The Cistercian Abbey Church of Otterberg – A Guest Post (Jong-Soung Kimm)


Otterberg is a small community in Pfalzer Wald (the Palatinate Woods) 7 km north of Kaiserslautern. Compared to the many storied Cistercian abbeys in France, Otterberg is a less well known destination for the Cistercian monastic architecture. In 1140, then the pfalzgraf (Palatinate duke) opened his hilltop castle called Otterberg to a group of Cistercian monks from the Eberbach Monastery in Rheingau. The monks founded the monastery at the foot of the castle in 1143, and the construction of the abbey church was begun in 1168. After almost nine decades of work, the church was consecrated in 1254 by Bishop Arnold from Luettich (present day Belgium). The dates give a clue to the transitional Romanesque-Gothic style of the abbey church.

The Cistercian monastery at Otterberg flourished for a century and a half before starting to decline at the end of the 14th century. Successive wars in the 16th century left the monastery itself in ruins. It is recorded that in 1579 Pfalzgraf Johann Casimir invited the religious refugees from France, Belgium and Spanish Netherlands – the Walloons – to settle in Otterberg. The new settlers used stones from the ruined monastery to build houses, and today only the Abbey Church, the Chapter House and a part of the Abbot’s residence remain. Another footnote to Otterberg: between 1801 and 1815, the region belonged to the French Departement of Tonnerre.

Nave of the Cistercian Abbey Church, Otterberg (Rheinland-Palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

True to the teachings of the Cistercian order, the structure of the Abbey Church is built in a disciplined and straightforward manner without ornaments. What is striking about the Abteikirche (Abbey Church) is how remarkably unscathed the architecture has remained through centuries of religious and political upheavals, and how unified the visions of succeeding master builders were during almost a century of construction. The church is 74 meters long, making it the second longest among the Palatinate churches after the Speyer Cathedral.

View of the Nave from Apse toward the Western Portal, the Cistercian Abbey Church, Otterberg (Rheineland-Palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The plan of the Abbey Church is a Latin Cross; the Nave with two Aisles, north and south Transepts, Chancel at the crossing and a one-bay Apse with three Apsidal Chapels. The masons’ workmanship is truly impressive, ample indication of the high caliber of the building workshops of the 12th and 13th centuries in the Rheinland.

View of the Nave wall from South Aisle, the Cistercian Abbey Church, Otterberg (Rheinland-Palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The ogive arches of the Nave are indented, most probably in order to reduce the visual weight of the stone on the one hand, and to line up with the width of the aisle/nave arches on the other. The photograph shows water marks from flooding up to the nave floor level. It also clearly shows that the South Aisle was built a few steps lower than the Nave floor in order to accommodate the topography sloping from the north to south.

View from South Transept toward the Chancel and North Transept, the Cistercian Abbey Church, Otterberg (Rheinland-Palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The corner piers at the crossing show cylindrical colonnettes that visually carry the weight of the four main arches up above. The Abteikirche had been shared by the Catholics and the Protestants since the 18th century, and the church had been partitioned into two parts until the recent restoration in the 1970’s. Today, both faiths continue to share the unified church space for their respective worship.

View of the Cross Vault at the Western Portal, the Cistercian Abbey Church, Otterberg (Rheinland-palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Considering that the Church was constructed just decades after the ribbed vault was first put into use in 1140’s in Ile de France, it is remarkable how the nameless master builders embraced the new technique so seamlessly. The delicate stone tracery of the Rose Window shows a more daring by the builders, apparently dating from the later period of the construction for the Church.

View of the Apse vaulting, the Cistercian Abbey Church, Otterberg (Rheinland-Palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Unlike most Cistercian abbey churches in France and elsewhere contemporary to Otterberg, which had squared-off apses, the Abteikirche at Otterberg has three-sided apse with a circular window with a quatrefoil design high up on the middle wall, and round-arched, tall windows on all three walls. The one bay long Apse is somewhat narrower than the width of the Nave, but proportioned in such a way that the cross ribs above create an appearance similar to the typical nave vaults. The master builders have judiciously placed cylindrical colonnettes at the four corners of the apse in order to visually “receive” the cross ribs for the apparent logic of it, whereas the physical weight of vaulting could be transferred to the piers without the colonnettes.

Note: All photographs were taken with Leica 28mm PC Super-Angulon R lens on Canon 5D with an adapter.

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Location: 49.503053° 7.773820°

6 responses to “The Cistercian Abbey Church of Otterberg – A Guest Post (Jong-Soung Kimm)

  1. The history of this abbey church reminded me of a book I read a while back about a group of eleventh century monks sent to revive/rebuild a remote abbey in the Limousin in France: Les défricheurs d’éternité by Claude Michelet

  2. I lived at Otterberg community for 2 years. The church is one among the many beautiful churches I’ve seen in Germany. It depicts the transition of the romanesque and gothic architecture as noticed on the facade of the church. Interesting indeed is the celebration of service between the roman catholics and the protestants separately in one community. Otterberg gefaelt mir. Schone!

  3. It should be noted that in a number of places in Germany there was an extraordinary policy of religious congregations sharing places of worship. In Memmingeng until the 19th century the Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche) was divided in two and the Catholics and Lutherans used different sections for worship. Today the Catholics in Memmingen have a number of churches for their use – including the lovely St John’s in the middle of the town – lovely because of the thoughtful rebuilding after World War II.

    • Anthony, we have seen the same thing in the Alsace – I don’t remember exactly what church now but the schedule showed both Catholic and Protestant services. Thanks.

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