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Archaeology & building history

It is almost impossible to get a more precise idea of the former monastery complex, which was in operation for over 800 years. Starting with the only pictorial representation of Lorsch Abbey from the 16th century across all excavations to digital models of the findings: In view of the almost 90 percent destruction of the monastery complex, scientists repeatedly warn that the line between permissible hypothesis and unscientific speculation is crossed all too quickly.

In search of an image of the monastery: the history of archaeology and building research in Lorsch

For as long as archaeology and building research have existed, they have mainly been concerned with gaining a visual image of the monastery, which has been lost since the 17th century. We are only slowly becoming accustomed to the unfulfillability of this wish.
As is well known, there is only one pictorial representation of Lorsch Abbey – the well-known engraving by Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593-1650), which understandably shows us the mature state of the complex up to the middle of the 16th century and not Charlemagne’s monastery or the imperial monastery of the period around 1200. And even this one picture, which Merian had included in his material-rich topography of the Electoral Palatinate, does not stand up to critical scrutiny: The mere comparison of what has been preserved with what is depicted gives rise to the suspicion that what has not been preserved today may not necessarily have been recorded more thoroughly than what has been preserved. And this applies not only to structural details, but also to the arrangement of the buildings in relation to each other, so that two buildings come into question as a “gate” or “royal hall”, whose relationship to the alignment of the monastery church cannot be correct.
While travelogues from the 17th to 19th centuries tend to share a shuddering sense of the lost, the ruminations on the relics to be found at every turn in the monastery grounds, the lamentation over sarcophagi carelessly misused as cattle troughs and the fragment of the monastery church degraded to a granary tend to conjure up the myth of the long gone. As far as can be seen, Joseph Victor von Scheffel (1826-1886) was probably the first to create something like a visual image of the appearance of the monastery in the imagination of his readers in his historical novel “Ekkehard” – vague enough to avoid having to comment on details, more of an impression.
As it was only comparatively late when art studies and archaeology began to become sciences in their own right in the 19th century, it seemed that the time had come to resurrect the monastery, which had once been praised as a wonder of splendor and beauty. After pickaxes and sledgehammers had ensured that hardly a stone had been left unturned until the middle of the 18th century, a little more than a century later the remains began to be excavated in order to determine their value as sources for the history of the almost completely destroyed abbey.
Rudolf Adamy (1850-1898) was the first to add a drawn reconstruction to his idea of the monastery complex, which incidentally also resulted in the first wooden model that the Lorsch volunteer fire department handed down to posterity in 1926. It is the beginning of the effort to find a visual form of reclaiming the lost monastery. Drawings by Friedrich Behn (1883-1970) and Heinrich Walbe (1865-1954), some of which were also turned into models, and the highly hypothetical cardboard model by Wolfgang Selzer (1926-2003), accompanied by widespread isometrics, fired the viewer’s imagination and encouraged comparisons. The impressive wooden model of the church complex and gate hall, which Thomas Ludwig, Head of the Department for the Preservation of Buildings and Monuments at the Administration of the State Palaces and Gardens of Hesse, had built, went beyond previous attempts: the CAD model could be expanded into a suggestive film, Thomas Ludwig’s model began to reinterpret previous views with new hypotheses of its own – thus the monumental-looking arcades of the atrium became the guest houses of the abbey.
Attempts to carry out a three-dimensional recording of the preserved building stock and (as far as possible) of the archaeological findings with supplementary but not realistically reproduced “visual aids” as part of a DFG-funded project were postponed by the Lorsch Monastery World Heritage Site in 2005, at that time in close cooperation with the Institute for Scientific Computing at the University of Heidelberg, but not completely abandoned. A digital findings model is currently under discussion.
If we add to this the considerations for a more dignified design of the monastery grounds that have been taken up since the 1880s and the transformation of a considerable part of the entire complex into a monument to the relationship between King Ludwig, who was buried in Lorsch Monastery in 876, and the development of the German Empire, we are now talking about more than a century of efforts to somehow visualize or at least enhance an abandoned site – whether actually built or only drawn, proposed in models, whether represented realistically or remotely in the computer: The uneasy realization always remains that neither the preserved building stock nor the numerous archaeological features and finds can provide a picture of what actually once existed. Even if it were possible to find a “language” and a “grammar” of reconstruction that would make it immediately and unmistakably clear to every observer whether the detail he is looking at owes its existence to an insight, hypothesis or speculation, even if this were possible, such a model would remain unsatisfactory because of its low proportion of evidence-based certainties.
However, the most powerful imaginative aid of the last fifty years was and remains Wolfgang Selzer’s isometry. Since its first publication in Laurissa Jubilans in 1964, it has been used in numerous publications, was mounted on a large panel in the church fragment and dominated an information board in the monastery grounds, which was the most popular starting point for guided tours of the monastery until it was removed in 2012.
It is precisely this image of Lorsch Abbey that many people have in mind when they think of the monastery; very few people realize how often the boundary between permissible hypothesis and actually unscientific speculation has been crossed in this reconstruction; in a way, this flaw clings to all efforts to recover a spatial image of Lorsch Abbey.

