Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The lake and abbey of Laach

Illustrated by Thomas Sulman.


This morning, the morning of April the 20th, 1863, is one worth noting in a journal for its unparalleled magnificence; at least as it shows in this Rhineland, whatever may be the case elsewhere.

The spot is Andernach; and the river about Andernach where a chain of variously shaped hills of volcanic origin crosses it, is to some judgments more beautiful even than in its course through the well-known gorge, which begins at Coblentz and ends at Bingen on the ascent of the Rhine. A fine morning indeed for a walk from Andernach to the Lake of Laach! The distinct sensations of cold and heat are merged in an intoxicating temperature which makes the whole air seem a bath of limpid freshness, instinct with joy and life, and realises for the nonce the fable of the Fountain of Youth, which the old painters are so fond of illustrating. The sun has risen in singular splendour over the hills on the Neuwied side, and his oblique rays are powdering the dark grey volcanic soil, over which the slowly rising path lies, with a dust of brilliants, which effect is probably the result of the grains of mica which form part of the composition of the soil. But be the cause what it may, the effect is that of

Stars which in earth’s firmament do shine

even more truly than that of the flowers of the field, to which Longfellow applies the comparison; for the negative grey of the ground better than the bright green sward, expresses the darkness and mystery of the vault of night. As for the larks, they are half-mad with the zest of existence; as that lumbering yoke of oxen with the stolid peasant and his inevitable coffee-pot pipe proceeds with the plough, up they rise before them and behind them like little living rockets, which explode in musical glee instead of a shower of coloured stars, because it is day and not night, and coloured light could not be seen, while song is heard. Are they laughing at them, or are they sorry for their soil-bound estate, and doing in pity like good little cherubims, their best to console them for the curse, which has stricken alike the peasant and the oxen? The very loose earth, as it is turned with the plough, exhales the freshness of the young year, and soft lights and softer shadows follow the furrow. The muzzles of the beasts are dewy and fragrant; their eyes like deep dark wells, preach patience and content, the very hairs of their bright dun coats glisten with opalescent lustre. Oh, that Rosa Bonheur, who reverses the fable of Europa, by carrying off horned beasts bodily, were present with her inimitable pencil!

And the ground is covered with new-born flowers, violet, and pansy, and Star of Bethlehem, anemone and forget-me-not with its eyes of turquoise and gold, and the butterflies, those flying flowers, as I have known a child call them, coquet about them and pay their morning salutations, as in the June night of Germany the flying glow-worms flit about their wingless mates. And the butterflies and moths abound in this country, from the purple Emperor, that “Solomon in all his glory,” of the tribe, down to the little winged creatures in Bavarian uniforms of sky blue. The butterfly is an emblem of the immortal hopes of man, and surely to be up and in the midst of nature on such a morning as this is better than all sermons appropriate to Easter, for that soul must be dull indeed which did not feel here a foretaste of its resurrection:

Our road is a kind of rough bridle-way, leading over a swelling upland, apparently formed of volcanic débris; the round contours of the hills bring to mind the neighbourhood of Naples, and Auvergne in France. Behind some wooded hills in front, about seven English miles from Andernach, lies the Lake of Laach. To make for the highest point of these hills, without regarding the route by which tourists are conveyed, would evidently be the best way to get a synoptical view of the lake; so, instead of pursuing the path to Niedermendig, where are some famous basalt quarries, we turn to the village of Nickenich on the right. This place is principally built in a very solid manner of dark grey or purplish basalt, the roofs being thatched. The new church is a fine specimen of Byzantine architecture, so contrived within as to produce an echo equal to that of

The castle arch whose hollow tone
Returns each whisper spoken.

