Abbey and Altenmünster of Lorsch
The Abbey and Altenmünster of Lorsch are rare surviving monuments of the era of Charlemagne.
The abbey was founded in 764 by the Frankish Count Cancor as a proprietary church and monastery on his estate. It became a place of pilgrimage after obtaining the body of Saint Nazarius.
Popes and emperors repeatedly favoured the abbey with privileges and estates ranging from the Alps to the North Sea, so that in a short time it became not only immensely rich, but also a seat of political influence.
Its chronicle, entered in the Lorscher Codex compiled in the 1170s (now in the state archive at Würzburg) is a fundamental document for early medieval German history. Another famous document from the monastic library is the Codex Aureus of Lorsch.
Map of Abbey and Altenmünster of LorschLoad map
Visit August 2006
Lorsch is a little town just south of Darmstadt. A few years ago I experienced a "near miss" in visiting this WHS, as I got stranded at a nearby train station on a Sunday.
This time I decided at the last minute to drop by in Lorsch during my planned visit to the Messel Pit Fossil Site.
I didn't expect too much, being warned by Martha Wiley's review below. Lorsch however is certainly prepared for an influx of visitors, as there is an enormous parking lot next to the former Abbey (it can hold hundreds of cars and tour buses). I parked right at the entrance, as there were few other vehicles about. A short walk with explanatory displays then takes you to the monument.
The landmark gatehouse is pretty, and of an remarkable age. There are some benches to sit on from where you can admire the building. A part of the church is also (or again) still standing. And you can walk around in the former gardens. Everything is well kept, as with all of the WHS I saw in Germany.
The Abbey of Lorsch may be a bit underwhelming, but it's a testimony to the Early Middle Ages when this part of Germany played an important role in the empire of Charlemagne and his successors. Reportedly there are also good frescoes inside the gatehouse, but they can only be seen by groups in pre-arrangement.
In case that you read and looked previous reviews and their attached photos like I did before I went to this World Heritage Site, you would immediately have noticed that a lot have changed when you saw the famous Gatehouse of Lorsch Abbey. This is something remarkable especially for World Heritage Sites that well known for their preservation status. Since 2014 the whole complex has been transformed into opened stylish modern lawn park, no wall and no tree to obscure the view of the old Romanesque Church behind the Gatehouse. The Germans transformed the whole landscape and made the church to be the main focus of the whole park and forming the nice straight vista between the Gatehouse and the Church.
The Gatehouse was indeed really nice, I really loved the bricks alignments making at least three different patterns creating “levels” to the building, something simple but really beautiful. I hardly believed its old age as the Gatehouse was in perfect condition, new and shiny. I walked to the church and really surprised to find that there was no wall. It was simply become an open hall, maybe when they restored the church, they decided to take out all thing that was not originally from Carolingian time. Because the wall was out, I was amazed how strong of the structure to still standing despite its Early Middle Age origin. Well apart from the Gatehouse and the church hall, there was nothing much to see, since I did not plan to join the tour, I only spent 30 minutes on this site and enjoyed the lovely city of Lorsch instead.
Since other reviews already explained its significances, I had nothing much to add. Lorsch Abbey was a nice site, very old but surrounded with contemporary park design, a contrast that I really appreciated. The site may a bit underwhelming but fortunately its location is so great that the visit can be combined with other World Heritage Sites and other beautiful places such as Heidelberg, so Lorsch is a perfect World Heritage Site for a quick stop category.
This must be one of the tiniest WH sites in the world - it basically consists of just one rather small building in the centre of the pretty town of Lorsch, near Darmstadt. The building, known as the Torhalle or Königshalle - the exact purpose is still a bit of a mystery - is well preserved, considering its age, and it is one of the very few vestiges from the Carolingian era, which was so important for European history. You can go inside and see the upper floor only with a guided tour arranged by the tourist office next to the building - it certainly provided many insights you wouldn't have got from just looking at it from the outside. Most of the frescoes inside are from a later period, but some are from around the time of its construction - a true window into a very distant past. The Altenmünster, featured rather prominently in the name, is really just a foundation wall and nothing more, and about a 15- or 20-minute walk away from the main building (although it is very pleasant walk through fields). This is a very easy site to tick off for collectors, but I would only advise you to visit it in combination with a guided tour - otherwise you will miss a lot. I visited Lorsch on a full day trip from Frankfurt, together with the Messel Pit - easily doable by public transport.
I recently visited Lorsch upon its opening after lengthy renovations. I would like to give some information regarding some new developments there.
The Carolingian Königshalle has been now completely renovated and it is again possible to visit its interior. As said in other reviews, the Carolingian frescoes barely survived and the Gothic ones that are present are not that spectacular. Nearby is the only other original building that survived from the Abbey. It is a Romanesque chapel that used to be an extension to a large Carolingian basilica which did not survive. You can appreciate its huge dimensions following its foundations that are still visible. It used to be one of the largest churches in the world at the time of its construction. Charlemagne himself is claimed to have been there for its consecration, evidence for the role this major abbey played during its heyday. The chapel is now being excavated and it will probably open to visitors in summer 2015.