Excavations in the monastery since 1934

Fifty years ago, the building history of the monastery church with the adjoining royal tomb (ecclesia varia) to the east, which protrudes powerfully over the edge of the dune into the landscape, atrium, enclosure, monastery wall and a further gateway to the south-east of the main axis was considered to have been largely clarified archaeologically. The honorary citizen of Lorsch, Friedrich Behn, according to the consensus up until the 1990s, had done everything possible to identify and date at least those parts of the ensemble that were decisive for a monastery.
On the basis of an idea of the shape and appearance of the monastery that could in principle also be depicted in a model, a design concept for the entire complex was created, which, taking up Behn’s findings, was developed by none other than Dieter Hennebo (1923-2007). Over the years, the design and execution competed with a number of other proposals to make the Carolingian monastery more visible. Again and again, following the example of St. Michael’s monastery on the Heiligenberg, the erection of small walls was demanded, steel and glass constructions on the church fragment were suggested, as were trellis fruit and pergolas as abbreviations of past architecture.
Behn published his findings in a monograph on the monastery church, atrium and gate hall, which was published in 1934 and was accompanied by an extensive collection of plans – even before the end of the campaign, which lasted until 1936 and contained information on the monastery wall, the so-called south-east gate and the enclosure, which was excavated in varying degrees of detail. Unpublished material from Friedrich Behn’s estate was loaned by Wolfgang Selzer to the Chair of Medieval and Modern Archaeology at the University of Bamberg. Unfortunately, the hope of having the possibly well advanced preliminary work of a second volume available here was quickly disappointed: Most of the documented excavation results had been published in other places by 1964, without the necessary detail and without the addition of plans that characterize the 1934 monograph.
Later investigations in the monastery by Wolfgang Selzer at the site of the Afra chapel allegedly rediscovered by him in the middle of the monks’ cemetery (1945), which Behn had only opened up in very small sections, and possibly also once again to the south-east of the so-called ecclesia varia, have not been published, nor are there any documents such as site plans or excavation diaries. The location of the Afra Chapel must therefore continue to be regarded as completely open, and the building remains interpreted by Selzer as a palace are now interpreted completely differently.
Excavations to secure the monastery wall in 1992 (Landesamt für Denkmalpflege, Dr. Holger Göldner) did not lead to any publication, while the excavations on the Benediktinerplatz in 1982 and at the Altenmünster (1983), which were mainly carried out by members of the Lorsch Heimat- und Kulturverein, have been published very briefly but are well documented.
Unpublished, documented but largely inconclusive was a small excavation at the highest point of the Spittelsberg behind the tithe barn; unpublished but documented is an archaeological investigation, in the broadest sense, of the rubble in the roof space of the northern staircase apse of the Lorsch Gate Hall in the summer of 1999.
With a view to future projects in the western apron of the Torhalle, which Friedrich Behn was also unable to investigate in a coherent manner, the excavations of bones to the west, south and east of the Torhalle are probably the most important. The bones recently handed over from the depot of the World Heritage Site’s local history and culture association can now be examined much more closely for their age than thirty years ago and will perhaps help to reinterpret the meaning and function of the “Torhalle” within the monastery complex.
Unfortunately, further important opportunities for archaeological exploration of the monastic environment have been irretrievably lost. The construction work on the Römerstraße at the beginning of the 1990s (Carstanjen 1990/91, Marktplatz 4 1991/92, today’s Piazzetta) was not accompanied by archaeology and led to massive structural interventions in the monastery wall, to its static endangerment at its highest point and finally to the total loss of the remains of the hospital first mentioned in the will of Abbot Henry of Lorsch (1167), which gave the Spittelsberg its name and whose cemetery could only be found in small remains in an emergency excavation. This loss was difficult to cope with so shortly before the monastery was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The excavation of a large Carolingian storage area with settlement remains and the loss of several fibulae found there during the construction of today’s sports facilities in Ehlried in April 2004 are also of concern.
Systematic excavations, which, apart from two one-year interruptions, have continued to this day, then took place from 1998 to 2009 under the aegis of the Chair of Medieval and Modern Archaeology at the University of Bamberg (Ingolf Ericsson; excavation directors were Stefan Kirchberger, Jakob Müller, Markus Sanke and Thomas Platz), and since 2009 under the direction of medieval archaeologist, monument conservator and art historian Matthias Untermann (Institute for European Art History at the University of Heidelberg; excavation director on site since 2009 has been Dieter Lammers).
A detailed project description of the collaboration with the Institute for European Art History at Heidelberg University can be found here:

Both excavation campaigns had two very different triggers: During electrical work in the church fragment in 1997, the opportunity was first taken to remove the Behn period fill debris from a cut directly east of the Gothic portal of the west façade and to compare the findings with the Behn plans (1997/98: Schefers/Halbig). The aim was also to find out whether the section boundaries entered by Behn in his printed plans of 1934 were actually given as they were or had been extended undocumented in the meantime. They suggested that there were still larger contiguous “layer packages” within the church fragment, the banding of which could still be investigated. This hope was confirmed and led to the most extensive and longest excavation campaign in the history of Lorsch Abbey.

