Rheichenau-Niederzell, St. Peter und Paul Kirche. Foto/Photo: TES

Reichenau and Arenenberg

It is not known whether Hortense de Beauharnais (1783-1837), daughter of Joséphine de Beauharnais (1763-1814)and stepdaughter of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), and her son Louis-Charles Bonaparte (1808-1873) the later Emperor Napoleon III of France, often visited the island of Reichenau to attend mass in one of its three Romanesque churches during their stay at the Arenenberg (1817-1837) in the municipality of Salenstein (canton Thurgau). 

The Arenenberg seen from Reichenau

Reichenau seen from the Arenenberg

The island of Reichenau, a Unesco World Heritage monastic island since 2000, was one of Europe’s cultural and religious centres from the 8th to the 12th century. The Irish monk Pirmin founded the monastery in 724 under the rule of the Merovingians.

Its greatest heyday, the monastery’s Golden Age, occurred during the Carolingian period under Charlemagne (748-814) and his son Louis the Pious (778-843). The Carolingian empire (800-843) had about 800 (Benedictine) monasteries. Eighty of these monasteries, including Reichenau, fell directly under the emperor.

The monastery introduced Charlemagne’s new education system and the new script (the minuscule), proficient in Latin, music, literature, religious murals, science and illuminated manuscripts. In short, it was a centre of the so-called ‘Carolingian Renaissance’ with an extensive library, monastic garden and scriptorium.

The new (and subsequently renovated) library of the abbey (1616)

The Garden

Education aimed to train the empire’s political, official and religious elite (abbots and bishops). The most important abbots were Waldo, Strabo and Heito.

The monastery of Reichenau maintained close relations with bishoprics (especially Basel, Constance and Chur and the archdiocese of Mainz) and, among others, with the abbeys in Schaffhausen, St Gallen, Fulda and Lindau.

The second heyday, the Silver Age, took place under the first (Saxon) emperors of the Holy Roman Empire (962-1024). Abbot Bern was the most crucial abbot in this period. The following centuries saw s slow decline. The monastery was dissolved in 1803.

The first stones of the abbey date from the eighth century. After that, the monastery church, dedicated to Mary and Mark, and the monastery complex were frequently rebuilt until the 17th century, retaining Romanesque and Gothic features.

Liber Viventium Fabariensis, a. 810-820, Archive Abbey St. Gallen

The abbey’s scriptorium in Reichenau produced beautifully illustrated manuscripts, which are kept in the library of the former abbey in St Gallen, among other places. The famous monastery plan from 830 is also located here.

Church of St. Peter and Paul 

In addition, the tiny island had about 20 chapels and churches. Of these, only two remain beside the abbey church. The church of St Peter- and Paul in Reichenau-Niederzell was consecrated in 799. Its patron, Bishop Egino of Verona (730-802), is buried in the choir. In 1134, the church was completely rebuilt in the Romanesque style. The influence of art from Lombardy can be seen in sculpture, frescoes and other art.

Church of St. George

St George’s church in Reichenau in Oberzell was founded in the late 9th century by Abbot Hato. Its beautiful Romanesque frescoes date from the late 10th century. They depict the miracles of Jesus and his power over nature, disease, life and death. These frescoes and the scriptorium show the same style. At the end of the 10th and the beginning of the 11th century, murals and illuminated scriptures in Reichenau were at their peak.

Despite the dissolution of the abbey and most of the churches, these centuries of religious occupation have changed the island forever. They initiated and maintained agriculture and viticulture for centuries. By 1492, the island was a true vineyard paradise, culminating in about 200 hectares of vineyards. Today, it is only 5-10 hectares.

The abbey and its viticulture around 1700. Picture: Museum Church of St. Peter and Paul, Reichenau-Niederzell

After the abbey was dissolved in 1803, the farmland was bought by private individuals. Today, the island is still agriculturally oriented and has about 145 farms dedicated mainly to growing vegetables. Annual yields are as high as 14 million cucumbers, 2 000 tonnes of tomatoes and 5 million heads of leafy vegetables on less than 200 hectares! 


Another fertile soil of the island concerns relics. The most famous three relics are the bones of St Mark in the golden shrine, the holy blood of Christ in the Byzantine cross in the monastery church of Mary and Mark, and the skull of St George in St George’s church.

The shrine with the bones of St. Marc the Evangelist

The Holy Blood of Christ and the  Byzantine cross

The Monday after Pentecost sees the annual procession of the Holy Blood. On 25 April, the march for the bones of the evangelist Mark takes place. These days are public holidays on the island and are part of the UNESCO World Heritage.  


Hortense and Louis III were not particularly religious. However, both left numerous ‘relics’ in their Arenenberg. Unlike the relics above, these are open to the public daily. From the monastery island of Reichenau, the Arenenberg is easy to see. However, by the arrival of the Napoleons, the abbey was already closed. Still, its cultural and agricultural legacy was also perceptible to these inhabitants of the Arenenberg.

(Source and further information: Klosterinsel Reichenau; T. John, Die Klosterinsel Reichenau im Bodensee, Beuron, 2006)

Castle and houses in Reichenau-Mittelzell

 Reichenau-Mittelzell Museum

Cemetery of the abbey

The Reichenauer Verbrüderungsbuch (book of brotherhood) from 824 with deceased abbots, monks and friends. Picture: Museum Church of St. Peter and Paul, Reichenau-Niederzell