Next to these two buildings on the abbey hill are the Zehntspeicher - a 16th century grain storage room and the herb garden. The Zehntspeicher is planned to house an archaeological exhibition starting summer 2015. The nearby herb garden is a reconstruction of might have been the first medieval herb garden. The medical practices that are described in the Lorsch Herb Book were groundbreaking in the medieval world. It is often considered as the first medical book in Post-Roman Christian Europe.
Walking down the hill you reach the Altmünster. This is where the previous abbey stood. Here you can only see the foundations, but other than on the hill they are now exposed. Nearby are two now additions to the complex that have only now been opened: a new visitor centre and Lauresheim.
Lauresheim, which is an older version of the name Lorsch, is an open-air Carolingian village. Reconstructed in line with experimental archaeology, it tries to capture how life might have looked like in the hundreds of villages that were vassal to this wealthy abbey.
To sum up, it is a shame so little has remained of what was once Europe's wealthiest abbey, but at least it is apparent that attempts are being made to improve visitor experience in Lorsch and to give a better impression of the significance of this historic site.
Anthony M. Fischer
The last time I visited the gatehouse was in the late winter of 1982 with my father. We were coming back from a joint guitar lesson with the guitarist Dieter Henze in Darmstadt. It was late and cold, but we were both game for a quick stroll around the grounds at around 22:30.
We had developed a taste for this sort of activity after walking from the US Army housing in Worms, down to the cathedral, during a gentle yet steady snowfall on Christmas Eve, 1981. There is something about early-medieval architecture and dark winter nights that just goes together.
We had previously visited the site in 1977, when my mother (a native of Bad Kreuznach, Germany) recommended we go there after reading about it in her copy of "Schatzkammer Deutschlands". This is a great resource for the tourist of history in Germany as it gives highly detailed entries on the smallest to greatest historical sites in the country. It can make a drive that much more worthwhile, especially in a country as stuffed with "treasures" as Germany.
I always liked the site from our very first visit. It is small, manageable, easy to grasp, and deceptively simple. There is far more to see and learn than the size of the site might lead one to believe. And if you are there when very few (or no) people, it is especially wonderful.
I guess I retain such fond memories of Lorsch and the Torhaus because of its associations with my parents, and the simple fact that it is a lovely little building of extreme antiquity. What more could one ask for?
The Torhalle in Lorsch is one of the rare buildings from the Carolingian period that has been preserved in its original appearance. This fact alone justifies the inscription. Moreover the building is an architectural gem. I am always fascinated and impressed by the beauty of the ornate faҫade. But probably I am biased in my opinion because the Lorsch Abbey was the first WHS that I have visited. Lorsch is only a few kilometres from my birthplace and I visited the remains of the Abbey many times, the last time in July 2012. Nevertheless, I can understand that many visitors are disappointed if they expect a large monastery complex like in Maulbronn. In Lorsch, only the Carolingian Torhalle and the rather inconspicuous remains of the Romanesque church are preserved.
The Torhalle is unexpectedly small (only about 11 metres wide and 7 metres in height), but the design of the faҫade indicates its former exceptional importance. Both, the east and west faҫades are decorated with ionic capitals, fluted pilasters, columns and friezes. Most striking is the mosaic-like design with red and white stones. These stones are integral parts of the brickwork, not subsequently attached ornaments. Maybe one reason why they are so well preserved. Unusual for such a small building is that there are stair towers on both sides. The exterior of the hall remained almost unchanged until today. The only major modification was at the end of the 14th Century, when the Carolingian saddle roof was replaced by a Gothic roof with steep gables.
There are still many unsolved mysteries about the Torhalle. Neither the exact time of its construction (probably mid-9th Century) nor the builders are known. And also the original purpose is still unclear. The three large arches at the ground level suggest the use as an entrance gate to the monastery. However, this is unlikely because the hall was built within the monastery walls. Many theories assume a profane use, for instance as a courthouse or reception hall. According to a recent hypothesis, the Torhalle was part of a pilgrimage route. Lorsch was an important place of pilgrimage, the relics of Saint Nazarius were kept in the monastery. In the late-Carolingian period the interior was rebuilt for the use as a chapel.
During my last visit I also went on a guided tour through the interior to see the frescoes. There are guided tours every hour from 11 am to 4 pm (except Monday, in winter weekends only), the tour lasts about 30 minutes. The walls of the upper storey were originally painted with Roman columns, architraves and other architectural elements. The architectural painting should create the illusion of an open loggia. But there are only a few remains of these Carolingian frescoes. The mural painting was supplemented to give an impression of the original appearance. Much better preserved are the frescoes from the 14th Century in the gables (photo). They depict Mary, Jesus and angels playing trumpets, lutes and other musical instruments.