Without having to go into the separate excavation sections in detail, the results of the last few years, most recently accompanied by intensive research into various archival documents, can be summarized as follows:

Monastery gate and atrium

Only two plans allow us to draw conclusions about the location of the old main gate of the monastery. A not entirely accurate watercolor drawing from 1744, which Rudolf Adamy already knew: It shows the grounds after most of the monastery buildings had already disappeared. The post-monastic buildings Zehntscheune (tithe barn; last decade of the 16th century, extended in 1719/20) and Kurfürstliches Haus (electoral manor; 1729/30), which have since been dated by means of dendrochronology, are representative of the post-monastic period, while the Kurfürstliches Haus is representative of the area’s use as an electoral domain and later residence of a high-ranking forestry official.

The former monastery church is still drawn in its full length with a Gothic east end, but probably only as a central nave and, like the “Torhalle”, is described as a sacred building. The gate building, which is connected to the monastery wall on both sides, appears here slightly offset from the axis connecting the church and the gate hall and is referred to in the legend as “Der Thurn oder das Thorhaus”. Between this drawing and the first very accurate cadastral plan from 1840 (revised in 1842), there is an undated photograph of the sides of the street along Hirschgasse (today Römerstraße), the market square and the streets leading onto it (unmarked; today: Bahnhofstraße, Nibelungenstraße, Schulstraße). This very precise, watercolor ink drawing shows us the outline of the gatehouse with the road “to Bensheim” leading off from it to the east. If you align this plan with the modern cadastral plan, you can immediately see that the gate building was located one building width further west and that its north-western corner ended exactly at the south-eastern boundary of the gateway east of the “Café am Kloster”, which still exists today. The architecture of today’s pizzeria “Am Kloster”, which at first glance certainly does not stand out as a valuable structure, becomes understandable and even worthy of protection when the two plans are superimposed as a northern continuation of the old gatehouse. Perhaps the eastern (windowless!), slightly curved eaves side of the building still preserves remnants of the monastery wall in its interior, as it abuts the outbuildings of the property at Nibelungenstraße 38 on the other side of the square to the southwest, where it is still preserved at such an imposing height. Assuming that the situation of a main gate at this location, which existed until around 1830 and 1840, had been maintained, the monastery visitor would have arrived at a place after passing through the gate that Friedrich Behn was able to arrange in a bold reconstruction: The slight axial bend of the gate building was corrected, the gate became a passage flanked by two square towers, the outer sides of which facing west are identical to the end sections of the monastery wall that lead into them. In the respective extension of their north and south sides, a wall course is reconstructed which, after a short stretch, forms a bend to the south and north, along which elongated buildings to the north and south branch off to the east.
Friedrich Behn, who interpreted the structures, each almost exactly 4.60 m wide in the light, as 10th century atriums, had thus defined the atrium of the monastery church and provided the “Torhalle” (King’s Hall) with an architectural framework that reconciled it with the realization that the Torhalle was conceived as a solitary structure and – according to Behn – is also older than the atrium. Now, at last, it had its place in an orderly space that suited our aesthetic senses! However, subsequent excavations by Dieter Lammers in 2012 revealed that although the southern passage was indeed verifiable, the northern one was not: Not only could Behn’s features no longer be found in the places he had surveyed, but Behn’s cuts themselves could not be found where they should have left traces.

