American scribe William Faulkner said that the aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Standing in the courtyard of the 1000-year-old work of art known as Kaufungen Abbey, I finally understand what he means.
This extraordinary Baroque creation, built by the passion of a saintly woman, is an immovable landmark on the crest of Kaufungen, Germany. But it moves me deeply. I can imagine how in the early 1000’s the nuns from the Benedictine order meditated as they strolled along these same paths where I stand. I can see them praying in the gardens, their veils fluttering in the summer breeze. I see them descend purposefully into the houses of the settlement to minister to the sick.
Promise of muse potential
History, like art, has its own creative spirit, and sometimes its tales ignite us, and sometimes they leave us cold. The abbey’s story is the kind that fuels the creative spirit.
Since Kaufungen is only 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) from Kassel, where hundreds of thousands of art lovers will be attending documenta13 from June 9 to Sept. 16 this year, this ancient abbey has the promise of being a muse to many visitors.
Its story starts with its founder, Empress Kunigunde, a seventh-generation descendant of Charlemagne and the wife of Emperor Henry II. The Empress was staying at the Imperial Palace in this part of Germany in the spring of 1017 when she became seriously ill. A religious woman, she prayed that if she were healed, she would build a Benedictine abbey.
Patrons of the abbey were both canonized saints She recovered, and within two years, her husband had put in place a foundation for the creation of the abbey and the building started. He was also a spiritual man and like the Empress, was ultimately canonized as a saint. The two of them had what was called a “white marriage,” meaning that they married for companionship alone, and never consummated their relationship.
Although the Empress filled her days with good deeds and the challenges of serving as an advisor to her husband, she was at one point accused of scandalous behaviour. To prove her innocence, according to the laws of the day, she had to walk over pieces of flaming irons without injury. Apparently, she did. She continued to be her husband’s closest and most trusted advisor.
When he died in 1024, she continued to serve as Regent with her brother until Henry’s successor, Conrad II, was elected.
Historic abbey became Empress’s home
Before the year was out, Kunigunde returned to her beloved Kaufungen Abbey where she lived for 16 years until her death. The church was dedicated July 13, 1025.
According to historian Helen A. Gaudette, writing in Volume 1 of Holy People of the World: A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia, Kunigunde marked the first anniversary of her husband’s death by inviting the most prominent clergy in Germany to the dedication ceremony. She then removed her imperial robes and donned the nun’s habit and veil.
She spent the rest of her days praying, reading and comforting the sick. On her deathbed, she was encouraged to done her imperial robes, but she refused, and exited this world in the humble nun’s habit. She was buried with her husband in Bamberg.
Parish Church today
The structure remained an abbey until the Protestant Reformation when, in 1532, Count Philip I of Hesse took it over and gave it to the Hessian Knighthood, a group of noble families, to care for and shelter their women. Now an active parish church today it still opens its doors to the people of Kaufungen.
Besides a full array of regular services, it hosts numerous concerts of classical music. Some parts of it show hints of the crumbling of age and the darkness of the years, but its imperfections do not stop it from spreading light and shelter on all who gather within its walls and courtyards. As if alive, it reminds those who visit that the tolls of time are no match for purposeful existence.
The dappled sun of the late afternoon sends its shadows on the street as I walk slowly away from this most significant structure of the late Ottonian period in north Hessen.
What I saw wasn’t perfect, perhaps, but to someone from North America who thought “old” meant 100 years, this 1000 year old church is utterly unforgettable and inspiring. I marvel at its continuing function as a church, and a refrain from Canadian poet Leonard Cohen’s Strange Music rolls through my mind: "Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering; There’s a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in.”
About the author: Edith Robb is an award-winning freelance writer specializing in travel and culture. Canadian by birth, she now lives half of each year in the United States and travels extensively, including making several trips to Germany in preparation for dOCUMENTA13. She has worked on many travel publications, including Back Roads and Getaway Places for Reader’s Digest and Guide to Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada for Fodor’s Travel Guides. She has a Master of Arts degree with a major in cultural studies.