The interior decorations, though brilliant, are in good taste, and the high altar, with the vault of the choir is chastely gorgeous, with none of that meretricious ornamentation which disfigures many Catholic churches. A hollow way through the budding woods, whose reddish tint is just bursting into a mist of green, leads by a long ascent insensibly to the brow of the mountain, when suddenly the moderate fatigue is recompensed by the revelation of a landscape which takes the eye by storm with its tranquil beauty. Spread out at the foot of the hills lies an oval or nearly circular basin, large enough to form the body of the landscape, and small enough to be easily comprehended in the area of vision, of the same blue as the sky, but somewhat deeper and more delicious where shadows of banks or promontories are cast on it, and reflecting every fleecy cloud; surrounded, save where a band of golden green forms the immediate margin, by wooded hills of the softest outlines, with others behind them in the distance. Directly in front are the cone-topped towers and white-glancing buildings of the abbey, a small object across the lake, and seeming to realise by its position the very luxury of loneliness. Far away to the right and over the nearest hills is an intimation of the bold scenery about the banks of the Ahr, with one grand castle standing sentry on a jutting headland, and beneath, a steep slope covered with budding trees, with out-cropping masses of deep violet-coloured volcanic rocks. It is a scene the more beautiful as so unexpected in these latitudes, and the beholder might well imagine himself standing on the brink of the Lake of Nemi, among the Sabine hills. Italy is also brought to mind by the fact that Laach possesses a cave where the fixed air destroys animal life, as is the case with the Grotto del Cane, near Naples. And all this is within an easy walk of the cockney-ridden Rhine!

Laacher See (Sulman).png
Lake and Abbey of Laach.

The Lake of Laach is the central focus of a volcanic circle which nearly approaches in magnitude that of the higher Eifel. It is 864 feet above the level of the sea, 705 above that of the Rhine at Andernach, and according to an old account of 1674, when it was frozen hard, it was 4,347 ells long, 3,945 broad, and 107 deep. The Counts Palatine had formerly a castle which commanded it on the southern bank, called the Pillenz, or Pfalz, which name denoted the official district of the “Missi Domenici” in the Merovingian times, and had its origin in the Palatium of Trêves. In the tenth century the whole country belonged to the Counts of Hochstaden; half of this, and in particular, half of the lake, was given as a dowry to Matilda, Countess of Hochstaden, who brought it to her husband, Henry I. The Count Palatine Henry II. called himself “Dominus de lacu,” and generally resided with his wife Adelaide at the castle of Laach. By them the abbey was founded, A.D. 1093. This pair had long cherished the wish to found a religious establishment near their sequestered home, and childlessness was added to the ordinary pious motives which influenced so many persons in those days. They were hesitating about the best site, when it is said that one night the whole lake was preternaturally illuminated, and a light brighter than elsewhere rested on one particular spot. This they understood as the appointed place for the abbey, which they accordingly proceeded to found there, the Count Palatine constituting himself the Visitor of the convent. The original record of the foundation was supposed to be preserved in the royal state archives at Berlin, until signs were detected which fixed the date of the apocryphal document to be the beginning of the thirteenth century. The Count Palatine Henry dying, left the work to Count Siegfried, who for years neglected to carry it out, but at last, moved by repentance, and terrified by a storm at sea, proceeded with it, destroying the neighbouring castle in order that the monks might be left to dwell in peace. The Cloister was put under the supervision of the Abbot of Haffligem, in Belgium, and Siegfried made himself Visitor, or patron. Whenever the Visitor was called it was settled that he was to receive three malters of corn for bread; in winter ten, and in summer five malters of oats for his horses; two pigs, five florins in cash in the evening, and one florin thirty hellers in the morning, and lastly an awme of wine in the evening, and half that quantity in the morning, for the refreshment of himself and suite. This Count enacted also that he and his family, as well as other Visitors, should be buried in the convent. Siegfried died without completing the work, which was neglected by his son William, and again taken up by Hedwig, Countess of Are, in Nickenich, probably the widow of Gerhard II., of Hochstaden, she giving the remaining half of the lake to the convent. Her benefaction was gratefully recorded in an inscription on a pillar in the choir of the church:

Prole potens virgo, petimus pro munere largo
Da tibi submisse celos Hedwich comitisse.