Two-tower group, westwork, monastery church and ecclesia varia

It is all the more difficult to say goodbye to the atrium in front of the monastery church, which was thought to be a certainty, as it means that a whole series of clever considerations by architectural and art historians in recent years on the iconography, iconology and function of the gateway hall within an atrium must also become “questionable” in the noblest sense of the word: What do we now have to do with Achim Hubel’s exciting consideration of a sequence of buildings developed on the Regensburg topography of Porta Praetoria and Carolingian cathedral at the (northern) main portal in front of the northern main entrance to the basilica of St. Emmeram in Regensburg? Can it still be considered a role model for Lorsch? Does Romano Silva’s thesis of a place of judgment, which Matthias Untermann also finds worth considering, also need to be fundamentally reconsidered in light of the fact that the “atrium” in the form long thought to have been proven did not exist at all?
These difficult and uncomfortable questions can be continued – right at today’s western end of the church fragment! Even the untrained layman can immediately see that different construction periods are intertwined there, recognizing the two mighty towers by means of clear construction joints, which grew out of the foundations excavated by Friedrich Behn and could be archaeologically examined again by Thomas Platz, but only on the southern foundation.
It is clear that the wall surfaces of the towers preserved in the rising are the eastern sides of the two buildings, which are terminated above their foundations within the church fragment by an elegant plinth profile that bends and continues on the inner sides of the towers, i.e. to the north and south of the arched passageway running through the middle between them. Here, building researchers are faced with a puzzle that has not yet been satisfactorily solved: Friedrich Behn assumed an independent group of buildings here, a two-tower westwork: two towers, a building with at least two storeys between them, with two façades – to the west and to the east. Behn imagined the westwork of a Carolingian basilica offset to the east by the depth of the 12th century masonry of the two arcade zones abutting the west wall, which extended far to the east and was finally, between 876 and 882, extended by a two-storey building adjoining the old sanctuary to the east – the ecclesia varia, the crypt chapel of Louis the German and his descendants.
Thomas Platz fundamentally questioned this idea based on his own observations of the rising masonry, particularly in the inner southwest corner of the church fragment: He believed that he had recognized an originally preserved corner structure at a great height, but one that had been isolated over the centuries due to numerous building alterations, which allowed him to reckon with the initially almost paradoxical possibility that parts of the upper arcade, i.e. the masonry above the arcades, must be older than those that, for stylistic reasons, certainly belong in the 12th century arcades made of exposed brickwork. In addition, he thought he could recognize two phases in the foundation masonry of the towers, an older one, which he related to the base profile and the chipped corner bond, and a more recent one, through which two originally slightly protruding side rooms flanking the main portal of the churches later became towers. This opened up the possibility of suggesting the beginning of a pre-Romanesque (Carolingian?) church architecture with a tripartite west end (analogous to Kornelimünster and Michelstadt-Steinbach). The place where Friedrich Behn placed his Carolingian westwork could be discussed for a while as a raised choir platform until Thomas Platz interpreted the foundation grid, which Behn saw as the westwork foundation, as a relatively recent search cut (of the 19th century?). After this realization, the question of a Carolingian basilica extending further to the east was opened up, but it probably did not reach the structure interpreted as ecclesia varia. There now seems to be agreement on the assumption that the masonry shown by Behn cannot possibly be dated to the Carolingian period, but must rather be assigned to the 11th century.
More recent considerations resulting from observations of the building research carried out on the church fragment since 2010 in cooperation with the Technical University of Munich (Manfred Schuller, Katarina Papajanni, Ilona Dudzinski) now question the hypotheses put forward by Platz: They again make it conceivable (with Behn) that the present inner side of the west wall of the church fragment was originally once an outer wall, which, incidentally, is also supported by a slightly overcut, funnel-shaped masonry tube in the south-western half of the present portal zone, which is interrupted by a horizontally walled round slab that has five round holes drilled through it, so it is more likely to have been a kind of gully or drain than a cistern.
The shaft goes down only a little deeper than the lowest layer of graves, which are crowded here directly behind the Gothic threshold inside the present-day church fragment: dry-walled chambers with slab closures, unfortunately all of their contents robbed by Behn. Were they once arranged to the east of the architecture that ends here? Or were they located – in a privileged position – inside the church building directly below the western entrance? This question is still unresolved. There is also the question of the identity of the people who found their final resting place here; and of course the question of how and as what we should imagine a building extending to the west that was separated from the church by a courtyard.
Finally, if the ecclesia varia – assuming that the building uncovered by Friedrich Behn was the building so designated in the High Middle Ages – is not Carolingian, then the question of the original location of the royal tombs ultimately arises again. If it was where Behn assumed it to be, then it must have been built over in such a way that no remnant of Carolingian masonry that has come down to us would have been observed so far. If we take this hypothesis as a basis, which assumes a certain statics of the location of a tomb, but a change in its structural form, then this component could be associated with the place where Pope Leo IX consecrated the middle (of three?) altars in the fall of 1052. Perhaps this was the start of a major construction project which, progressing from east to west, finally resulted in a huge building that was the scene of the fire so vividly described by the sources in 1090? A building that, if it still existed, we would probably be able to praise in the same breath as the Romanesque cathedrals of Speyer, Worms and Mainz, which were also soaring with power at the time? But it was also a building that would have left no trace in the abbey’s chronicle.

The exam

When it came to the location of the Carolingian enclosure, which Friedrich Behn believed he had found to the south of the church, the archaeologist at least had the chronicler of the Lorsch Codex himself on his side; for he writes, using an early medieval abbot’s chronicle as a source, that Abbot Richbod once replaced the wooden monks’ houses, which were built to the north of the church, with a stone enclosure to the south of the church – “uti nunc videtur” (as it is now). The chronicler inserted this phrase himself and one could infer from it that he believed that during his lifetime the convent still lived in the Carolingian complex, or simply that in his time, i.e. in the last third of the 12th century, the enclosure was precisely where Abbot Richbod wanted it to be: in the south.
The question of the age of the enclosure excavated by Behn has so far been anything but conclusively clarified; only at one point, in the south-east corner, has Behn’s hypothesis been verified and refuted by Markus Sanke: here too there are no traces of the Carolingian complex. If the enclosure had only been built after the church fire of 1090, our chronicler would certainly have mentioned this, because then he, who still knew Abbot Diemo personally, would certainly have mentioned the completion of the repairs and new buildings.

