Bentlage Gardens of Relics

The most important artworks from the former monastery church are the two Bentlage Gardens of Relics. Five hundred years ago the Cistercian nuns in Bersenbrück Convent decorated the relic treasures of the Bentlage Crosiers and embellished the bones with artificial flowers, sculptures and sequins. The symbolic content of these representations is closely linked to the spirituality of the Crosiers.

The relics depict a combination of Garden of Paradise and Mount Calvary. The central crucifix epitomizes firstly the wood of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, and secondly the wood of the Cross on which Christ with his self-sacrifice redeemed humanity from the consequences of the original sin. It thus symbolizes both the alpha and omega of the salvation history.

The skulls, bones and other secondary relics of the saints are arranged hierarchically around the crucified figure. The corresponding names of the saints are recorded for each relic on strips of parchment (cedulae). The relics are crowded together and embedded in a flat pictorial Garden of Paradise made of artfully hand-crafted flowers. In addition, precious stones such as rock crystal, garnets, corals and freshwater pearls as well as gems and silver sequins are mounted in the ensemble.

The ‘flowering bones’ (Arnold Angenendt) powerfully overcome the tones of death and push all terrors into the background. The rich vegetation around the cross symbolizes not only the spring-like awakening to new life; above all, the artfully enveloped relics, as remnants of the earthly life of the identified saints, form concrete evidence of the saints who are now already with God in paradise.

In this way they communicate to the viewer not only an earthly image of the heavenly glory of paradise, which can only be grasped at the spiritual level, and thus a picture of eternal life – they also strengthen him in his understanding of the eternal life, of the promised final destination of all his efforts and intentions, and thus give his life direction and guidance in a moral sense, too.

Preservation and restoration

Following the dissolution of the monastery in 1803 the art works of the monastery church passed into the personal ownership of the Dukes of Looz-Corswarem. They had the two relic cabinets transferred to the palace chapel that was newly furnished in 1827, where they survived the passage of the years relatively unscathed. They were however painted over in white several times in the 19th and early 20th century, but under the modern coating and the dust of the centuries the original medieval state was preserved so well that it proved possible to uncover it again.

Thanks to a carefully conceived and consistently executed restoration in the central restoration studio of the Westphalian Museum Department, the Gardens of Relics now shine again in their original splendour. This measure has been made possible by two institutions that lent the project sustained support: the Landschaftsverband (regional authority) of Westphalia-Lippe and the NRW-Stiftung Naturschutz, Heimat- und Kulturpflege (NRW Foundation for Nature Protection, Local History and Culture), which together with the City of Rheine provided the funding and thus made these unique testimonies to late-medieval piety once again accessible to the public.

In Museum Kloster Bentlage these two late-Gothic Gardens of Relics, which today are unique in their design and size, are on display in a room that once formed part of the chapter house. For reasons of conservation and aesthetics the room is kept in a darkened state.