Benediktbeuern Abbey in Bavaria, Germany

In this episode, we’ll be visiting Benediktbeuern Abbey in Bavaria, Germany. Welcome to Art, Culture & Books with me, Anthony King.

A famous pop star actually introduced me to this Abbey. Yes, that’s not what you were probably expecting to hear but there you go! He opened his tour about 50 miles away and he opened it to the music of Carl Orff and his Carmina Burana. Carmina Burana, Latin for “Songs from Beuern” which is short for Benediktbeuern was a subject in a book I wrote about the pop star and his link to classical music. I was lucky enough to work for him a lot over the years and travelled to Munich in 1999 for one of his shows (More on Carmina Burana later in the video). I later returned to visit the very beautiful Abbey which is situated approximately 64 km south-west of Munich in Bavaria. They were in the middle of a silent retreat with no words spoken and they looked pretty shocked when an English man arrived in this quiet place. In those days I don’t think they were as tourist savvy as they are now and I don’t think it had many visitors. Eventually, we found somebody who seemed so impressed that somebody made such a journey to see them that he told me I could go anywhere, film anything and do I what I wanted. He then left me to do just that. Wow! What an unforgettable experience I had.

Benediktbeuern Abbey has a rich history that spans its origins as a Benedictine monastery to its current status as an institution of the Salesians of Don Bosco and a general religious centre.

Established around 739 and dedicated to Saints James and Benedict, the abbey faced the challenges of its early years, including its destruction by the Hungarians in 955. However, under the dedicated efforts of Priest Wolfold, the monastery saw a remarkable revival in 969. In 1031, influenced by Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II, Benediktbeuern underwent extensive reconstruction, returning to the Benedictine rule and being resettled by monks. Despite enduring severe fires in 1248, 1377, 1378, and 1490, the resilient Benedictine community successfully rebuilt each time, solidifying the abbey as a testament to endurance and perseverance.

Fast forward to August 26, 2023, a date that marked a pivotal moment in the abbey’s history. A storm with hail and heavy rain wreaked havoc on the complex, causing widespread damage to the basilica, Anastasia Chapel, and other structures. Roofs were torn apart, windows shattered, and facades left in disarray. The historical wooden building structure faced water ingress, prompting concerns about potential collapses in certain areas. The initial assessment estimated the total damage to be a “high, double-digit million amount,” leading to the evacuation and temporary closure of the entire facility.

Moving back in time, during the secularisation of Bavaria in 1803, the abbey faced dissolution, and former monks sought new roles as university professors. The abbey premises found a new purpose when acquired by Josef von Utzschneider, who, in 1805, established the Optical Institute, an experimental glassworks. Joseph von Fraunhofer joined the venture, contributing to advancements such as flawless or “waveless” flint glass and the discovery of the Fraunhofer lines, significant in the development of spectroscopic analysis.

In 1818, the Bavarian State took control of the premises, repurposing them for military uses such as a stud-farm, barracks, military convalescent home, and prison. Even a brewery! Despite an offer of five and a half million marks in 1901 by Freiherr von Kramer-Klett, the property remained under state control. The former abbey brewery ceased operations in 1925.

The abbey also played a pivotal role in the discovery of Carmina Burana, a manuscript containing 254 poems and dramatic texts from the 11th and 12th centuries. Unearthed in 1803 within the monastery, Carmina Burana now resides in the Bavarian State Library in Munich. This invaluable collection of songs gained further significance when, in 1935/36, Carl Orff set 24 of its poems to music, achieving widespread popularity. Today, the manuscript stands as a testament to the cultural and historical significance of Benediktbeuern Abbey.

By Anthony King (c)