Infirmarium, ecclesia triplex and latrine

Of the three cloister wings, the western one seems to have been the best researched; however, the results of the excavations were not published, but a draft text by Friedrich Behn and a plan documenting the findings have been preserved. It can be assumed that the cloister buildings, or at least the dormitory (east wing), must have had two storeys if the monks’ choir of the basilica was to be accessed from the dormitory wing at the same height. While hardly anything is known about the south wing (refectory?) apart from its location, the west wing formed a hall that was significantly lower in relation to the church fragment and was divided into two naves by columns whose bases could still be found in situ by Behn. The possibility of a representative room for high-ranking guests, which the monastery had to accommodate again and again, is to be expected here – twenty sojourns of rulers from the days of Charlemagne to around 1070 alone could be reliably determined for Lorsch.
The consideration that the need for representation of the abbey and its prelates was certainly taken into account in the form of suitable rooms and furnishings will invite us to take a particularly careful look here, in the west of the complex and in the immediate vicinity of the prelature in place of the Elector’s House, which can be assumed to have existed at least in the late Middle Ages; Wolfgang Selzer claimed the existence of a royal palatium in the monastery area and thought he could recognize it in the wall structures parallel to the monastery wall immediately south of the monastery church, which Behn had not interpreted and had not measured correctly. It is not so much the localization as the assertion of the existence of a royal palace in Lorsch that has pervaded the literature for decades, without the findings, let alone the sources, being aware of it.
Subsequent excavations by Thomas Platz at this site not only led to corrections of Behn’s measurements, but also to a new interpretation of the structural situation, which incidentally was also associated with the abandonment of the ecclesia triplex assumed here by Behn and Selzer: four parallel wall excavation pits remained, whose chronological and structural assignment is just as completely uncertain as their connection with other buildings.
The building remains interpreted by Wolfgang Selzer as a palatium proved to be a crowded complex of very different buildings of very different dates. The northern part of a building fragment, which consisted of a brick first floor and a cantilevered upper floor, presumably made of half-timbering, was preserved at an impressive height of more than one storey. The building used the monastery wall as an eastern eaves wall and broke through it at one point for an oriel originally projecting to the east. Together with its predecessor, which was probably destroyed by fire, the building can be interpreted as an infirmary above a kitchen, a small functional building in the space between the dormitory, monastery church and wall and at a short distance from the adjoining latrine to the south. Finds of medical equipment point to its function as a monk’s hospital.
While the interpretation as an infirmary can probably be maintained for the late and high Middle Ages, a district for highly specialized crafts can be assumed for the early Middle Ages. In this context, a wall interpreted as a firewall can be seen, which traces the dune slope that once fell steeply to the east at this point and ends bluntly at the monastery wall. At the foot of the old dune, which was still within the monastery wall, Thomas Platz was able to find the oldest piece of wall from the Carolingian period that has been securely dated to date by a stratigraphically bound coin find. Skilled bone carvers and a glassmaker had their workshops not far from each other. The evidence of a glass workshop from the Carolingian period is certainly something special, an indicator of an important craft and economic center of power, which can be mentioned in a row with the great palaces of the empire, where similar crafts can be proven. The publication of the features and finds from the two sections investigated between 2002 and 2004 can be looked forward to with just as much excitement as the discovery of a watercourse on today’s Karolingerplatz, between which and the monastery wall of Thomas Platz a fortification consisting of pointed ditches and ramparts was discovered.
The latrine has certainly been one of the most controversial buildings in recent decades. Friedrich Behn saw it as a four-arched, two-storey gateway richly ornamented in the style of the “Torhalle”. Karl Josef Minst suspected a latrine and Jakob Müller was able to clearly confirm Minst’s suspicions after excavations in the area north of the monastery wall, which was interrupted here due to an elongated building set back slightly to the west. Taking advantage of the steep slope of the terrain, the building was built into the hillside in such a way that its upper floor, connected to the dormitory by a corridor, could be accessed from the monastery at ground level. The corridor, which can be clearly seen on the Merian engraving, can also be easily identified in the results of the georadar measurements in the southern monastery grounds at the beginning of the 1990s. Excavations to clarify its connection to the presumed dormitory have been awaiting publication since 2003. Along the vertical building axis of the latrine, the dune slope was cut off and intercepted by a wall, between which and the alignment of the monastery wall a narrow, outwardly open space was created, covered with cramped sandstone slabs, into which the monks could relieve themselves from the room above. The excrement was then easy to dispose of from the outside, with four open brick arches providing access. Similar latrines are also well known from other places. However, it is unlikely that this latrine was actually decorated in a similar way to the “Torhalle”. Behn pointed out a similar architectural decoration, because during his excavations in this part of the monastery grounds, the format stones so characteristic of the façades of the “Torhalle” were found particularly frequently. In fact, the number of these stones found throughout the monastery grounds, to which fragments of a palmette frieze like the one on the “Torhalle” and a fragment of an eaves cornice have also been added, far exceeds the number of wall sections that may have been replaced over the centuries, so that the existence of a second building decorated in the style of the “Torhalle” is indeed plausible.
Werner Jacobsen, who in 1985 was the first to present a scholarly catalog of Lorsch’s architectural sculpture, proposed the “ecclesia varia” with extremely plausible arguments, which is also documented as a “colorful church” by a German document dating back to 1320. Did the “colorful” appearance of the crypt church give it its name?
Long before Jacobsen, it was Martin Joseph Savelsberg (1814-1879) and Georg Schaefer (1823-1908) in particular who thought in similar combinations and suspected the ecclesia varia in the “Torhalle”. Based on his thesis, Werner Jacobsen developed a dating framework for the Lorsch building sculpture with the “Torhalle” as a fixed point, which Jacobsen sees in the closest chronological connection with the ecclesia varia built between 876 and 882 and the pilaster sarcophagus attributed to Louis the German.
The art historian Matthias Exner has contrasted this approach, which is based more on architectural history and assigns the “Torhalle” a relatively late appearance within Carolingian architecture, with an earlier approach that relates the sparsely preserved fragments of figurative painting from the Carolingian monastery church to the wall paintings inside the upper floor of the Torhalle and thus places it more in the period around 820/30. It is precisely these approximately 70 years between the heyday of the “Carolingian Renaissance” under Louis the Pious and the end of the eighties of the 9th century that are generally regarded today as the period within which the construction of the “Torhalle” can be imagined.

