Kloster Wienhausen

Major Center for Culture and Religion
Home of the World’s Earliest Eyeglasses

Website: www.kloster-wienhausen.de

+ Larger Font | - Smaller Font

Written with the kind assistance of Wolfgang Brandis who is responsible for archives management.

The Convent of Wienhausen was the home of major cultural and historic advances related to early religion in German society. The world’s oldest eyeglasses are also located there. The convent was founded between 1221 and 1228 by Duchess Agnes of Landsburg (who died 1248), the widow of Henry (Heinrich), Count Palatine of the Rhine, and the elder son of Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony. Duchess Agnes had also founded the convent of Isenhagen. She probably founded the convent as a means of salvation for her sins and those of her husband. At that time the foundation of the convent received much support from Bishop Conrad 2nd of Hildesheim. According to the chronicle of the convent, it was first established in 1221 in Nienhagen, near Celle. About 1231 it was moved to Wienhausen due to mosquitoes, "poisonous worms," and bad air. Two years later it was officially confirmed by Bishop Konrad the Second. A document dated April 24, 1233 is still one of the most valuable pieces of the convent’s own archive. In 1244 Duke Otto requested the convent's incorporation into the Cistercian Order. Much debate revolves around whether Wienhausen was actually incorporated into the order. The request survives but not the answer. Most scholars agree that Wienhausen followed Cistercian customs but was likely not formally incorporated into the order. The convent was then rebuilt in the North German red brickwork style with its characteristic Gothic gables from about 1310 to 1330 by the generosity of the widow resident Princess Mechtild.

The Rule at that time was Benedictine. The convent developed strong ties with convents in both Derneburg and Medingen. The community was supported by the neighboring nobles and patrician families of Lueneberg and Braunschweig. Members of the Welf family were continual patrons of the community. The abbesses of the community stemmed predominantly from nobility so therefore, during the first 200 years of its existence, the convent reached the peak of its cultural and material wealth. The convent derived income from land holding, rents, tithes, patronage rights, and rights and possessions in the Lueneburg salt works. In total, Wienhausen had patronage rights in six churches. The nuns probably contributed to the convent’s income by producing and selling tapestries and embroidery work. There is an abundance of famous artwork in the nun’s choir which originally had 89 seats, though the population was probably lower throughout that time period. The number sank into the 20’s in the 17th century and remained that way into the 20th century. The nuns of Wienhausen did not approve of the Reformation and so had to be forced to accept it. In the process, many precious objects and buildings were taken away or destroyed. In 1587 the last catholic abbess died and finally the nunnery became a protestant convent. For years to come however the women would continue to hold secret Catholic services. Built originally c. 1330 the Nun’s choir has both wall and ceiling paintings which depict scenes from the Old and the New Testament. Also portrayed are scenes from the life and the Passion of the Christ. The images below of some of the ceiling paintings should be viewed slowly in order to fully appreciate the exquisite 14th century religious art.

SLIDESHOW 1 - IMAGES FROM THE CEILING OF THE NUN’S CHOIR

The convent preserves stained glass windows from the 13th to 15th centuries; the most famous depicts the crucifixion of Christ by the virtues. Others depict his crucifixion and resurrection. There are also statues and even tapestries (wool embroidery on linen), some created circa 1300. There are also smaller textile works with applications of pearls, silver, and gold. The sarcophagus for Christ’s effigy, which stands today in the nun’s choir, was consecrated in 1448. The main altarpiece there was given by Provost Wulbrand of Oberg and Abbess Katharina Remstede in 1519 and it depicts the life of Jesus and Mary. Woodcuts depicting the monogram of Christ with the five stigmata flanked by two angels from about 1520 still decorate the altarpiece at the top. Another room in the Cloister has wallpaper from 1587, with simplified Moorish design motifs, applied to the ceiling. Furthermore the convent of Wienhausen keeps one of the greatest collections of medieval furniture as bridal chests and cupboards. Many of them are still standing on the same place, where they were put hundreds of years ago by the nuns who had brought them upon joining the convent. When it comes to beauty and hand created Medieval Christian art, everything is almost beyond compare. You are invited to enjoy the slideshow below.

SLIDESHOW 2 - THE CONVENT AND RELIGIOUS ART OBJECTS

During renovations to the choir in 1953 floor planks were removed from the choir stalls. Around 1000 items were discovered. Several small devotional images were discovered along with small hand held looms, thimbles, amulets, spindles, pilgrim badges, knives, brushes, slate pencils, wax boards for writing, and several pairs and parts of eyeglasses. Among these are the earliest ever to be recovered and these date to the early 14th century. There were four leather spectacles, two complete rivet spectacles of wood, and fragments of 9 others, all rivet spectacles. The frames of these were made of boxwood from the Mediterranean Sea area. Small leather pouches, so the glasses could be carried on a belt, were also discovered. The lenses (30 – 34 mm) were flat on one side, curved on the other measuring +3 -3.5 diopters. These finds beneath the nun’s choir were felt to be a conscious act, with the hope that this action would prevent further damage to either the individual’s eyes or to their soul. The institution was becoming stricter so perhaps these items were being purposely hidden. One has to wonder who did leave the objects there. From our perspective on this website, the eyeglasses are of extreme significance because they are the oldest style – Rivet Spectacles. Even the leather framed spectacles discovered there are late 15th and early 16th century which makes them also some of the earliest in the world.

SLIDESHOW 3 – THE SPECTACLES

Back in Medieval times, Wienhausen was a center of evangelical life for the Christian community, one of the major centers of Monastic Culture. It is still filled with wondrous treasures of Gothic Art. If someone visits and tour the various structures, especially noteworthy will be the magnificent 14th – 15th century tapestries reminiscent of the Bayeux tapestry but depicting various biblical and religious stories. Today the convent remains a Lutheran-Protestant ladies’ institution and it is open to the public from April to October. The buildings are impressive witnesses of the past and these precious tapestries are especially worth seeing. Once a year their famous collection is exhibited during the "Teppichwoche". They remain on public display for almost two weeks starting on the Friday after Whitsuntide.

All year round, Wienhausen and its neighboring villages offer a wide variety of special concerts, selected flea and craft markets, entertaining cabaret, interesting exhibitions and culinary delights. The church itself is surrounded by a romantic, mostly unspoiled park. This is an enchanting place that should be visited in person in order to more fully appreciate all its wondrous beauty along with its incomparable artistic richness, everything representing and illustrating many centuries of Christian life.

For further information please see www.wienhausen.de/7.html

An illustrated guidebook in English* is available:
Konrad Maier, The Convent of Wienhausen, An Introduction to its History, Architecture and Art; 39 pages, 35 color-pictures; 4 € plus 11 € postage (about $ 22.00 in all)
Please contact: kloster.wienhausen@arcor.de 

*It is worthwhile to have a copy of this informative booklet


Home ] Introduction & News ] History & References ] Identification & Preservation ] Public Collections & Virtual Museum ] Interesting Topics ] Education & Games ] Links ] About Us ]