Exploring the Island of Reichenau, Germany, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Nothing prepared me for the stunningly beautiful approach to the Island of Reichenau.

Abbey Church of St. Mary and Mark, Island of Reichenau, Germany (Photo credit: Amy S Eckert, c 2013)

Abbey Church of St. Mary and Mark, Island of Reichenau, Germany (Photo credit: Amy S Eckert, c 2013)

A narrow spit of land led from mainland Germany, the causeway washed on each side by beautiful Lake Constance (Bodensee in German), a perfectly blue sky overhead. The road was lined on either side with towering poplar trees, standing tall as if to offer me a royal welcome to the Island of Reichenau.

Roots of Reichenau

Welcoming the world to Reichenau was just about the furthest thing from the mind of Pirmin, the bishop who first settled this uninhabited island in the early 8th century. In fact, the island’s isolation made it ideal for his purpose: the construction of a new Benedictine Abbey.

Documents from 1,300 years ago aren’t easy to come by, but scholars believe that Pirmin and some 40 helper monks laid the groundwork for this monastic island in 724 in honor of Mary and the apostles Peter and Paul. Just three years later Pirmin left the island behind to found other German and Alsatian monasteries.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You love the combination of European history and an island getaway.
  • You want to visit as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible.
  • Perfect for those who love medieval architecture and religious art.

But Reichenau continued and developed a reputation as a premier educational center. In the 9th century German princes and diplomats honed their religious, literary and scientific education within Reichenau’s abbey walls. And scribes and artists from throughout Europe flocked to Reichenau eager to train at the monastery’s superb scriptorium and painting school.

Ancient Churches, Ancient Art

Church of St. George, Island of Reichenau, Germany (Photo credit: Amy S Eckert, c 2013)

Church of St. George, Island of Reichenau, Germany (Photo credit: Amy S Eckert, c 2013)

No monastery worth its salt goes without a beautiful church or two and the monastery at Reichenau was no exception. At its height the island claimed more than 20 churches and chapels. Only three remain today, their architectural and artistic importance and their ages having propelled the Island of Reichenau onto UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list in 2000.

The Church of St. Mary and Mark sits near Reichenau’s northern shore. Portions of this church can be traced all the way to the Carolingian church of 816. Multiple additions and changes followed in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries with the final Gothic choir added in 1453. The church feels solid, sturdy and simple today, well-lit only when the sun shines, having predated the European architectural period of stained-glass windows, soaring buttresses and elaborately-carved gargoyles.

The unadorned exterior of the Church of St. George, near the eastern end of the island, belies its stunning beauty inside. Built near the end of the 9th century to house the relics of St. George, the church’s most spectacular feature is its wall paintings, floor-to-ceiling images of the miracles of Christ dating all the way back to before 1000 AD.

Church of St. Peter and Paul, Island of Reichenau, Germany (Photo credit: Amy S Eckert, c 2013)

Church of St. Peter and Paul, Island of Reichenau, Germany (Photo credit: Amy S Eckert, c 2013)

Still brilliant with color after all these years, still captivating, this masterpiece stands as the only remaining church painting north of the Alps from before the year 1000. The paintings owe their existence to their having been forgotten, covered over in whitewash near the end of the 18th century and unwittingly preserved until their rediscovery in 1879.

By contrast, the Church of St. Peter and Paul on Reichenau’s westernmost tip feels modern. Originally consecrated in 799, the original church building was replaced with the existing one in 1088. Murals dating from around 1100 cover the curved walls and ceiling in the main apse, an image of Christ enthroned on a rainbow and flanked with Peter, Paul, six-winged angels and the twelve apostles.

Some of the oldest religious paintings in Europe, all gathered among the churches of this little German island.

Modern Reichenau Island

Reichenau’s religious and artistic history put the island on the map, in medieval times as well as modern ones. But it’s the island’s modern-day pleasures that have transformed Reichenau from a historical and cultural destination to a 21st-century resort. Vast areas of the Island of Reichenau are protected as nature preserves. Marshlands covered in towering reeds provide habitat for warblers, bitterns and waterfowl, filling the air with the fresh scent of water and herbs and the sounds of birdcalls.

Lake Constance and the Island of Reichenau, Germany (Photo credit: Amy S Eckert, c 2013)

Lake Constance and the Island of Reichenau, Germany (Photo credit: Amy S Eckert, c 2013)

Outdoor lovers relish Reichenau’s natural beauty for cycling, hiking, paddling and swimming at the Strandbad, just northwest of the Church of St. Mary and Mark. Ferries venture further into Lake Constance, skirting past the vineyard-covered hills of Germany and Switzerland.

The artistic tradition begun and honed by 9th-century monks continues among a modern Reichenau artist colony, whose works are sold at galleries sprinkled all over the island. And the farmland that once supported an isolated monastic community today supplies Reichenau’s restaurants with locally-grown wine, fruit and vegetables.

Practicalities

  • Reichenau Island is located in Lake Constance, Germany, just across the border from Switzerland.
  • It’s best to have a car or bicycle when visiting Reichenau. You can access the island via ferry from Germany or Switzerland but will have difficulty visiting all three churches without wheels.
  • Access via auto is along the L221 roadway built on the narrow isthmus between Reichenau and Wollmatingen.
  • Church opening hours
  • Info about Germany’s UNESCO sites and Reichenau Tourism

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