The monastery grounds in the past and today

Over the past fifty years, the larger, southern part of the monastery grounds, which are bisected by Nibelungenstraße (formerly Bensheimer Chaussee, then Ludwigstraße and finally Nibelungenstraße), have undergone several far-reaching changes, the most recent and radical of which is due to be completed for the big anniversary in 2014. The northern part is not subject to comparable measures, nor is the small courtyard at Nibelungenstrasse 38, which is privately owned. The northern part was parceled out at an early stage and then 19. and Built on in the 20th century. The new buildings of the neo-Romanesque Protestant church (1895) and the Wingertsberg elementary school (1908) meant that the boundaries of the site, which had been handed down unchanged from generation to generation, were breached for the first time, so that the northern course of the former monastery wall can no longer be traced here. Apart from a few exploratory investigations by Heinrich Gieß (1841-1918), which also yielded hardly any information about a monastic settlement in the area north of Nibelungenstraße, it is very likely that all remaining traces have been lost or obliterated without archaeological observation. At the beginning of the 1990s, when the area behind the museum center was redesigned and the Paul Schnitzer Hall was added, not a single case of older Lorsch citizens remembering old fountains and vaults could be verified.
With the exception of the years between 1797 and 1816, the southern monastery grounds were always in “state” hands: before 1797 they belonged to the Electorate of Mainz, between 1797 and 1816 to the Electorate of Mainz’s Chief Forester Carl Friedrich Anshelm Freiherr von Hausen (1758 – 1802), and after his untimely death in 1802 at the hands of a poacher, his widow owned the barely usable area. At this time – as every Lorsch resident knows – the gatehouse, the Kapellche, was almost demolished in order to use its stones to help the parish church of Kleinhausen, which was situated on the Lorsch (and therefore Catholic) side of the Weschnitz. The then Landgrave Ludwig X, who became Grand Duke Lud(e)wig I of Hesse in 1806, prevented the demolition and took possession of the site.
After the end of the First World War, the Volksstaat Hessen took over the property, which was repeatedly parceled out in its former extent: The larger part of the later park was occupied by the forestry master residing in the Elector’s House, while the smaller part, together with the official farmstead, served as a residence for a forestry assessor. Until 1888, this farmstead consisted of a narrow, single-storey house with a partial basement, which was last surveyed in 1876. It is the old house of the court confectioner and the silver servant – from the era in which the Elector’s House served the spiritual ruler from time to time as a place of diversion and recreation. The adjoining farm buildings to the north and the tithe barn, which was partly rented out to local farmers and the cigar manufacturer Adolf Schönherr, are still part of it.
Since the second half of the eighties In the 19th century, there was a lively exchange of correspondence between the Grand Ducal Ministry of Finance in Darmstadt and the Building Department in Bensheim about how to deal with the old monastery grounds: In 1876, an inscription in honor of Ludwig the German as the founder of the German Empire was placed on the northern gable end of the “Torhalle”, and since then, the highest authorities have been concerned about the restoration of the monastery hill and the preserved buildings in a way that does justice to the dignity of the place. In 1904/05, consideration was given to dismantling the church fragment layer by layer and then rebuilding it “neatly” in order to overcome the feared structural problems and correct the “disorder” in the walls caused by the various construction phases! It was agreed that the wooden fixtures from the 18th century should be removed, but again there were concerns about the statics, so both measures were abandoned. In 1920, the boldest plans envisaged a tower in an almost neo-Romanesque style at the southwest corner, a monument in the middle arcade of the north side and a courtyard planted with trees and hedges in front of it – a solution that completely obscured the past of the church fragment, which is probably why it was not pursued further at the time.

