The history of Fraueninsel
by Stefan Havlik
Convent, wars, artists: the history of Fraueninsel
“Since then, the monastery was called a royal one, was often chosen by virgins from noble families as a place of longed-for seclusion from the world, and the abbesses, who were only allowed to come from the nobility, wore a royal crown on their veils on high ceremonial occasions,” is how Wilhelm Jensen describes the Frauenwörth monastery on Fraueninsel in Lake Chiemsee in his story “Hunnenblut.
“Hun blood”: The brute name already lays a first trace to the eventful history of this small island. An island from which the abbesses of the monastery once ruled Bavaria’s largest monastic dominion, with lands and villages from Lower Bavaria to southern Tyrol.
Three islands can be found in Bavaria’s largest body of water, Lake Chiemsee: Herreninsel, once the seat of an Augustinian monastery and famous for its magnificent castle built by the “fairy-tale king” Ludwig II; Krautinsel, which has remained uninhabited to this day and has always served as a vegetable garden and cattle pasture – and Fraueninsel, characterized by the oldest Benedictine monastery in the world. Whoever, apart from enjoying the beautiful nature of Lake Chiemsee and its pre-Alpine surroundings, goes on the traces of history on the island, which is still inhabited by some nuns, will encounter deep imprints of significant epochs of European history and a place that has inspired very different people through the centuries.
The Chiemgau in 782: Tassilo III, son of the Bavarian Duke Odilo, married to Liutpirc, a daughter of a Lombard king: ruler in turbulent times and virtually inspired to found monasteries together with his wife. A few years earlier, Tassilo’s mother-in-law founded a nunnery on the Sirmione peninsula in Lake Garda: this became the model for the last free chieftain Tassilo to found a corresponding spiritual house on Lake Chiemsee.
The three houses of worship of the Salvator Monastery in Lake Garda are dedicated to St. Martin, St. Michael and St. Nicholas – the same patrons Odilo’s son chose for St. Martin’s Church on the highest point of the island as well as for the chapels in the gate hall, which is still preserved today. However, Tassilo was not destined to enjoy the monasteries he founded for long: the Frankish Charlemagne, as a power politician, subjugated the last independent tribal ruler on his territory. In 788 Tassilo was sentenced to death for high treason, and the sentence was finally commuted to life imprisonment in a monastery.
It is a great-granddaughter of Charlemagne who reaches Fraueninsel around the year 860 with the order to transform the monastery into a reliably wealthy “royal monastery”: Irmengard, however, is venerated as the 2nd founder of the monastery soon after her early death (historical sources estimate her demise at the age of 36). The fact that her body is buried in a foundation of the monastery church shows clear symbolism: From now on, the monastery was to be based on this Irmengard and her holy life. The eulogy in Latin, written around the year 1000 by the abbot of Seeon, shows a strong veneration of the abbess, who died early: “…she was abundantly endowed with excellent gifts…As a motherland, the Franconian Empire shall always enjoy her, and Bavaria may also be proud of such a woman.”
After many centuries in the high grave, which is still preserved today, the body of the now canonically beatified was buried in 1929 in the altar base of the baroque Pentecostal altar, where it is still venerated by numerous faithful and is now surrounded by a large number of votive tablets in thanksgiving for answered prayer petitions.
In the first half of the 14th century, the nuns of the island decided to join the Benedictine Order. For all its economic success, this was certainly also due to the fact that the region around Lake Chiemsee had repeatedly been caught up in political conflicts of interest between the Bavarian, Salzburg and Frankish rulers in the centuries before – and even had to endure plundering by Huns or Hungarian tribes.
Ursula Pfäffinger is undoubtedly considered one of the great leaders of the monastery and thus of the island: only one year after she took office at the head of the convent, the plague broke out on the monastery island in 1495 and claimed numerous victims among the sisters and servants. In 1503, the Landshut War of Succession devastated large parts of the Chiemgau region and thus large areas of the monastery’s possessions; maintaining the monastery economically now became a great challenge. Thanks to tireless traveling and proving herself to be a clever negotiator, Abbess Ursula Pfäffinger was able to hand over a solidly secured monastery to her successor on her deathbed.
In the following centuries, the Turkish Wars, the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War repeatedly lead to strong covetousness on the part of the political rulers for the possessions of the monasteries. The Frauenwörth monastery is saved one after the other by strong personalities in its leadership: “Mature, prudent, discreet, faithfully devoted, she loves her convent” is how an apostolic visitator describes the abbess Maria Magdalena Haidenbucher in 1628, for example, who holds this office for more than 40 years – forty years that encompass the entire 30 Years’ War and therefore certainly pose existential questions and great challenges again and again.
Meanwhile, the greed of the states and their politicians reaches its peak throughout the empire in 1803: secularization allows the rulers in German lands to seize church property as compensation for Napoleon’s spoils beyond the Rhine. On March 22 of that year, the commissioner for the abolition of the monastery announced the dissolution of the monastery on behalf of the rulers. Nevertheless, 23 of the 30 convent sisters remain on the island, and the state grants them a pension until their death. Father Norbert Hauner, who had previously experienced the dissolution of the Herrenchiemsee monastery, was appointed spiritual director and confessor.
The person of Norbert Hauner proved to be a stroke of luck for the sisters who had become homeless in their previous home, which is also reflected by the memorial plaque on the island cemetery that very much honors the deceased. The well-known hymn “Tauet, Himmel, den Gerechten” (Dew, Heaven, on the Righteous), composed and written by Hauner on Frauenchiemsee, is not only a popular hymn of Advent and Christmas to this day, but also a song of hope: “Sinners! Wake up from slumber, for salvation is near for us all, stop your sinning” it says in the original version.
On the condition that a boarding school for girls be built, the monastery was allowed to exist again from 1838. Meanwhile, Father Norbert Hauner’s spirit and creativity later found descendants of a secular kind: in 1828, the “Frauenchiemsee Artists’ Colony” was founded, which in the meantime achieved worldwide fame.
The painters Karl Raupp, Hermann Kaulbach and Wilhelm Leibl, the writers Felix Dahn, Ludwig Steub, Victor von Scheffel, Wilhelm Jensen and Ludwig Thoma settled on the tranquil island and formed the third “extended family” of the island for many decades alongside the monastery women and the traditional fishing families. Some of them are also buried in the cemetery in front of the monastery church. The lyrical works of the great poet Joseph von Eichendorff also found their way to Frauenchiemsee in a certain way: Placida von Eichendorff, granddaughter of the writer, ruled the monastery during the difficult time of World War I and is buried on the island, as are her biological siblings.
The boarding school and the school closed their doors in 1985 and today there are only a few religious sisters who still inhabit the convent, which lives between summer tourist crowds and winter solitude. The history of the church as well as the history of German tribes and their wars and peace through some 1300 years can be traced on the small area of the island, between the magnificently decorated monastery church, the small village center and the monastery cemetery worth seeing. “From the first kiss to death nothing but as of love say” reads the inscription on a cast-iron cross of the churchyard next to the church – the centuries that have passed on Fraueninsel tell of the love of the people for their God and for their island, in times of economic and spiritual prosperity as well as in some times of decline.
Sr. Hanna Fahle OSB: “Geschichte der Abtei Frauenwörth ab 782” (Kunstverlag Josef Fink)
Hermann Dannheimer: “Frauenwörth – Herzog Tassilos Kloster im Chiemsee” (Anton H. Konrad Verlag)
Wilhelm Jensen: “Hunnenblut” (Verlag Philipp Reclam jun.)