The Abbey’s history
Arnsburg was a Cistercian abbey founded in medieval times. Monks lived and worked in Arnsburg for more than 600 years – from its foundation in 1174 until the abbey was dissolved in 1802/03. Late in the 12th century the Lords of Arnsburg, having recently abandoned Arnsburg castle and moved to Münzenberg castle, founded the abbey and endowed it with lands and estates. Even old Arnsburg castle, stripped of its fortifications, was given to the Cistercians. The first monks came from Eberbach abbey. Thus, Arnsburg is a »daughter« of Eberbach and a »granddaughter« of Clairvaux abbey in Burgundy, France, where the Cistercian order had been founded (Cîteaux, 1098). Although the Cistercian order was based on the rules of Saint Benedict, the Cistercians rejected the Benedictine’s worldly tendencies and wanted to return to the pure rules of Saint Benedict: poverty, labour, asceticism. The Cistercians were experienced agriculturalists. At Arnsburg, the monks introduced high-yield crops and fruits and also kept bees. Their infirmary served as a hospital for the sick or elderly. The rejection of Benedictine customs is visible even in the building site itself: whereas Benedictine abbeys usually occupied hills, Cistercian abbeys tended to be built in valleys, preferably close to a river.
Arnsburg flourished especially during the 13th and 14th century. Arnsburg not only gained significant privileges, for instance dispensation from the tithe by papal order, various charters of protection issued by both the Emperor and the Pope, but also expanded its land holdings to the north and the south. It became the customary place of burial and memoria for several noble families of the Wetterau. And Arnsburg abbey managed to established houses in a great number of neighbouring towns but also in places further away which served as trading posts (Marburg, Grünberg, Gießen, Lich, Wetzlar, Butzbach, Friedberg, Gelnhausen, Frankfurt am Main and Mainz).
The end of the 14th century marked the beginning of more difficult times for Arnsburg Abbey. For a start, it was badly affected by the quarrels between the Landgrave of Hesse and the Archbishop of Mainz. The latter threatened to lay waste to the abbey because Arnsburg had refused him financial support in his struggle. Thus, the Archbishop of Trier, relative and ally to the Landgrave, stationed some 400 troops in Arnsburg. These protected the abbey but were also a burden upon it since the monks had to provide for them. During the following decades Arnsburg Abbey and its various estates repeatedly suffered from raids, occupations, and looting even after the dissensions between the Landgrave and the Archbishop had been resolved. Furthermore, in the 16th century the Counts of Solms attempted to force Arnsburg’s monks into joining the reformation. Calling upon the Emperor for help, the abbey was placed under the special protection of the Archbishop of Mainz. Arnsburg managed to survive and became a catholic island surrounded by a protestant sea.
During the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), the abbey was pillaged by Swedish troops and the monks fled together with their abbot. They were to return to a ruined and largely destroyed abbey but did not hesitate to start rebuilding.
The 18th century was marked by a time of bustling building activity. The Baroque buildings that became characteristic for the abbeys appearance were erected during these years. The end of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation, however, also brought upon the end of Arnsburg Abbey. France had defeated Prussia, Austria, and their allies and occupied territories left of the river Rhine. The Final Recess of the Imperial Deputation (Reichsdeputationshauptschluss) of 1803 decreed that those powers that had lost territories to France would be compensated. In order to do so, all ecclesiastical principalities were to be dissolved and their land and property redistributed. Arnsburg Abbey was given to the House of Solms, and its various estates and possessions were scattered. Solms-Laubach, for instance, received the abbey itself and its library, while the archives were allotted to Solms-Lich. The pulpit was moved to the Protestant church in Lich, the altar resurfaced in the Catholic church of St. George in Mainz-Kastel. Some of the abbey's buildings were used as quarries, and the church fell into ruin.
The remaining buildings in the abbey’s grounds were put to various uses during the 19th and 20th century – ranging among others from sheep shelter, orphanage, gynaecological hospital to a home for the elderly. In the 1950s, the former cloister was restored and became a graveyard for war victims dedicated in 1959. It is the last resting place not only for soldiers of various nationalities, who died in the Second World War, but also for prisoners of war, forced labourers as well as 81 women and 6 men that were imprisoned in a labour camp in Hirzenhain and murdered by the SS in March 1945 shortly before American troops reached the village.
Following the dedication of the graveyard for war victims efforts intensified to preserve the medieval ruins of Arnsburg Abbey: In 1960 the »Freundeskreis Kloster Arnsburg« (Friends of Arnsburg Abbey) was founded.
A brief guide to the Abbey’s buildings
Today, Arnsburg is one of the most beautiful monastic ruins in Europe. Ivy and trees covering the ancient walls and pillars might have disappeared over the last years, but the ruin’s captivating atmosphere prevailed. Also, the contrast between the older medieval ruins and the younger Baroque buildings adds to Arnsburg’s appeal.
Arriving in Arnsburg, the visitor first passes through a grand gatehouse (»Pfortenbau«, designed by Coelestin Wagner and erected 1774–1777 ). On the outside a life-size figure of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux stands above the gate, on the inside a statue of Mary Immaculate. Both were sculpted by Nikolaus Binterim from Mainz.
The next building coming into view is the »Bursenbau«, the lay brothers’ dormitory and refectory. Its ground floor dates back to the mid 13th century, the first floor, which was destroyed in the Thirty Years’ War, was rebuilt in the 18th century.
The lay brothers’ Gothic portal nowadays serves as the main entrance to the church ruin. The church is the oldest part of the abbey. Its foundation stone was laid around 1197, and the church was consecrated in 1246. It’s a basilica with three aisles: a central aisle and two side aisles. Building started in the east and continued westward. Thus, you can observe a change in architectural style moving in that direction: beginning with Romanesque round arches and changing into pointed arches of early Gothic style. The monk’s graveyard was situated north of the church, but the graves you can visit here today do not date back much further than a hundred years.
The staircase at the opposite side of the church leads to the monk’s dormitory. This direct link between the sacred (the church for praying) and the profane (the dormitory for sleeping) is still typical for the Cistercian monasteries. The dormitory has a groin vault and a wooden ceiling in its back part. The latter is modern since the the original vault collapsed in the 19th century. Today, the dormitory is mainly used for concerts and exhibitions. Below the dormitory is the »Mönchsaal« (monk’s room). It used to be called the »auditorium« or »parlatorium«, because the monk’s vow of silence did not apply in this room.
Leaving the church the same way you entered, you can turn left into the cloister (»Kreuzgang«), which used to be a closed space reserved for the monks. It connected all those places and buildings that were essential to the daily monastic life. The covered walk running along the walls and forming a central quadrangle has disappeared, merely a few consoles on the outer walls remain. The bases of the inner walls have been rebuilt. Today the quadrangle serves as a graveyard for war victims. In the south you can see the rebuilt base of the well chapel, and in the east you can enter the beautifully restored chapter hall (»Kapitelsaal«), a well-proportioned room dating back to the early Gothic period. It served as a meeting place for the monks and as a burial ground for the abbots. At the northern end of the cloister there’s the monk’s gate that led into the church.
There are a number of younger, mostly Baroque buildings in the abbey’s grounds that are equally noteworthy. Most of them date back to the 18th century and are private property owned by the count of Solms-Laubach. They include the abbey’s office (»Abteigebäude«), the abbot’s home (»Prälatenbau«), the kitchen building (»Küchenbau«), the watermill (»Klostermühle«, 17th century – today a restaurant), and the abbot’s baroque summer house (»Gartenhaus«), erected in 1751.