The Lorsch population had no recognizable part in these plans. Nevertheless, they led to this part of the monastery grounds being made accessible to the public and were able to arouse the first municipal desires after the First World War.
An initial contract between the municipality of Lorsch and the People’s State of Hesse in 1926 took account of the municipality’s wish to design the area between the church fragment and the “Torhalle” as a kind of courtyard of honor for the fallen of the First World War, with a sarcophagus-like memorial in the main axis of the complex, flanked by a staircase that formed a kind of plateau in front of the western façade of the church remains. This monument triggered the first major archaeological campaign. The aim was to carry out a small-scale sounding at the site of the planned monument – an astonishing level of care for this time of great economic hardship! – The result was one of the most extensive monastery excavations of the twentieth century in the period before the Second World War!
This complex, whose original purpose was increasingly fading, was joined in 1967 by a monument to the establishment of the town of Lorsch on the occasion of the 1200th anniversary of the monastery of Lorsch. The surrounding communities donated a circular fountain, from the center of which a fountain shot into the sky, all surrounded by meadow and bushes, with a sandstone-clad concrete wall nestled into its eastern flank, offering seating. It was at this time that the Lorsch local history and culture association was certainly more concerned about the effect of the monastery complex than the administration of the State Palaces and Gardens, which also took over the garden, which had been in private use until the end, and the two southern compartments of the tithe barn when the Lorsch forestry office came to an end in 1967.
The “former Benedictine monastery of Lorsch” became a branch office of the Bad Homburg administration. At the end of the 1950s, there was still a small kiosk in the stairway to the southern stair tower of the gate hall where you could buy postcards and guide booklets! At the end of the 1950s, the complaints and warnings of Karl Joseph Minst (1898-1984), then curator of the complex, who warned against public appropriation of the monastery, went unheeded! His Cassandra’s cry remained between file covers – as an amusing example from 1958 of the never quite simple coexistence between the municipality and the palace administration. After all, Minst, who earned more than his fair share of a living as a “castle assistant warden” in Bad Homburg, was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit and honorary citizenship of Lorsch.
The area around the church axis and the southern monastery grounds up to the wall between the tithe barn and the Elector’s House was redesigned in 1967 according to plans by Friedrich Behn and Dieter Hennebo. All traces of private use disappeared (in addition to a small pond, this also included a laundry room attached to the south side of the Elector’s House and a pigsty attached to the south side of the tithe barn). Walls were replaced by low privet hedges in the area of the former monastery church, paths indicated the location of the inner foundations of the cloister buildings, and a dense hornbeam hedge, which eventually reached over a man’s height, actually turned the space between the church fragment and the “Torhalle” into a spatial structure. All kinds of considerations obscured crucial details: The Elector’s House had to have an asphalted, car-friendly driveway and this could not be identical to the entrance to the forestry district. The southern hornbeam hedge was not allowed to stand in the place of the inner southern artrium wall, because otherwise a separate access road would not have been possible. It’s hard to imagine today how the Benedictine square was used for traffic – the B460 main road ran right past the “Torhalle”. It was not until the “Save the King’s Hall” initiative launched by honorary citizen Paul Schnitzer (1935-1995) in 1974 and supported by the then district monument conservator Friedrich Oswald that Lorsch was able to experience the construction of an elaborate town environment and the transformation into a traffic-calmed area and finally into a pedestrian zone. The design of the Benedictine square created in this way, conceived and implemented by the Lorsch architect Paul Rhein in the 1980s, sought a connection to the monastery and included the adoption of the floor plan of the gateway, which was incorrectly entered in a Behn plan. Today, the Benedictine square is the heart of the city – the interpenetration of the monastery and the city in front of the “Torhalle”, which was accomplished with creative means, created an essentially unhistorical visual axis between the Old Town Hall and the Torhalle, which did not exist in this form until around 1840.

The new design of the monastery grounds

It is thanks to one of the major global economic crises since the end of the Second World War that Lorsch was able to benefit from an investment program of the Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development for national World Heritage Sites at the end of the first decade of the 21st century as part of the economic stimulus programs launched everywhere in 2008/2009. With financial contributions from the local authority (2.7 million euros), the state of Hesse (4.2 million euros) and the federal government (4.6 million euros), initially 11.5 million euros and finally 12.1 million euros were spent on upgrading the World Heritage Site, supplemented by further substantial funds from the Hesse Palaces and Gardens Administration for building maintenance, building research, restoration work and finally also a complete new supply and disposal system for the monastery buildings. Never before in modern history had so much money been available for a revision of the World Heritage Site!
Just in time for the town’s big anniversary, the World Heritage Site will be given a new look: It encloses the two core zones of Altenmünster and Lorsch Monastery, which are integrated into a modern agricultural landscape and the townscape respectively. Connections are created between the two core zones – the so-called cultural axis, which is made accessible by a circular route and thematically connects such disparate aspects of local history as the exemplary construction and processing of tobacco.
Based on a master plan that emerged from a competition and was developed by the offices of hg merz (Stuttgart) and Topotek 1 (Berlin), several changes have been made to the approach to the World Heritage Site: The chronology of the monastery has been taken as a basis, so the approach is from the east and there, at the Altenmünster, the narrative begins, accompanying the visitor along new paths through the nature and culture of the landscape in which the monastery was created and grew, before finally pausing in front of the “Torhalle” as the climax.
Basically, this narrative is part of an overarching educational concept that also includes other components: The Lorsch Museum Center, for example, which was opened in 1995 and incidentally also arose from a recommendation by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) to improve the presentation of the monastery’s significance, is to be more clearly focused on its primary objective. Following the largely completed removal of the folklore department of the Hessian State Museum Darmstadt (2010), the city and state are planning to relieve the monastery history department and the tobacco museum of their previous requirements in addition to providing a suitable space for sophisticated temporary exhibitions: Just as the Tobacco Museum will in future be able to show a model field and the tobacco barn in the World Heritage Site (perhaps also the more agricultural aspects there), the monastery history department will have the chance to tell a special and important chapter in future – namely that of the intellectual and cultural-historical significance of the abbey, its library and its scriptorium – both on the basis of the complete digitization of all known Lorsch manuscripts in cooperation between the Hessian Palace Administration and Heidelberg University Library. The rich harvest of archaeology and building research is to be “harvested” in the tithe barn, where it will be made accessible to citizens and visitors alike as part of special guided tours. And so the old barn, which has been at the disposal of the Hessian administration as a whole since 2002, found a purpose for museum purposes that had been discussed many years before.
The church fragment, however, which was set up as a lapidarium in 1956 and whose 18th-century closures were renewed at the time, will look completely different than ever before: Although it was necessary to retain the east wall for structural reasons, the arcades could remain open; people will have to get used to the bright, light-flooded space, the views and the loss of the usual uses. Like everything that has happened in the monastery grounds in recent decades and like everything that will happen in the future, the removal of new additions without leaving a trace and reversibility at any time is the top priority of monument preservation. It also applies to the modeling of the monastery hill, which, after the loss of most of the trees and shrubs, has found its way from the previously appreciated closeness to nature to a certain artificiality: The city park, densely planted with trees and hedges, has become a lawn with high maintenance requirements and only a few solitary trees, a kind of “velvet cushion” for the gatehouse, church fragment and monastery wall, the three witnesses of centuries of monastic life and activity that need special care. At the same time, the terrain lies protectively in soft folds over the explored and unexplored areas of the monastery hill, indicating, as it were, that the two belong together: exploration and respect for the findings.
The lost, which resists any form of reconstruction, leaves traces in this cushion through gentle imprints – outlining, summarizing, not allowing any internal divisions, not explaining, not interpreting and – for example – differentiating according to building periods or functional areas. Past presence is captured and shaped to the maximum of its historical breadth and depth. Perhaps it is precisely through the sparseness of the statement and by bringing the historical horizon out into the landscape, which was shaped by this monastery, that the monastery grounds can regain a little of their former aura.

