Illumination from Manuscript in the Library from Altomünster

Medieval Bridgettine Treasure in Danger of Being Dispersed

The Altomünster Abbey, founded in AD 750 have housed Bridgettine nuns nearly continuously since 1496. Suddenly, in December 2015, the Munich Diocese decided to close the convent. Since then, the future fate of the priceless collections has been unknown.

Mother revealing some of the treasures in the Library at Altomünster
Prioress Sister Apollonia Buchinger revealing some of the treasures in the Library at Altomünster © Bevin Butler

When Bridgettine scholars met in Altomünster in October 2015 to take part in a symposium, on the Extraordinary Sensescapes: The Sensual World of Late-Medieval Nuns, they had no idea they were virtually entering an unbelievable treasure house. Here in filthy, cramped  surroundings they were allowed to enter a hitherto unknown library with more than 500 ancient tomes from the 15th century and later. It is estimated that the library holds even more volumes and numerous pieces of art. Unlike those which used to belong to most German monasteries, this treasure trove somehow survived the horrors waged by the protestant reformation, the religious wars in the 16th and 17th centuries or the secularisation in the 19th.

“It was like entering a time capsule”, tells Lindquist Sandgreen, a senior lecturer at Sweden’s Uppsala University. The next day was spent exploring and photographing the collection, while permission was sought and received from the prioress Sister Apollonia Buchinger to have the collection scholarly inventoried and assessed

However, the prioress was the last remaining nun, and in December the Vatican decided to close the Abbey. Probably also motivated by earlier experiences, they decided to close off the buildings of the convent by locks and steel doors while specific pieces of art were removed from their old and traditional places. According to the authorities – the Diocese – the aim was to keep it all safe. In charge of the process, the Vatican soon appointed a Franciscan, Sister Gabriele Konrad. Since then, the group of international scholars as well as the general public have been kept totally out of the loop. This has caused widespread fear that the authorities aim to sell off some of the more valuable items in order to line their coffers.

Germany and USA

Bridgettine nun reading in the library at Altomünster
Bridgettine nun reading in the library at Altomünster

“There’s a false impression that we’re taking in riches and gems and gold and everything imaginable — that’s nonsense,” says Peter Beer, Cardinal Reinhard Marx’s deputy in charge of administration to AP at his office in Munich. “We are taking on costs more than anything… we do not need any help from the U.S.A. to understand how to treat cultural assets of significance for Europe. We have a slightly longer history and slightly longer experience,” Beer concludes, referring to an open letter from American and European academics. In a final statement he adds, “it is a little irritating to have things thrown out in public in an open letter without the facts.” The diocese has explained that it is their intention to have the parts of the library, which dates before 1803 digitized in order to make it available for scholars.

However, at stake here is much more than just the curation of the singular gems in the collection; at stake are the multiple traces of the life-world and the religious and spiritual practice of a group of the Bridgettine nuns, who formed a living community for more than 500 years.

Also, the group of concerned scholars do not just stem from Arizona or Chicago. Representatives from the Universities in Sweden, England, Denmark and Holland are also engaged in trying to establish a dialogue with the Diocese.

The Library

Bridgettine antiphoner from the 15th century © Volker Schier
Bridgettine antiphoner from the 15th century © Volker Schier

It is believed that the present library holds over 500 books, including manuscripts and incunabula, as well as associated archival sources. With at least 14 late-medieval antiphoners, possibly as many as 30 processionals, and a large collection of 18th-century liturgical manuscripts, the collection promises to more than double the known sources documenting the performance of Birgittine chant. The unique illuminations, made for or by nuns, will serve to extend current understanding of women’s religious practices during the late Middle Ages and early modern periods

However, to this collection treasured in the library in Altomünster, should be added numerous pieces of art – sculptures, paintings and pictures. As the place had been virtually untouched by major interventions, the buildings – as they were lived in – would in themselves represent a treasure trove, if it was registered and photographed properly by Ethnologists and folklorists. It is not just the library or the collection of art, which is in danger of being dispersed or sold off; it is also the unique opportunity to register and document the life-world of the nuns of a bygone age. It is not just the valuable illuminated manuscripts but also the ledgers, the cooking books and the minor scraps of paper, which deserve attention.

It is this treasure trove, which the scholars are most distressed about. The value may not so much lie in the single manuscripts per se, but in the total ensemble, claim the scholars who had the first tantalising glimpse of it all in 2015; they naturally fear that this more holistic approach to the collections and the monastery does not square with the more Antiquarian attitude of the Diocesan representatives.

Generous Offer

It is with this in mind the scholars have offered to do the registration freely and without incurring any additional costs to the Diocese. However, this generous offer has been turned down by the Diocese and the representative appointed by the Vatican. She wishes to gain a preliminary overview first, before letting international scholars in on the secrets. To this end, she has contracted with a group of conservators with experience in restoring books.

Naturally, this secretive procedure has caused a number of speculations. Does the Diocese wish to sell of particularly valuable pieces, thus lining the coffers of the catholic church? In the last years several large monasteries have sold off priceless pieces from their collections.

Who owns?

However, at stake here is also a legal question. Who, in fact, owns the collection? The Catholic Church? The Bridgettinnes, themselves? Or Bayern? According to law, Bayern first claimed that the collection, since such collections were expropriated off-hand by the State; thus, the real contractor ought in fact to be the Bavarian State Library! On the other hand, the Library announced in September 2016 that the convent could document that it had bought back the buildings and the collections in 1851 for the sum of 4000 Gulden; which means that the owner is in fact the Bridgettine order; or more specifically, the old medieval part of it. What that may mean is another question as we are also informed that Bavaria might have a special right to claim ownership of collections from religious institution being sold; a rule probably set up in order to avoid the piecemeal selling off of hidden treasures to finance the daily life of these institutions. As it is, there seems to be a kind of tug-of-war going on between the Catholic Church in Bavaria and the State.

It is this situation, the scholars have decided to start an international petition to the Vatican, in order to have Rome put a stop to what seems a blatant manhandling of a unique treasure trove.

All this, however, does not solve the most pressing problem, which is the “in situ” documentation of the dissolving abbey by ethnologists and archaeologists. In all likelihood, this opportunity is already long gone.


Scholars fret about fate of ‘holy grail’ German abbey books
By David Riesing
Associated Press, 26.12.2016

Zur Auflösung von Altomünster
By Von Wolfgang Eitler
In Süddeutche Zeitung 12.07.2016

Wird die Kirche auch den Handschriftenschatz von Altomünster verscherbeln lassen?
By Klaus Graf


Medieval Manuscripts in Altomünster


Bridgettine antiphoner, 1486, Detail, Initial G, Dormition of the Virgin © Volker Schier