• Hochaltar Ältester Flügelaltar der Kunstgeschichte

The monasteries of Løgum, Doberan and Pelplin on their way to UNESCO World Heritage Sites – an introduction


von Manja Olschowski, M.A., Universität Greifswald

It is an honour for me to sketch the particular issues of this symposium. And since the three monasteries in question form the core of my Ph.D. project, it is also a great pleasure for me. I was asked to give you a short introduction of Doberan, Pelplin and Løgumkloster and to familiarise you with the structure and the aim of the following two working days. Although I find it very tempting, I will therefore not introduce any new research, but rather try to provide you with a concise overview.

Due to this goal, I chose a structural approach that would encourage comparisons between the three monasteries and which is also employed on your handouts. My first point shall be a brief description of the respective founding process, of the authorities involved and of the line of filiation. My next issue will be the development of the monasteries until the Reformation, including some main features of the economy and the growth of the monastic estates. Since the World Heritage Application furthermore draws on the current state of the monastic sites and their recent function, I will also outline the development after the Reformation until the present time.

Proceeding chronologically I shall start with Løgumkloster, which looks back on the oldest secure foundation. Around the year 1173 bishop Stefan of Ribe, following the plans of his predecessor Radulf, and archbishop Eskil of Lund encouraged the establishment of a Cistercian monastery in the Benedictine Abbey of Seem, east of Ribe. The new monastery was called "Locus Dei" in Latin and “Guds sted” in Danish, both meaning "God's place". Its first convent came from the Danish monastery of Herrevad in Skåne, which was a direct daughter of Citeaux. After the rather common initial struggles, the monastery was relocated only two years later, when it moved to the former Cluniac abbey at Løgum, 40 km south of Ribe. These first years are somewhat difficult to reconstruct, because a great fire in 1190 destroyed not only the first wooden monastery buildings but also the crucial documents. It has indeed been argued that the relocation took place as early as 1173, after the convent had already stayed in Seem for some time.

From 1191 onwards the records indicate that the building of the abbey precinct in brick began. The church was built as the typical north range of the complex in the form of a Latin cross with a nave and two side aisles, employing a mix of Romanesque and Gothic styles. Apparently, two main building phases can be distinguished. The eastern part of the nave was begun around the year 1225 and shows features of the early Gothic style, still employing some rounded Romanesque arches. After this part was finished between 1250 and 1260, a suspension of work for 20 to 30 years is suggested, which might have been caused by the more urgent completion of the cloisters and the conventual’s buildings. Only the last decades of the 13th century witnessed the continued work on the western part of the church that seems to have been completed around 1325. After several alterations we now find a three-winged pier basilica, which is vaulted in a compound system. Of the intended three or even more bays, only two have been realised. The adjacent four-sided abbey complex was also constructed of red bricks, apparently manufactured on the site, in the Gothic style and was completed during the first decades of the 14th century. The rich interior of the church will certainly be addressed again in the course of this symposium, which is why I only show you some pictures of it, without giving detailed descriptions.

The monastery of Løgum was apparently successful in gaining the favour of its secular and clerical lords. The Danish kings, namely Waldemar I. and Waldemar II. as well as the archbishop Absalon of Lund, provided substantial donations that formed the basis for a steady income and the considerable wealth of the abbey. After the dukedom of Schleswig was separated from Danish sovereignty, the monks of Løgum were able to maintain these good relations with the new rulers. Despite that, the monastery economy suffered considerably under the warfare in the region. Adding to that the first half of the 13th century witnessed several livestock diseases and crop failures. By the time of the secularization in 1548 the abbey seems to have fully recovered with 193 farms belonging to the monastery, most of which were run by tenants. Only the immediate monastery grange was managed by lay brothers and must have been of a significant size. The inventory of the 16th century testifies to a large amount of farm animals that would certainly explain the existence of four stable buildings and at least one big granary. Adding to that several workshops for shoemakers, tailors, weavers and carpenters can be expected, as well as a mill, a smithy, a dairy or a brewery. Certain evidence also hints at a brickyard within the monastery precinct. The suggested size of the convent with a maximum of 20 choir monks and the same number of lay brothers seems to stand in contrast to this extensive economy, yet no evidence for a larger group of monks has been found so far.

