaiser William II, in 1897, through the gift of a high altar. At the present time the monks are engaged in decorating the east apse with mosaics. The church is in basilica style with a transept and double choir. The east choir is flanked by two square towers, while the west facade shows a square central tower with a graceful balcony supported on twin columns. This rich group of towers, to which must be added an imposing cupola, gives the church an exceedingly picturesque appearance. The east and west choir as well as the sides of the church end in an apse. Under the east choir lies a crypt; opening on the west choir there is a vestibule, or paradisus, with open spades, the arches resting on slender twin columns. The doors of the church and vestibule are ornamented with sculpture. In the west choir stands the sarcophagus of the founder under a Barocco stone canopy. Near this on the pillars are several fifteenth century paintings. The abbey church is a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture, and marks a new phase in the history of German architecture, since it is the first columned basilica built with arches (Schippers, in “Christian Art“, IV, 1907-1908, 266, in reply to Schmitt, ibid., 1 sq.). Drawings of its architectural features are given in Geier and Gorz, “Monuments of Roman Architecture on the Rhine” (Frankfort, 1874). The St. Nicholas Chapel in the monastery garden was built during 1756-1766; its tower belongs, however, to the twelfth century. Several tombstones of earlier abbots grace the cloisters of the monastery. Only the portrait in relief of the Abbot Simon von der Leyen (1491-1512) has however any claim to art.


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