The island of Reichenau on Lake Constance preserves the traces of the Benedictine monastery, founded in 724, which exercised remarkable spiritual, intellectual and artistic influence. The churches of St Mary and Marcus, St Peter and St Paul, and St George, mainly built between the 9th and 11th centuries, provide a panorama of early medieval monastic architecture in central Europe. Their wall paintings bear witness to impressive artistic activity.
For over a thousand years the history of the island of Reichenau, which lies in the northern reaches of Lake Constance, was closely intertwined with that of the monastery.
The deed of foundation of the Benedictine abbey is dated 25 April 724. The first Abbot, Pirmin, probably from Meaux, was given the task of building a monastery in honour of the Virgin Mary and Saints Peter and Paul. Abbot Pirmin no doubt received endowments from the Alaman princes, although tradition established in the 12th century dated the foundation back to the Carolingian ruler Charles Martel (714-41). Pirmin oversaw the building of the first abbey, a wooden building, at Mittelzell on the northern shore of the island, as well as a three-winged cloister against the north side of the church. The whole building was gradually rebuilt in stone by 746. The single nave of the church was considerably extended by a porch at one end and a rectangular choir at the other. The choir for the monks was separate from that of the laity.
From modest beginnings, the abbey prospered under the authority of abbots who served as counsellors on matters of church and state and as tutors, particularly to the Carolingian emperors Charlemagne (768-814) and Louis the Pious (814-40). The monastery, an ideal staging-post between Germany and Italy, enjoyed the protection of Carolingian and Othonian rulers. It received generous endowments of land and the island, an integral part of the abbey lands, was given over to agriculture. The monastery became a centre for teaching and creativity in literature (poet Walafrid Strabo served as abbot from 838 to 849), science (Hermann the Lame, 1013-54), and the arts (10th-11th century schools of illumination and wall paintings in particular) renowned far and wide.
On his return from a voyage to Byzantium, Abbot Heito had the abbey rebuilt as a cruciform basilica with three aisles in which the square form of the transept crossing is reflected in the whole. The main choir is made up of two apsidal hemicycles and a system of alternating supports was added to the nave. The new building was consecrated in 816. The monastic buildings were redesigned and their new disposition served as the model for the Plan of St Gall, the standard plan of a Benedictine abbey, produced at Reichenau in about 825.
His successor Abbot Erlebald (823-38) extended the church to the west. The arrival in 830 of the relics of St Mark the Evangelist, brought to the abbey by Bishop Ratolf of Verona, sparked a series of acquisitions of other relics and the creation of new altars. Abbot Heito III (888-913) replaced the antechurch with a square choir and a broad western transept flanked by two towers. The new western church was dedicated to St Mark. A round axial chapel of the Holy Cross was built to the east of the main choir which housed the relics of the Precious Blood. Heito's original church was altered around the year 1000, and again in the early 11th century when Abbot Bernon (1008-48) replaced the western portion with the present-day transept opening into an apse lodged within a rectangular tower. The church was consecrated on 24 April 1048, in the presence of the Emperor Henry III. A new nave was built in the 12th century and was given a new roof after a fire in 1235. To the east, a polygonal Gothic choir and a new sacristy replaced the chapel of the Holy Cross (1443- 47). Much later, the church acquired a new roodscreen (1742) and a new sacristy (1779).
In the mid 15th century, a wall separated Mittelzell from the dwellings of the farmers, wine-growers, fishermen, and stewards that collected around the abbey. It came under the authority of the Bishops of Constance in 1542 and new monastery buildings were constructed to the south of the church (around 1605- 10).At the western end of the island of Reichenau, Egino, a former Bishop of Verona, built the first church of St Peter at Niederzell, which was consecrated in 799. The church was twice rebuilt and slightly altered in the 9th-10th century, the apse being made larger and a porch being added to the nave. The monastery buildings lay to the north, fairly near the lake. In the late 11th-early 12th century the church with its three aisles and no transept was rebuilt and its two east towers were completed in the 15th century. Now dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, it became a parish church and was decorated in rococo style in the 18th century.
Abbot Heito III built the church of St George at Oberzell in the eastern part of the island in honour of the relic of the saint's head, which he brought back from a voyage to Rome in 896, the year of the church's consecration. The church was quickly rebuilt with three aisles, a raised crossing, a crypt, and a square choir. A century later the church was decorated with wall paintings and later, between the 10th century and the early 11th century, a large apse was built on the west side with a gateway and porch entrance. Several other changes were made over the centuries that followed: a tower was built over the crossing (1385), which was then given a vaulted roof (around 1435), the two side arms were converted into sacristies, the west apse was redecorated (1708), and the tall windows were enlarged.
In total 25 churches and chapels were built on the island. From the 14th and 15th centuries the island became home to communities of nuns. Most of these buildings, demolished in the 19th century following the secularization of the estate of the Bishop of Constance (1803), survive in the form of archaeological remains. The Abbey's manuscripts and archives were transferred to Karlsruhe and the University of Heidelberg library. The monastery's vineyards and farmland were parcelled out and sold off. Traditional agriculture such as the growing of grapes and peaches continued, while a hundred or so new houses were built between the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century. In 1838-39 the island of Reichenau was linked to the mainland by a causeway and from the end of the 19th century it attracted numerous artists and intellectuals. Today the island's around 120 farms are given over primarily to vines, horticulture, and orchards.