Lorsch Abbey is worth a stopover, it takes not more than an hour to properly visit the site (even inclusive a visit of the interior). Lorsch is close to the highway A67 on the way from the Messel pit to Speyer Cathedral. Be aware, that the Torhalle is under scaffolding because of restoration works (until end of 2012) and the Romanesque church is closed for archaeological excavations.
I visited this WHS in September 2010. Lorsch is home to several rare remains of the Carolingian era. The 1200 year old 'Torhall' is still in perfect condition. After sightseeing head opposite the Torhall and enjoy a local beer at the Biergarten.
Lorsch a World Heritage Site? Whatever for? This was the most disappointing site I've been to yet. It is billed as "Abbey and Altenmuenster of Lorsch" but it turns out that most of the resource is underground (as in actually in the ground covered with dirt) so can't be seen. There are 2 buildings above ground, a small (but well-photographed) gatehouse and a church which is used for storage so can't be entered. There is an active archaeological dig going on in a corner of the site but it is fenced and screened with tarps so you can't see that either. The museum in town did have the results of underground mapping of the remnants of the abbey, which might be interesting to some people for about 5 minutes. Bur overall, I say, go to Maulbronn if you want to see an abbey in this part of Germany.
In our trip to Germany we have seen the beautiful Torhalle of the small town of Lorsch, one of the few Carolingian buildings that retains its original aspect. It is the former entrance to an abbey founded in 760-764 by its first abbot Chrodegang, also the bishop of Metz, who brought here monks from Gorze before 764 and in 765 donated to them the relics of Saint Nazarius, acquired in Rome. In 767, Thurincbert, one of his brothers, donated new lands in sand dunes safe from the floods 500 metres from the original site and in 774 the new church of Saints Peter, Paul and Nazarius was consecrated by the archbishop of Mainz, in the presence of Charlemagne. Between 778 and 837 the abbots Helmerich, Richbod and Adelog made some improvements, as remembered in the chronicles of the abbey. From the death of Louis II the German (876), it became the burial place of the Carolingian kings and his son Louis III the Young (876-882) built a crypt for the remains of himself and his father and there were also buried his son Hugo and Cunegonda, wife of Conrad I; the abbots obtained the title of princes. The abbey flourished in the 10th century, but was destroyed by fire in 1090 and reconstructed in the 12th century. In the 13th century Lorsch was incorporated (1232) in the Electorate of Mainz and lost many of its privileges and first the Cistercians and later the Premonstratensians replaced the Benedictines; after another fire the church was reconstructed. The abbey slowly deteriorated, in 1461 was included in the Palatinate, in 1623 in the Electorate of Mainz, in 1803 in that of Hesse. In the Thirty Years' War (1620-21), the Spanish armies pillaged the abbey, in state of abandon since the Reformation. The marvellous Torhalle with two storeys, the lower with three arches, supported by pillars with columns, the upper with three small windows, decorated with columns and arches (three for each one of those of the lower storey) and a mosaic made of white and red tiles. Apart from the Torhalle, within the former boundaries of the abbey remain part of the Romanesque church, few ruins of the medieval monastery and classical buildings of the period in which the town was under the Electorate of Mainz. The second part of the WHS is constituted by the ruins of the church of the Altenmunster, the oldest abbey founded in 764.
I liked very much the Torhalle because of its beautiful architecture and decorations, but I was very disappointed by the Romanesque church, absolutely ordinary, and the Altenmuster, because it is not much more than a basement of a building. The Torhalle is worth of visit if you are in Hesse, but not the Romanesque church and the Altenmunster, even if when you will be there, it will be however appropriate to see them. Similarly the Torhalle justifies its inscription on the WHS, the church and the Altenmunster not, because they aren't remarkable buildings, and could have been inscribed only as links to the Torhalle, the first as part of the same complex, the second because it's of the same period. The state of conservation of the Torhalle is very high, but the other buildings of the former abbey and the Altenmunster are ruined and the Romanesque church has survived only in part; the authenticity of the Carolingian buildings is high, but there are some successive buildings in the area of the former abbey. I was also disappointed by the fact that the Torhalle, that contains fine Carolingian frescos, and the church were closed. Apart from the WHS, in Lorsch there are some nice half-timbered houses, the nicest of which is the town hall. You can easily reach Lorsch from its exit on the highway A67 going from Mannheim to Frankfurt. It's quite hard to find out the Altenmunster and you have to look carefully for the indications in the streets near the Torhalle (Nibelungenstrasse); you have to park the car in the countryside and walk about 500 metres to reach it.
Photo: Lorsch - Abbey - Torhalle
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