Monday, July 28, 2008

St. Marienstern Monastery

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This Sunday, I visited the monastery of St. Marienstern (Mary's Star) in Panschwitz-Kuckau, in the Lusatia region of Germany. This abbey of cloistered Cistercian nuns in the heartland of the Reformation, Saxony, is a remarkable place in many respects. The most remarkable, perhpas, is its continued existence, through all the vicissitudes of history. It has survived the Hussite Wars, the Reformation, the Thirty Years' War, the Great Northern War, the Secularisation and the Communist rule in the GDR, and exists uninterruptedly since its foundation by Count Henry III of Camenz, Bishop of Meißen, in 1248. It is also a cultural centre for the Sorbs, the only real ethnic minority in Germany (apart from Danes in the North, and modern day immigration, obviously), who have always held fast to their Catholic Faith and traditions.

Here is an aerial view (click on all pictures to get larger versions) of the impressive complex, situated in the valley (a favourite placement for Cistercian monasteries) of the Klosterwasser ("monastery water"), where it is crossed by the old via regia (the park-like garden to the north of the abbey buildings is surrounded by walls and part of the enclosure):

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The convent building and the Abbey Church:

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The interior of the church, which was finished by the end of the 13th century, has undergone several redecorations. Much of the baroque decoration had already been discarded in 1888/1892 in favour of a neogothic one, and unfortunately the last one occurred in the 1960s, when it was decided to remove the neogothic decoration to restore the church to its (supposed) original appearance, which certainly looks somewhat puristic, but at least they (more or less) spared the baroque high altar (with the statues of Saints Catherine, Benedict, Bernard and Margaret):

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(I took this when I first arrived and went into the Church to make visit to the Blessed Sacrament. At 2 pm on a Sunday afternoon, adoration was held, and in addition to a good number of faithful not seen - in a village of 2200 people, in the "atheistic" East -, there was this lovely old lady in front of me, wearing the traditional Sorbian headdress)


What remains of the neogothic appointments are, strangely, the confessionals:

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After having visited the rest of the monastery, especially the incredible treasury (more on that below), I returned to the church for Vespers. The nuns - there are currently twenty of them, including several young ones and a novice - chant the Monastic Office in Latin.

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(They also wear, as I hope you can make out, the full traditional habit.)


Profound bow at the Gloria Patri:

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And now for the splendid treasury (what I am showing here is only a small selection). The first is the only picture I managed to take myself in the darkness of the rooms; the others are from a book about the works of art in the monastery which I bought there. This is from a missal, which has been made around 1350 at the monastery. It is the introit of the Mass of Palm Sunday, Domine, ne longe facias auxilium tuum a me, ad defensionem meam aspice.

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And the introit of the Day Mass of Christmas, Puer natus est nobis, et filius datus est nobis.

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In addition to these fantastic liturgical books, the monastery also has some noteworthy relics, in truly outstanding reliquaries. The most important, after a splinter of the True Cross, are parts of the skulls of St. John the Baptist and St. James the Greater; their reliquaries, made in Prague, are considered masterpieces of Gothic sculpture:

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(Note that the relic is positioned so that it can be seen and touched; the same is true for the relic of St. John, but there it is more to the back of the head)


Then there is this reliquary, which I personally find quite intriguing. It is a marble bust of the twelve year-old Saviour teaching in the temple, which was carved around 1265 by Nicola Pisano. The gold mounting is again a Bohemian work, the medallion shows the Baptism of the Lord. Inside there is a relic of St Bernard, and it is carried in procession through the abbey church each August 20th:

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Then there is a tooth of St. Nicholas, which the Saint is holding in this reliquary (Prague, ca. 1300):

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And here is a particle of the Cross of St. Andrew, the new reliquary having been commissioned in Prague in 1765:

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At the same time, this monstrance was acquired:

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Then the treasury also has some very interesting vestments. This incredible chasuble has been made in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) in the second quarter of the sixteenth century; its relief embroidery is modelled on late Gothic sculpture (remember that the Cross is the customary decoration of the back of the German type of the chasuble, unlike the Roman or Spanish ones; also, it is the cross which is from the early 16th c.; the rest is Lyon silk from around 1700):

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Another admirable work is this chasuble with a croos with eagles embroidered in pearls, made probably in Bohemia in the second half of the 14th century (the cloth of the main vestment is, again Lyon silk from 1700); it used to be worn on Easter and Ascension:

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A picture of the same I took in situ:

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Now, since we have just been talking about pontifical sandals, I though it interesting that an abbess of the early 18th century (remember that most abbesses of medieval monasteries had at some point acquired the right to use certain pontificals; in the case of St. Marienstern, that is the crozier and the pectoral cross) had a pair of "ceremonial shoes" made for her, in obvious analogy to the pontifical sandals:

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A last item I wanted to share with you is an interesting representation of Our Lady, present at St. Marienstern in several versions. This is Our Lady Expecting (literal from the German: "Our Lady in Hope"):

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