With the introduction of the Reformation the monastery of Løgum and its complete estate was transformed into ducal property and remained one complex until the 18th century. Only then were the single farmsteads and fields sold separately. The abbey church itself was used by the parish since 1739 and could therefore survive the troubled period. Of the original conventual’s buildings only the northern part of the eastern wing survived until the present time. The former vestry, the library, the chapter room, the prison and the office of the prior have been restored and especially the chapter room is in constant use until this day. To the south of these remains the former heating installation has been found, partly restored and well documented. Immediately adjacent to these remnants of the monastery time, a modern complex called the Refugium was constructed in the 1960s and is still used for contemplative meetings and seminars. The north-western part of the cloisters was already changed into a secular structure in 1614 with the building of the so-called castle or “Slot”, which was used as house of the estate manager. A second institution, whose members enjoy the old Cistercian architecture on a daily basis, is the Løgumkloster Højskolen – an adult education centre.

From the Danish partner of the World Heritage Application I shall now proceed, following the chronological order, to the monastery of Doberan, that most of you will probably be familiar with. After the Wendish prince Pribislav had converted to Christianity, he founded the first monastery in Mecklenburg in 1171 under the command of Duke Henry the Lion, together with bishop Berno of Schwerin. In this context Cistercian monks from Amelungsborn Abbey in Lower Saxony of the Morimond-family were invited to a place that is now called Althof, near the city of Rostock. Due to the sudden death of Pribislav in 1178 a period of instability followed, which led to the destruction of this first Christian monastery in his dominion and to the death of its 78 inhabitants, including all monks. In 1186 the abbey was re-founded in the nearby village of Doberan and quickly became a political, social and spiritual centre in the region. Both successors, Henry Borwin and Niklot, as well as the bishop of Schwerin provided substantial donations as the basis of this second foundation. The importance of the abbey for the princes lay in its symbolic character to demonstrate the conversion to Christianity, in its economic potential but also in its function as princely burial place. Already during the time in Althof a princess of Mecklenburg had been buried there and this tradition was continued throughout the Middle Ages and even beyond.

A proper abbey that would – among others - serve this purpose, was consecrated in 1232 and can be imagined as a rather small church in the Romanesque style. It has been argued that its nave may have extended until the present transept at the most. Of this original building only a small part of the south-western wall, including a crow-stepped gable, has survived and been integrated into the successor construction. Although a fire in 1291 seems to give the most plausible explanation for the replacement of this first church by a new one, the convent’s ambition to surpass the neighbouring abbeys is often named as additional motivation. The actual start of the construction work has therefore been repeatedly disputed. It has long been claimed that the building began around the year 1298 and must have been completed in 1368 at the latest, since the consecration of the new abbey is testified for this year. More recent studies opt for an earlier beginning around 1280. According to that the new abbey had been structurally completed in 1297, including the timbering. As early as 1301 substantial parts of the eastern nave with the choir must have been accomplished as the first brass bell forged and consecrated in that year would indicate. Shortly after that, in 1310 this part will have been ready for use, with the High Altar dating already from the year 1300.

The church that was finally completed in 1368 is the one we still see today. Built in a High Gothic style it is a basilica with nave and two aisles and a length of nine bays. It features the form of a Latin Cross, yet without the typical crossing. The choir has the shape of a five-sided polygon with an ambulatory and a ring of chapels. Due to the monastery’s wealth and its function as princely burial place the interior decoration of the church has been of outstanding value. The establishment of Doberan as a place of pilgrimage to the Holy Host certainly added to that. Since these objects will be addressed again, I shall only show you some pictures to give you a first impression.

The design of the cloisters and the position of the conventual’s buildings as well as the outbuildings correspond to the characteristic Cistercian model. Moreover the prospering abbey of Doberan was able to run several town houses, for instance in Rostock, Lübeck and Wismar, and granges of a considerable size. Two daughter monasteries could be founded, one of them being Dargun, which had to be re-established in 1216 after its first convent had fled to what became the monastery of Eldena. The other daughter was the monastery of Pelplin, founded in 1258, in the dukedom of Pommerellen.

In the course of its development the abbots of Doberan were able to amalgamate substantial property and to refine their production for the town markets. There is source material for the shoe production, the fishermen of Doberan and several other monastic crafts. A privilege of the early 13th century, although disputed, allowed the settlement of craftsmen of wide-ranging origin within the monastery estates. There are even suggestions for an early glass fabrication and a potter’s workshop set up by lay brothers of Doberan. Apart from this economic success, the abbots managed to establish and maintain close relations with the dukes of Mecklenburg and partly even acted as their chaplain. When the university of Rostock introduced a faculty of theology in 1433 the abbot of Doberan was moreover commissioned by the General Chapter to provide for the Cistercian students there. From all these different perspectives it becomes clear, that Doberan held an outstanding position among its sister abbeys as one of the power factors in the dukedom of Mecklenburg.