The first monks came to Laach from Haffligem, in Belgium, which convent is said to have had so great a reputation for piety, that St. Bernard, of Clairvaux, declared he found them angels rather than men. The consecration of the church by Archbishop Hillinus, of Trêves, took place on the 24th of August, 1156, to the honour of the Holy Trinity, while it was confided to the special protection of St. Mary the Virgin and St. Nicholas, the legal appellation of the convent being: “Monasterium beatæ Mariæ Virginis in Lacu prope Antonacum.” It was governed by priors till 1627, when it was given an abbot of its own. Laach fell to the See of Cologne through the last will of Count Palatine William, but in the sixteenth century we find the Abbot John, of Cochem, at issue with the See of Cologne, and intriguing to transfer the investiture to Trêves, consequently the convent was taken forcible possession of by Raban William, a Captain of Cologne, in the name of the Archbishop, and occupied by a party of men-at-arms and arquebusiers seventy-five strong. The monks were of the Benedictine order, which had its rise in Italy 540 A.D., and the rule was that of Clugny. One vow was taken, that of unconditional obedience, and the regulations were supple, the dress itself of the order assimilating itself to national costumes. The abbot alone had the power of inflicting punishment, on the report of the prior. These varied from the greatest, which was the lesser excommunication, to such discipline as sitting on the ground at meals, which was applied to those who were late at matins. This convent, after a long period of secularisation, during which its buildings were considerably modernised, has at length, by lease or purchase, come into possession of the Jesuit Fathers, a party of whom, on the memorable 20th of April, 1863, were celebrating their arrival with a bowl of May-wine (i.e., Rhine wine sweetened and flavoured with wood-ruffe and a slice of lemon,) and they looked with their severe robes and buxom faces something like a party of jolly undertakers’ men. Of course there is a restaurant in the garden of the convent, a very necessary institution when the villages are so far off. The church is entered from the lovely convent-garden through a beautiful cloister, with a little classic flower-garden in the midst, bringing to mind the Alhambra Court in the Crystal Palace, save that the arches are not of horse-shoe shape, but perfectly beautiful specimens of the round Byzantine style.

The ornamentation of the main arch leading into the cloister is an exquisitely tasteful and chaste design of leaves and flowers. This cloister appears to date from the second half of the twelfth century. Three of the portals of the church have been walled up; the other two are approached through the cloister. The ground plan is supposed to have been borrowed from that of the cathedral at Cologne: the length of the interior is 208 feet: the whole length of the building being 261 feet 10 inches. The nave is tripartite, the highest part being in the middle. The vaults of the roofs spring rapidly from square shafts, which are partly ornamented with pilasters. There are two transepts, two choirs, and five towers: besides these there is a short one over the eastern transept, crowned with an octagon cupola. The whole of the details of the interior and exterior deserve careful study, as showing how simple means may produce an architectural effect of perfect beauty. Beneath the choir is a crypt with corresponding area. It is long since the church has been used for Divine service. It looked naked and empty, and full of glaring light, as the Byzantine style requires coloured windows to give the proper religious gloom. In the full sun-glare the remains of gaudy colours that had been laid on the internal architecture in some particularly vulgar age, looked especially odious, and the tombs wore a mouldy, mournful, and neglected look. From the emptiness of the whole space the natural echo was increased, so that every step was repeated throughout the length and breadth of the building. It is necessary to beware of a stumble in descending the step between the nave and choir, since that step is said to have been often overlooked through people keeping their eyes fixed on the vaulted roof. A striking contrast is felt on emerging from the solemn desolation of the church to the luxuriant world without, and the orchards laughing in blossoms, which stand out against the blue heaven with the mingled lustre of rock-salt, and snow, and silver. Our path lies along the western shore of the lake, up a deep sandy road to the crest of the hills on the north, whence a pretty peep of the Rhine and Drachenfels is gained, and so down to the valley of Brohl. At the edges of the road are observed several little pitfalls of the ant-lion, an ugly-looking little insect, who makes a funnel of sand, lies perdu at the bottom of it, and devours any unfortunate ant who has the ill-luck to miss his footing on the overhanging sward. This region appears to be rich in entomology. Among other beetles, one is very common, with red legs and green and gold body, who seems, from the frequency with which he shows himself, to be almost conscious of his beauty. The valley of Brohl appears to be a rift on a large scale, traversing consolidated volcanic débris and mud, of much the same nature as that out of which Pompeii has to be dug. This rift, down which winds a stream, is made irregular by being blocked at intervals by more solid rocks, and in general the forms of its cliffs and vine-bearing terraces are fantastic and theatrical, rather than positively beautiful. A rising watering-place, called Tönnistein, where a very palatable mineral water is to be drunk on the premises, is making this curious gorge one of the smaller resorts of fashion. It debouches on the Rhine at the village of Brohl, whence Andernach is soon reached by railway or by steam.

G. C. Swayne.