The Cistercian monastery of Schöntal was founded in the 12th century in a sweeping arc of the Jagst River. In 1418 the foundations for a true blossoming of the monastery was set at the Council of Constance when it was granted the freedom of self-government under imperial tutelage. This meant that in all civil or secular matters it was answerable only to the Holy Roman Emperor. Further token status privileges were granted in 1439 at the instigation of the Imperial Chamberlain, Konrad von Weinsberg: the Abbott obtained the right to carry a crosier, wear a mitre and an episcopal ring, privileges which were typically reserved to bishops at the time. The abbots of Schöntal were given the right to represent themselves seated on their seals and to use red wax. But developments took a calamitous turn in 1495 when Emperor Maximilian placed the monastery under the protection of the Archbishop of Mainz. This meant that the monastery lost its rights of self-government
.During the Peasants’ War (in German, der Deutsche Bauernkrieg) of 1525 (which was a popular uprising against the Holy Roman Empire with 300,000 peasant insurgents, and contemporary estimates putting the dead 100,000) the monastery was plundered several times by bands of roving peasants and many parts of it were destroyed. in April 1525 8000 troops were camped around the monastery and had to be fed and supplied by the monastic community. During the Reformation the religious community was able to defend itself against the uprisings but the monastery buildings became on inhabitable. Provisional living quarters were set up for the monks in1617 under Abbott Theobald Fuchs, these were the building that we today know as the Old Abbey (Alte Abtei). During the Thirty Years’ War the monastery was put under siege, or attacked numerous times and and the Abbott and his monks had to flee over and over again sometimes seeking refuge as far away as Stams Monastery in Tyrol in Austria and the monastery was exposed to repeated plundering. it wasn’t until these Swedes had lost the battle of Nördlingen in 1634 that the monks could return. But sieges, plundering, and flight continued off and on for the next 20 years. In 1648 soldiers were quartered in the buildings for the last time during the Thirty Years’ War.
After the Thirty Years’ War the physical structures of the monastery stood in the ruins. So it was all the more astounding how quickly the monastery got on its feet again under Abbott Christoph Haan (1636-1675). By 1671 Schöntal had returned to such a state of financial well-being, that it was able to buy the Aschhausen landed estate for 31,000 guilder and build a summer residence for the abbotts there.
Perhaps the most renowned epoch of the monastery, took place under the poet Benedikt Knittle, who served as Abbott for 49 years from 1683 until 1732, and completely changed the appearance of Schöntal monastery, converting the medieval complex into a residential ecclesiastical palace. In 1708 under his administration the baroque church was designed by Johann Leonhard Dietzenhofer, a masterpiece of baroque church building with its lavish interior. And then the New Abbey was added, with its magnificent stairway designed by Balthasar Neumann. followed by the Cemetery chapel and much more. Abbott Knittle was also responsible for sprinkling inscriptions in rhyme about the walls, giving birth to the German term «Knittelvers» or «Knittel Verse» for couplets of this kind.
Approximately fourteen monks lived in the monastery, and in addition there were thirty laymen who lived outside of the monastery but according to monastic principles.
The Monks’ Hall
After climbing the splendid baroque stairway, visitors reach the first floor of the New Abbey, constructed from 1737 to 1746, where the abbots used to live and work. A glass door separates the final three axes of the southern wing at the end of the corridor. After passing these we find ourselves in the Monks Hall in the middle of a «clerical cosmos»: the walls are covered in 302 little canvas paintings, each representing a member of one of the known monastic orders of the time in the appropriate habit. The space created by the glass door is fully paneled. Three well clad doors lead from here to other rooms, the hunting room and the picture hall. Small wood pilasters with capitals which dissolves into elaborate wood carvings, stretch into the ceiling vaults above. Canvas paintings illustrating secular and religious themes adorned the vaulting and blind arches.
The monastery was secularized by military force in 1802 by the Duke Friedrich of Württemberg, who sent a company of soldiers to occupy Schöntal. The monastery furnishings were taken to Stuttgart and the building was at first used for royal government offices. In 1810 the Duke, who had in the meantime become king, ordered that a Protestant theological seminary be housed in the empty buildings of the former monastery. This school continued operating in the monastery, with a small interruption from 1941 to 1945, until 1975. Since 1979 the buildings have been used by the Catholic diocese as a conference center, as a retreat for school groups, and as the town hall for the village of Schöntal.