The profile of the World Heritage Site today

Looking back over the last 50 years, a lot has changed in the shadow of the Lorsch Monastery World Heritage Site. The fact that plans and considerations worthy of support could be submitted at all on the occasion of the investment program has its reason in the long experience with the special quality of this place – it does not consist in the proverbial “wasteland of the cadastre” in Lorsch, i.e. ultimately in a deficiency, but in a special challenge, in a challenge to endangered cultural techniques: to imagination and thirst for knowledge. Until the end of the 1980s, it was sufficient to maintain a branch office of the palace administration, whose staff looked after the site and were available for guided tours, but in the early 1990s the first steps were taken towards a modern cultural and museum education approach, which – and this was not at all in line with cultural policy ideas in our federal state at the time – was based on the autonomy of the authentic historical site, on its own educational mission, which was given additional weight by its World Heritage status. Lorsch has made a name for itself in the family of World Heritage Sites in Germany and beyond and has itself become part of the program: The “Lorsch Model” was awarded the Walter Mertineit Prize by the German UNESCO Commission in 2006, just a few days after the educational claim of the World Heritage Sites had been formulated for the first time in Hildesheim.
Lorsch is also the place of origin of a theme day, World Heritage Day, which is now celebrated nationwide on the first Sunday of June. Even if it has been organized by dedicated tourism experts, its real aim is to give citizens the chance to encounter their World Heritage site in person – in guided tours and explanations, in discussions with those responsible on site, but also through encounters with other institutions that are particularly close to the goals of the United Nations, a “culture of peace” – UNESCO schools and chairs, for example, or UNESCO clubs, UNESCO Geoparks or simply other UNESCO World Heritage sites. As the oldest Hessian World Heritage Site within the UNESCO Bergstrasse-Odenwald Geopark, Lorsch has also been honored with a link to the UNESCO “Memory of the World” program via the “Lorsch Pharmacopoeia” since 2013 and is a place that is particularly worthwhile in several respects, not only for the goals of the 1972 World Heritage Convention.
A good ten years ago now, the World Heritage Site of Lorsch Abbey took the initiative to establish an international World Heritage education. Under the globally compatible working concept of “World Heritage Education”, the aim is to ensure that World Heritage Sites, as particularly conscious places of crystallization of national historicity, become sustainable as places of education. This can be achieved on the one hand by incorporating World Heritage education into school curricula, and on the other hand by ensuring that at some point every World Heritage site not only has the space and financial resources to meet this requirement, but also suitably qualified staff.
The specific global claim of each World Heritage site is the least concrete. The idea that humanity as a whole lays claim to the integrity, accessibility and preservation of prominent examples of a “world culture” has already been exemplified in “world public opinion”: The blowing up of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan’s Bamian Valley by the Taliban in 2001, for example, was an internationally observed and condemned crime and all the more of an issue as the statues were earmarked for inclusion on the UNESCO list.
This act, which can also be seen as an attack on the foundations of the World Heritage idea, was the trigger for the Lorsch Monastery World Heritage Site to establish the world’s first network of World Heritage Sites, which is also calculated to grow continuously. The aim is to connect active monasteries or monastery-like institutions that are on the UNESCO list of cultural heritage of humanity with each other within a reasonable period of time. Since the phenomenon of the “monastery” is anything but specifically Christian, but occurs in almost all major religions, this network, within which the no longer active Lorsch Monastery plays the role of an unsuspected moderator, is our contribution to a culture of peace, which can be cultivated if common basic phenomena (asceticism, meditation / contemplation, uniformity, collective memory formation, innovation centers, etc.) are perceived and understood as basic human needs behind the obvious and superficial differences.

Dr. Hermann Schefers

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