Contrary to the vow of chastity

Christina/ July 8, 2024/ The daily grind/ 0 comments

The Isenhagen Monastery on the outskirts of Hankensbüttel is one of the six heath monasteries. As we participate in a guided tour on this Sunday, it quickly becomes clear: this will be a tour of a special kind. This is undoubtedly due to the monastery resident who, as she herself says, enjoys provoking. I cannot remember having experienced such an entertaining and exciting tour before. The conversation touches on male fantasies as well as real life in a convent. Its origins lie in the “moist triangle”. Yes, contrary to the vow of chastity!

Much money and personal fame
It quickly becomes clear this afternoon that money, power, and increasing one’s own fame have always been driving forces of human actions. Including the spiritual ones. After a hike around Hankensbüttel, we find ourselves at the monastery walls shortly after 3 p.m. Since Isenhagen Convent is inhabited, it can only be visited as part of a guided tour. These are offered in the summer months from 2:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Being a big fan of monastery complexes, I naturally take this opportunity. When I open the monastery door, a bell rings and immediately Abbess Cornelia Renders stands before me.
A tour is already in progress. We are allowed to join it. We are assured that we will catch up on the missed part at the end. Mrs. Renders immediately accompanies us into the monastery church. Here we join the others. Our small group consists of nine people. From the church, we move on to the garden. Immediately, our attention is drawn to a huge American trumpet tree. The plant blooms in white and occupies large parts of the courtyard. The former Cistercian monastery was built in the Gothic style. An abbess wanted to completely renovate the building and adapt it to the taste of the time. Fortunately, she could not raise enough money, so only the part inhabited today was modernized.

A 700-year-old stopgap
Our next stop is the cloister. At that time, they wanted to rebuild the monastery. But then the plague intervened. Before the craftsmen fled, they erected a wooden ceiling as a stopgap around 1349. A temporary solution that has been preserved to this day. They must have been good craftsmen back then.
We stand again in front of the entrance to the monastery church and look at a wall panel. From now on, we get down to the nitty-gritty. The “faithful” lady depicted there stretches out her hands in a supposed gesture of humility. In fact, as we learn, this is a woman of nobility who had nothing to do with humility and work. We hear that the convent was primarily visited by ladies from the nobility and the bourgeoisie. From the bourgeoisie because that’s where the money was. The aim of the whole story was the education of these individuals. So these were by no means submissive simpletons, but self-confident ladies. Even women over 30 who were no longer available on the marriage market ended up here. And yes, even in this institution, the lady went into seclusion. But anyone who now believes that the vow of chastity ruled here has fallen victim to a male fantasy. Because, we are taught, the ladies were allowed to go on pilgrimages. And where did they go? Right, to the surrounding men’s monasteries. Even then, biology was already asserting itself. Besides, the monks were quite knowledgeable in the arts of contraception. Look! Even then, nothing was sweated through the ribs.

Power and prestige
Before entering the refectory, we stop in front of a stone tablet. The depicted gentleman is presented to us as an example of self-presentation. His age is estimated at 33 years. Jesus died on the cross at that age. This is what this collection is about. At his feet, the gentleman had the paradise depicted, a canopy floating above him. In the worldview of the time, this meant that no matter how his life went on, it would go well after his death.
In the refectory, we learn more about the displays of power by influential men. Bernard of Clairvaux, a scion of the French nobility, equipped with the necessary financial means, founded the Cistercian Order at that time (1098). The conditions at that time are described to us as follows: Chivalry was slowly coming to an end. The young lords from good families were bored and loitered more or less in the streets. So what to do with the testosterone-driven bunch? Right, spiritualize them and off to the monastery. The poorer part of the youth were lured with seductive promises to the Holy Land. These crusaders were supposed to recapture Jerusalem. In return, they were promised the remission of their sins from the past, present, and future. Oh yes, and money was involved too. Anyway, the pack was first out of the way. The wealthy, as already mentioned, went to the monastery. “Ora et labora” was the motto from now on. And with “labora,” it was not about physical but intellectual work.

While Clairvaux founded around 300 Cistercian monasteries at that time, around 1,000 women’s monasteries were established simultaneously. Business-minded as they were back then, the Frenchman also offered the ladies the status of a Cistercian monastery – of course, for money. Well, only one monastery managed to achieve this title. It is the Lilienthal Abbey near Bremen. All the others remained under observance and could thus be better controlled.

