Those who know the history of the Cistercians may be surprised by the title of this article. The Cistercian Order was founded by St. Robert, abbot of the Benedictine monastery in Molesme (France). As he did not like the not very sacred life of the local monks, he resigned as the abbot, left Molesme and together with 21 devoted brothers founded a new monastery in Cîteaux – Cistercium in Latin (30 km from Dijon). The keynote of the new Cistercian Order was the return to a simple way of life according to the rules of St. Benedict. The order began to flourish under the leadership of Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux from the 12th century onwards, at the end of the Middle Ages there were more than 700 Cistercian abbeys throughout Europe! The monastery in Rein was founded as the 38th in 1129. As the religious life in the other monasteries had been destroyed by the Revolution in France and in Germany by secularization, Rein remained the oldest – still functional – Cistercian monastery. Its first abbot had been Gerlach – I found it interesting to learn that this word does not only refer to the highest peak in my home country – Slovakia, but that it actually was an old male name of Germanic origin and means “spear thrower”.
Before we started our tour of the monastery, I noticed a relief above the entrance with a horse rider holding a flag in his hand. The abbey is a very large complex, in the best times, more than a hundred monks lived here. Today it is not only a place with a rich history, beautiful buildings and a library full of old books, but it is also a place where monks still live (currently eight) and still according to the rules of St. Benedict as witnesses of the living God, who do not close themselves in their cells but are open and happy to welcome visitors to show them their special home or invite them to their daily prayers.
We were welcomed by Father Prior Martin Höfler and Father August Janisch. Cistercian monks are easily recognizable by their two-colored habits: a white tunic made of undyed wool (as an expression of Cistercian’s poverty and modesty, as dyes were once expensive) and a black scapular (a wide strip of cloth with a hole over the head), tied with a black cloth belt.
We were in the Homage hall. Even in the past, guests were welcomed here, and in the past too, guests looked in amazement at the ceiling paintings by Josef Amonte, painted in 1740. It is unbelievable that only in 2009 they had been restored for the first time, and without a brush on top of that, the paintings had only been cleaned and now they shone on us with their colors as they did almost 300 years ago. You can even see the lines that show how much Amonte managed to paint in one day. Various biblical and mythological scenes come to life on that ceiling, but the main idea is of peace and justice, as evidenced by a small putto holding the inscription Justitia et Pax osculatae – justice and peace are kissing, which means that only in peace, law and justice can prevail, so that prosperity may subsequently arise.
The ceiling gives the impression of a high vault, while in fact the whole room has dimensions of 10x10x10 meters and the vault reaches only 0.5 m. Truly an original work!
The area of the abbey is undoubtedly dominated by the church, as it is the second-largest church in Styria. I was also fascinated by its exterior façade – because it is wavy, but also because there is an organ on it, I have never seen that on any church. Father August revealed to me that the original organ was from the end of the 16th century and was even able to be played at that time! People in the valley who couldn’t come to Sunday Mass could at least enjoy a little the tone of divine music. Later, it was also used as a signal to warn of danger, but today it is just a dummy.
Originally, there stood a Romanesque church here, part of it has remained inside above the entrance, where also an altar once stood. The interior is very richly decorated, all made by regional builders and craftsmen, the monks took part in those works as well. There were no Italian masters working here, so Father August joked that their abbey was actually the oldest local Styrian company.
All altars, although they look like made of marble, are made of wood. If anyone happens to be bored, they can try to find all 175 carved angels! The frescoes were painted by Josef Adam Mölk, the ones on the ceiling show scenes from the life of the Holy Family, but also St. Benedict and St. Bernard. The author of almost all altar paintings is again Josef Amonte. Today, we can hardly imagine the feelings of the ordinary people from 300 years ago, which had to had been evoked by all this splendor when they came here from their small huts, where there was no window, no book… One would need hours to study all the details in this church.
We moved to the Maria Oratory – a hall that was once used to gather members of the order. Unlike the overdecorated interior of the church, the walls and decorations in the chapel are white.
