Nestling in the valley of the Kinzig River, deep in the northern Black Forest, is Alpirsbach. The center of this little town is an imposing arrangement of red sandstone buildings, the mason’s testimony to bygone eras. These walls tell the story of great medieval piety, the political and social upheaval of the Reformation, when the abbey school was founded, down to the secularization of the German Empire in 1803. The former Benedictine monastery was part of the 11th century reform movement in south west Germany and a vivid example of the architecture that spread out from the famous French monastery at Cluny. The paper trail leading back to the foundation of the monastery leads us back to 1095. Today, a walk through the four winged complex, still complete, reveals the strict clarity of its Romanesque order.
The church is a three aisle Romanesque pier basilica in the form of a cross. The monastery proper — the enclosing buildings around the cloisters — adjoins it to the south. The basilica was built from 1125-1135. Over the course of time several extensions were built on, and the alterations can be seen for example, in the presence of windows in both the Gothic and Romantic styles. the Romanesque parts of the St. Nicolas Church date from 1130, while the Gothic parts are mainly late 15th century. The wall paintings in the middle altar niche in the east aisle are originals, from the 13th century. There is a light switch on the left-hand side of the niche. The sacristy (the room to the side of the altar with the vestments are kept) is from the early 1200’s and is one of the oldest Gothic rooms in Germany. The richly decorated late Gothic cloisters south of the churchare surrounded by structures built in the late 1400’s. In the photo to the right, the cloisters are the arch shaped windows on the ground floor. 200 years later the monks added on dormitory rooms above the cloisters and you can see the small square bedroom windows in the photo. The tallest part of the building , the tower, received its present form in 1550.
The oldest surving part of the monastery is the Torturm, the stone tower with a gate through the bottom, flanked on the right and left side by half-timber buildings. This was the tower of the oldest, and perhaps first, church consecrated in 1099. After the basilica was built and consecrated in the 1130’s, the original small church becamse the local church of the community. In 1649 the main part of the church building was demolished, leaving only the small tower. Visitors can see the diagonal lines on the tower’s wall, which indicate the gable line of the old church. The two half-timber building were rected in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s and served in the administration of the monastery.
Alpirsbach Monastery is famous for the bronze lion head door knobs on the basilica’s main portal, which are in the Romanesque style and roughly eight hundred years old. Of perhaps equal interest are the red spots, and faint outlines of squares on the doors – these are the faint remains of leather squares which once decorated the doors, tooled with designs picked out in gold. Leather wall coverings were almost universal in aristocratic households during the early middle ages, as the most effective way of keeping out drafts.
Above the door is a Latin inscription from the Gospel of John: Ego sum ostium dicit dominus, per me si quis introerit salvabitur (I am the gate says the Lord, he who enters through me will be saved).
Carved in the stone above the door is depiction of Count Adalbert von Zollern in a monk’s habit on the left of Christ and the angels, and his wife, Adelheid von Eberstein on the right, who were among the founding supporters of the monastery. Eventually the count retired to the monastery, giving up his attachments to the secular world.
The Reformation spelled the end for the Benedictine order here, but it was used as a Protestant institution up until 1807. Although no longer an abbey, this is still a place of prayer, used by Protestant and Catholic parishioners alike. In the late Gothic cloisters, redeveloped at the close of the 15th century, the medieval vaults still exude meditative tranquility, and concerts are held here in the summer months.