Nevertheless, the coming of the Reformation to Mecklenburg led to the secularization of Doberan abbey in 1552 and caused the transformation of its estates into ducal dominion. Nikolaus Peperkorn, the last abbot, chose to retreat to the daughter monastery of Pelplin together with one other monk and a considerable number of charters and manuscripts. The abbey church itself could survive as a princely burial place and was converted into a parish church, but suffered considerable damage during the 30-Years War and later under the Napoleonic troops. After several restorations in the 19th and 20th century the abbey is now considered to be the most important brick building in Mecklenburg- Western Pomerania and attracts more than 200.000 visitors every year. The other monastery buildings were partly used as a source and partly for the further administration of the bailiff. It is therefore remarkable that a considerable part of the original building stock has survived until the present day. While all of the cloisters buildings are gone, we still find the old granary, the mill house, the ossuary and even the original monastery wall. A garden has been reconstructed with historic plants and featured as one attraction of the International Garden Festival in 2003.

Last but not least I come to the youngest foundation in this group, namely the Polish partner of Pelplin. As in the two preceding examples the early years of this monastery were troubled and are difficult to reconstruct. The actual date of foundation is generally given as the year 1258, when monks from Doberan came to the village of Pogutken, where the settlement was originally planned. Apparently the duke of Pommerellen, Sambor II., could draw on his old relations to Mecklenburg to convince the abbot of Doberan. He had married the daughter of prince Henry Borwin II. of Mecklenburg and Sambor is moreover named in Mecklenburgian charters already in the 1230s. The monastery of Doberan on the other hand had been in possession of lands in the area of Pogutken from 1207 onwards. In 1258 the new foundation there was consecrated and endowed with considerable property by Sambor II, which fact supported the choice of the new monastery’s name. In reference to its founder it was henceforth called Samburia, due to its pedigree it also received the name New Doberan and we sometimes even find it as “Mons sanctae Mariae”. Despite this promising beginning the number of monks seems to have been insufficient, since the General Chapter was asked in 1261 to send a complete convent to the new monastery. Another six years later this request was fulfilled by the mother abbey in Doberan and we can presume the final establishment of the monastery in 1267. Due to the apparently unfavourable surrounding it was relocated in 1276 to its current site in Pelplin. After the essential buildings had been completed here, the work on the new abbey church was begun around the year 1295 and probably finished by 1350. This date is generally supported by the fact that the monks of Pelplin were able to send provisions to their brothers in the fire-damaged monastery of Oliva around that time and must therefore already have completed their own work.

Although the cathedral we see today has witnessed several alterations, it still features the original cross-shaped plan,  which consists of a nave with two aisles of 11 bays length ending in a straight choir and the transept with two aisles between the sixth and seventh bay. Both, nave and transept, are considerably higher and wider than the aisles, employing the common proportion of 1:2. With an absolute length of 84 metres the cathedral of Pelplin is the biggest of the three churches in question. Different from the Danish and the German example, the typical ribbed cross vaults have been substituted by elaborate stellar and net vaults. () The outstanding interior decoration is mainly referring to the 17th and 18th centuries and with that creates the rich Baroque character of the cathedral.

Of the original abbey complex a considerable part has survived until the present time due to the constant use of the buildings.  After a substantial renovation in the 19th century, the cloisters are still intact in all four wings, with the Refectory in the southern wing even dating from the 13th century. The wall paintings, carvings and sophisticated portals of the cloisters are explicitly noteworthy.

The development of Pelplin abbey encompasses almost 550 years of history, which is why I will only name the most important dates and events here. In 1308 the whole area of Gdansk Pomerania came under the rule of the Teutonic Knights, who confirmed the privileges and properties of the Cistercian monks. The abbey was firmly consolidated by the end of the 14th century and prospered during the beginning of the 15th. Among others, the Scriptorium encountered a period of considerable production, which lay the cornerstone for today’s famous library. Yet in 1433 the monastery was plundered and set on fire by Czech Hussites and Polish forces, which also harmed the monastery villages considerably. The ensuing Thirteen Years War from 1454 to 1466, which converted Pommerellen into Polish territory, and the plague in 1474 caused even more damage and killed almost the entire convent. These outer struggles as well as the inner uncertainty brought by the Reformation led to a substantial crisis of the abbey that was slowly overcome by the end of the 16th century. In the following two centuries the new position of the Cistercian monks as Catholic force increased the wealth and influence of the abbey and saw the flourishing of the arts there. In contrast to the medieval situation the abbey was now able to recover comparably quick from the consequences and destructions of the Wars with Sweden, of the Great Nordic War or of another plague from 1709-1711. The actual decline of the monastery began only in 1772, when it became Prussian. The substantial property of the abbey was secularized at once, the admission of novices was restricted and the final decision on the closure was made in 1823.