When the renovation of this part of the abbey began in 2006, the floor had to be demolished to make underfloor heating. This, however, led to the uncovering of the previous building structures as well as one important grave. An anthropologist examined the bones and found that he was a man, about 50 years old, who spent a lot of time on horseback. An archaeological team from the University of Graz confirmed that both mortar and stone date back to around 1200. Thus, the tomb of the monastery’s founder, Margrave Leopold the Strong of Steyr, the first ruler of Styria, who gave this part of Austria its name, was found. Now I know who is depicted on the relief of the rider above the entrance to the abbey.
Noon was approaching. We climbed the stairs to the summer choir, the room behind the altar. The wooden figures of angels with various musical instruments looked down into the nave of the church and on the ceiling, an angel beckoned with an inscription in his hand: Cantate Deo, psallite Domino – sing to God and praise the Lord. We sat down onto wooden benches, gradually seven monks arrived here in silence.
As soon as the bells rang on the tower, the monks began with a prayer, which lasts about ten minutes and can be attended by the public. In today’s hectic world, this was a pleasant change. You may calm down on the inside, pray with the monks or immerse yourself in your own prayers and thoughts, or at least you can observe the unique and beautiful wood carvings and wooden plates with inlays, each one is different! During the prayer, the monks occasionally take a step forward and then quietly slide back into their banks. Over the years, their rustling steps have formed “waves” on the wooden floor.
The monastery library is also a very beautiful room in the abbey, the paintings on the ceiling are again the work of Josef Amonte. The monastery has 90,000 books and 400 rare manuscripts in its collection, only part of it is stored here. We could see a hymnbook from 1420 (Antiphonale) which weighs up to 12 kilograms in a display case. Already during the middle of the 12th century, the monastery had an important writing school which worked not only for the archbishop of Salzburg but also cooperated with other monastic workshops in Europe. You can see some sample books for writing decorative letters.
Another unmissable object is a round table in the center of the library. There is a calendar on it – a combination of the Julian and Gregorian calendars – created by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler who taught mathematics at the high school in Graz at the end of the 16th century.
The almost thousand-year-old history of the monastery is engraved in the walls of the inner courtyard. A Romanesque semi-circular and a Gothic pointed arch, stones from the vicinity of Rein but in layers of different colors, mortar to fill the fugues and other various building materials tell about the various periods and architectural styles during which the monastery had been built and rebuilt. We will also find part of the old Stations of the Cross here. Work is still underway to uncover this historical evidence.
If you want to have a material memory from your visit to the monastery, just visit the small monastery shop. Here, you will find figurines of angels and the Holy Family, incense vessels and fragrant mixtures, wine, chocolates, wafers, but also pumpkin oil, which is a traditional Styrian specialty.
You can also buy a very unique souvenir – a small key of mercy – gilded or made of silver or brass. Pilgrims used to come to the monastery but they were only allowed to enter the monastery church on White Sunday. In memory of this great day, they received such a key. Today, Rein belongs to the route of the Austrian Jacob’s Way and pilgrims who travel from Graz to Mariazell also stop here.
The idyllic, surrounding nature invites to pleasant walks and hikes. Near the monastery, you can try a special barefoot walk in the length of 600 meters. The beginning of the path is marked by huge footprints in the grass on a meadow. It is best to close your eyes and let the other person guide you so you can focus more on the touchpoints on your feet. If you need refreshment for your feet, you can take a few steps across a rivulet.
At the end of our tour, it was a good idea to sit in the monastery tavern and have something tasty. I symbolically ordered fried carp (a typical dish for Christmas in Slovakia) which turned out be a splendid choice. This place is also suitable for families with children, next to the tavern, there is a large playground made from natural materials.
How to get here: Rein is located 15 km northwest of Graz, it is easy to be reached by car
Where to stay: accommodation is possible in the monastery area but only for men
Guided tours of the monastery: for individuals: every day at 10.30 and at 13.30. – without registration, for groups: daily between 9.00 and 17.00, registration is required. The tour lasts 90 minutes. More information about opening hours and admission fee: here
More information about the monastery: here
Other tips for similar trips: Admont Abbey with the largest monastery library in the world
Note: all opinions expressed in this article are my own.
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Photos: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Thanks to Klösterreich for organizing this visit to Rein Abbey.