Bentlage cultural landscape

As part of the baroque extension to the monastery in the 18th century, a geometric garden was laid out between the two gatehouses and the west wing. The individual parterres were delineated by a cruciform system of paths. As the guiding design element of the garden, an avenue was created as a central axis from the entrance gate to the portal of the west wing. At that time the monastery complex still included a water ditch that led from the gate bridge to three fish ponds in the south, but over the years the ditch and the ponds were filled in. When the buildings were converted to a mansion in the 19th century the geometric monastery garden was redesigned as a small landscape garden. Today the garden has become just a broad lawn with a few scattered trees. Only the avenue leading centrally through the garden has been newly planted in a uniform style with plane trees. At the time that the church was demolished, the monks’ cemetery in the inner courtyard of the monastery, originally surrounded by the cloister, was also levelled. The modern restoration work has rendered the ground plans of the old church and the southern cloister visible once more, surfaced with gravel and paving stones. Due to the overlap with an already present boxwood hedge, the configuration now appears very structured. When restoring the complex as a whole, the aim was to preserve as many of the various historical traces as possible.

One notable feature of the complex are the preserved traces of the historical landscape design. At the time of the Baroque, in 1783, a small beech wood was planted as a ‘star grove’ to the south of the monastery. It was probably used by Prince-Bishop Clemens August of Bavaria as a hunting ground when, on his travels to the more distant Clemenswerth hunting lodge, he took up quarters in the monastery. Of the originally star-shaped, four-axis hunting aisles, only the two diagonal axes can be recognized today. To the east of the star grove the route leads along the Bentlage Allee avenue on the left bank of the River Ems to the old centre of Rheine, around 2 km distant. The four-row oak avenue was planted at the same time as the extension work on the mansion in the 19th century.

To the north of Kloster Bentlage one can recognize a large, trough-shaped depression in the steep bank of the Ems. This is a man-made feature: a winter fish trap. When the river was in flood in winter, with a strong current, numerous fish congregated in the trough where the water was calmer. When the high water subsided, their way back to the river was cut off for the fish and they could then be easily fished out of the water.

One of the most interesting features of Kloster Bentlage is the diverse historical cultural landscape in the immediate vicinity. Walkers can still experience fine examples of a landscape that has changed little for centuries. From the end of the Middle Ages to today, the ‘monastery landscape’ cultivated by the monks, with its herding forests, pastures, arable land, fish ponds, water ditches and roads, has been well-preserved.

The route from Saline Gottesgabe salt works to the monastery is particularly beautiful. It is only in recent years that academics and local historians have rediscovered and interpreted the symbolic meaning of the monastery access road, which was developed until the mid-18th century. In a manner comparable to the grand statements of European garden art, the path also leads one through a ‘spiritual landscape’ that represents the cycle of life. Various references and religious symbols prepare the traveller for the high point of the route, the entrance to the monastery. The route taken by the road can be divided into three sections which can be grasped by the senses: cultivation, refinement and worship. Enriched by their knowledge of the symbolic meaning of the road, few visitors will be able to resist the allure of this landscape enactment.

The starting point of the impressive monastery access route is the stone bridge, built in 1747, across the salt works canal. After just a few metres one reaches an old sheep farm. The sight of the simple buildings and the grazing sheep imbued sensitive persons of that age with the image of the idyllic life of the shepherds in a peaceful, Arcadian landscape. As a religious motif, the sheep farm also reminds one of Abel, the human race’s first shepherd who travelled through the Biblical landscape with his herd. As a contrast, the following raised arable field might remind the traveller of his sedentary brother Cain. The field gained its slightly curved surface through the centuries of cultivation.

The route then passes through two broad curves which constantly direct the gaze in different directions. In this way the different features of the landscape could be perceived as an important basis for the daily life of the monastery. The Bentlager Busch is the oldest continuous wooded area in the district and has been a favoured hunting ground for centuries. The monks also used the wood, with the fruits from the oaks and beeches, for herding pigs. Today, as a result, the area generally has the loosely structured appearance of a grazing wood. Little effort is required to identify a deep trough in the wood, which was once a fish pond.

In summary, the monks presented the various methods of land use and cultivation along this section of the road. Cultivation of the land served to maintain human existence.

The day-to-day work is followed by the motif of refinement. The landscape now appears more strongly shaped by aesthetic perspectives. After the second curve the road crosses an old bridge and progresses in a straight line towards the still-distant monastery. With the perception of the monastery in the distance, one’s steps automatically become faster. The closer one comes to the monastery, the less attention one gives to the surrounding nature. Comparable to the garden art of the Baroque, in this section the landscape is subordinated to the architecture. Right by the crossroads, in front of the gateway, stand two striking old trees, an oak and a lime. The oak symbolically embodies the male principle and the lime tree the female principle. Here one may think of Adam and Eve. The perspective through the ornate monastery gate into the garden, which is visible but at that time was still closed off, might evoke the Biblical Garden of Paradise.

The gateway stands exactly on the boundary between the historical cultural landscape and the monastery complex, once enclosed by a hedge. With the entry into the consecrated, ‘inner’ monastery area the road gained even greater meaning. Far from everyday life, nature was here refined and cultivated as in the Garden of Paradise. Moreover, this effect was intentionally amplified by he originally geometrically designed baroque garden and the avenue aligned directly with the portal of the west wing and thus increased the sensory impressions and the expectations of the visitors. Continuing the concept, the baroque axis in the inner courtyard of the monastery found its ultimate goal in the monks’ cemetery.

However, the actual climax of the route was the baroque portal of the west wing and the staircase behind it. Even before entry into the monastery building, the visitor’s imagination could be raised ever closer to the sublime by seeing the three representations on the relief mounted on the portal pediment, open at the top. On passing through the portal one left behind cultivated nature and entered the monastery building which was fully devoted to religious worship. Inevitably the route and one’s gaze moved upwards within the staircase. As one mounted the elegantly curved, double-flight stairs, one came ever close to the heavenly and, step by step, left behind all earthly matters. As a Christian symbol for the ascension of the soul to heaven, the spread wings of the eagle in the ceiling painting led the imagination from the nature-based present world to the hereafter. The symbolic and pictorial representation of the cycle of life now found its climax and conclusion.

It is interesting to compare the maps from the years 1841 and 2007. One can clearly see how well the features of the cultural landscape, shaped by Kloster Bentlage, have been preserved: fields and woods, roads and avenues are as they were 200 years ago.

Map of Bentlage in the year 1841Map of Bentlage in the year 2007