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World Heritage Site

for World Heritage Travellers

Blog: WHS #606: Reichenau

It has taken me 17 years, but in late June 2016 I finally ´finished´ Germany: I have now seen all 40 WHS in this country. The last one left to do was the Monastic Island of Reichenau, some 10km from the border with Switzerland. I visited it on a day trip by car from Zürich Airport. Unfortunately my camera had broken down two days before when touring the Swiss Alps, so I can only show some images taken with my smartphone.

Münster St. Maria und Markus

The Monastic Island of Reichenau originated in the 8th century, when the traveling monk Pirmin founded the first monastery on this island in Lake Constance. Some 24 other churches and chapels were added in the remainder of the early Middle Ages, and religious relics were shipped in (often gifts by pilgrims). The large Benedictine monastery developed into an important center for study and arts in the empire of Charlemagne and his successors. The island also is very suitable for agriculture (then and now), so the monks could be self-sufficient.

Nowadays it’s a holiday island with only 3 churches left. Many tourists arrive here by bicycle from Konstanz. The island covers just over 4 square kilometers, so all is easy to reach. There are three villages, and the middle one of these (Mittelzell) has the most amenities. This is also the site of the main museum of the island, and I made that my first stop. The history of the monastery island is told using information panels and replicas. The original pieces, such as the exquisite miniature paintings made by medieval monks, are unfortunately kept elsewhere. Within walking distance lies the Münster (the former Monastery church): its Treasury does hold some original relics and art, but unfortunately it is closed on Sundays.

Yes, there are vineyards too

From the last review of this WHS (thanks Clyde!), I knew that I had to time my visit well to be able to see the murals of the St. Georg Church – the undoubted highlight of this island. To lessen the impact on the wall paintings, the church is open only twice a day during summer and by guided tour only. So together with some 20 other tourists, I waited patiently in front of the little church until the guide showed up exactly at 12.30. He collected 2 EUR from each visitor, and started his talk not before having locked the church doors again behind us.

About two-thirds of the church interior is covered in paintings, which have been repeatedly restored in recent years. And although they are a bit faded, they still look good and complete. The paintings date from the ninth to the eleventh century. The main ones display eight scenes of miracles performed by Jesus. Especially the Lazarus Resurrection scene is very remarkable (with two onlookers holding their noses because of the stench involved in digging up a 4-day old body). I liked the way the guide quietly told his story (in German only) and pointed out the many details in the murals.

Murals of St. Georg Church

Despite the interesting medieval wall paintings, this isn’t an unforgettable WHS. One wonders if Reichenau would stand a chance if it was nominated in 2016. We discussed it (or rather: we did not waste a single word on it) in its context during the WHS Top 200 and awarded it with a ‘No‘.

The site was added to the WH List relatively late, in the year 2000. It ticks the boxes of Carolingian Empire (10x represented, including the very similar St. John in Müstair (1983)), Benedictines (26x represented, including Lorsch and again St. John in Müstair) and 8th century (German alone has Aachen (1978) and Lorsch (1991) to represent this century). I’d say that both the Carolingians and medieval Christian wall paintings were already represented well before Reichenau was admitted to the List. Germany stated that there is "No significant comparison north of the Alps" (but just a few km’s south of it, in Müstair there is!). The reasoning relies heavily on criterion vi (important artistic centre), but this resulted in mostly moveable objects now safely stowed away in museums and treasuries outside Reichenau.

Published 2 July 2016

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