Although the abbey could not survive as a Cistercian house, it continued to serve religious purposes. Already in 1824 Pelplin was established as bishop seat and the old monastery buildings were converted into a Catholic seminary and into the Catholic Collegium Marianum, which still exists today. Moreover the Diocesan Museum with its outstanding exhibits, among them numerous manuscripts, incunabula and even a B-42 Gutenberg Bible, adds to the current position of Pelplin as a religious and cultural centre.

These three former Cistercian monasteries have now become the objects of a joint international application to be listed as World Heritage Sites by the UNESCO. In order to be accepted by the World Heritage Committee the applicants have to be of outstanding universal value and fulfil at least one of six more detailed criteria.  The monasteries of Doberan, Løgumkloster and Pelplin have already collected several arguments for the criteria 2 and 3. These request that the applicants, and I now quote Nr. 2 “exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design” and Nr. 3 “to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared”. In addition to these the monasteries are currently aiming at the fourth criterion of this list, which would describe them: “to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history”. Concerning all criteria it has to be added that the protection, management, authenticity and integrity of properties are important considerations. The three partners believe that this fourth criterion is fulfilled by the fact that their former monastery churches represent the three most authentic, best preserved examples of Cistercian brick architecture in the southern Baltic Sea region. In addition to that each church represents a distinctive building type, which is characterized by the early, high or late Gothic style, and in turn reflects the different development-levels of Cistercian architecture. In the preliminary draft of the application it is furthermore given that “With regard to the completeness of their surviving buildings and, as a result, their full authenticity, the three churches are primary among the remaining houses of the Cistercian Order in Northern Europe. Although all three churches share the common ideal of Cistercian architecture, each has its own individual face.”

Two main questions occur in this context, which shall serve as a starting point for our joint work in the next two days.  The first is in how far this group stands out in an international comparison. One might immediately think of their common spiritual ideals or of their characteristic brick buildings. Apart from that, it has been suggested that they enable the rediscovery of the common European identity that the Cistercians represented. The cultural, political and economic relations that were natural in medieval times might be revived. For the present times this would also mean the establishment of a bridge between the Protestant and Catholic parts of Europe.

A second question concerns the reasons that would support the addition of these three monasteries to the ones that have already been enlisted. One point suggested by Prof. Brian McGuire from the University of Aarhus is the “miracle of the brick”, that is exceptionally illustrated by these three examples. Moreover, the idea of the Cistercians can still be experienced, among others, due to the extraordinary interior decoration in Doberan, which is unique in its state of preservation.

More general issues in these next two days will be a recapitulation of the current scientific understanding and the state of research in the field of Cistercian studies. The combination of scholarly expertise from all three countries involved in the application can be seen as the aspired goal. In open discussions the questions I have outlined already shall be addressed together with the more critical subject of the constitution of the group as such.

During the application process so far, certain national tendencies have become detectable for all three partners. Although it is a common understanding that the art historical value as well as the spiritual notion are significant, the balance between these two seems to be somewhat different. The Polish site with its living Catholicism and the Cistercian Order still prominent in the south of the country shows a more religious approach than the partners in Doberan for instance. While the importance of the Minster as a parish church is in no way denied, the focus rests at least equally on its art historical value. Yet slightly different again is the Danish attitude, which gives more emphasis to the spiritual dimension of the Cistercian idea. To conclude this brief introduction I would like to read out the preliminary draft for the preamble to the application written by Prof. Brain Patrick Mc Guire, the Danish expert on Cistercian spirituality:

“In bringing together the three monastic churches at Løgum in Denmark, Doberan in Germany and Pelplin in Poland, we see a common European heritage. The red brick gothic of these churches reveals a style of building that emphasizes light and space, in the expression of a shared spirituality that can have meaning for new generations. Whether one is Protestant or Catholic or a nonbeliever, the churches are a monument to the power and conviction of a contemplative monasticism whose purpose was to praise God. Today in a Europe that is at last recovering from the wars and dissensions of centuries, the gothic brick churches of Northern Europe indicate that there once was a Europe of shared cultural impulses, brought together by monks and nuns who worked and prayed in monasteries. This Europe is being reborn, not in confessional differences, but in a shared spirituality and sense of beauty. Løgumkloster, Pelplin and Doberan are witnesses to a European culture that lives on in new forms. The church buildings provide rest, meditation and meaning to new generations and contribute to the creation of a new Europe based on common traditions.”




Dr. des. Manja Olschowski

Universität Greifswald, Doktorandin am Lehrstuhl für Allgemeine Geschichte der Neuzeit



„The Cross-border economy of the Cistercian monasteries of Doberan, Pelplin and Lügumkloster"