Luxury apartments for the wealthy
We climb a wooden staircase to the first floor. Here, a different picture is presented. Everything is in dark, heavy wood. We pass a few doors, and I wonder what might be behind them. I particularly like the painted walls. Besides, it smells good here – that certainly wasn’t always the case. First, we focus on a chest at the end of the corridor. Since they already thought in terms of business administration at the time, luxury apartments were set up on this floor – for the time’s standards – which were inhabited by wealthy ladies. These brought along two servants and lots of clothes, which were stored in these chests. Hygiene was not a priority back then. The clothes were washed at most once a year.

You were only allowed to bathe three times in your life
The rules for personal hygiene were even stricter. Back then, you were only allowed to bathe three times in your life: at birth, before the wedding night, and after death. Men were allowed to bathe once or twice more, depending on how often they got married. I don’t even want to imagine how beastly it must have smelled here in the past. A puma cage is certainly nothing compared to that. We take another look into the ladies’ rooms. The wall decorations in the rooms depict tulips. Why? Well, tulips have no scent and thus symbolized the chastity of the ladies.

Before we take a look at the in-house museum, we visit the chapter hall. To our surprise, we are told that the oldest piece of furniture in Germany stands here. It is the wandering chair of Henry the Lion. Respect! Furthermore, our attention is drawn to a prayer cage at the rear end of the room. Above the construction hangs a painting of an abbess from 1540. Our tour guide points out to us that the depiction of the lady is reminiscent of a famous painting by Leonardo Da Vinci. Clearly, the Mona Lisa. In fact, around 40 years later, after the creation of the Mona Lisa, the lady had adopted Da Vinci’s style. And a second thing shows her vanity: Her clothing. The black gown does not stand for the Catholic Church, but for the fashion of the time in Italy. And what’s the deal with the prayer cage? Well, the lady had it set up for her prayers so she wouldn’t have to call upon God with the rest.

Pearls of innocence
True art treasures are stored in the monastery museum. The most valuable piece is – how could it be otherwise – once again an indulgence letter. This one has countless seals at the end and must be worth millions. Maybe even back then, because its owner was a very wealthy man.
But even more interesting are the pearl embroideries. In the waters around the monastery, shells were collected in the past. Every seven hundredth shell contained a pearl. So you can easily calculate how many shells you needed to depict the figure of Mary Magdalene with 300 pearls. Why pearls? Well, they symbolized innocence and purity. But who was this Mary? A former harlot who repented and founded the Magdalene Order as a penitent sinner. A collection of former prostitutes, some of whom were married by men who were rewarded with indulgence letters for their efforts. Who cares about salvation when there’s money to be made?

Hocus pocus in the monastery church
Finally, we return to the monastery church. We still need the beginning of the tour. It’s about the altar. We are only partly interested in the front because what happened behind the altar is even more interesting. The old wooden doors show “graffiti” from the 16th century. And what Wilma and Peter did behind the altar, well, we don’t really want to know. But the anecdote is funny, that the Lord’s Supper turned into hocus pocus because the gentlemen hardly had any teeth left, and the Latin phrase for taking the wafer sounded like “hocus pocus” to the congregation.

Fun fact on the side: The tiles on the floor of the church are decorated with patterns so that they would not be stolen by the farmers.
The picture under the altar is the Isenhagen Last Supper. Here again, they copied the Italian model. However, the meal includes roasted squirrel. Probably not something for the Southern European stomach. Interestingly, I learn at this point that both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti were gay. The former’s trademark was men with curly hair. Buonarroti was more into the worn-out farmer type.

Now you probably want to know what the “moist triangle” is all about. The restaurant “Zur Linde” in the center of Hankensbüttel was built on the foundations of the former Isenhagen Monastery. The latter burned down in 1767. Traditionally, there have been pubs at this location, where two important military roads intersect, for over 650 years. This crossing in Hankensbüttel is still called the “moist triangle” today. Or did you think of something else?

I thoroughly enjoyed both the tour through the countryside, Old Isenhagen, and the Isenhagen Pond, as well as this truly entertaining and interesting tour. I can recommend this excursion into the heathland to everyone.

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