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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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