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Architectural icon: Neumünster Abbey
Culture

Architectural icon: Neumünster Abbey

by Sarita Rao 4 min. 15.11.2021
A Benedictine abbey in the artisan district, later used as a prison, is now a cultural centre
The original site of the abbey was the artisan district, home to the bakers, millers and fisherman who looked after Count Conrad's retinue Photo: Serge Waldbillig
The original site of the abbey was the artisan district, home to the bakers, millers and fisherman who looked after Count Conrad's retinue Photo: Serge Waldbillig

Whether you prefer to call it Neumünster or Neimënster Abbey, this Benedictine set of buildings, now a cultural centre, has had quite a history, including some recent damage due to flooding this summer. 

To begin with, it wasn't the first abbey in Luxembourg City. That was Altmünster, founded by Conrad, Count of Luxembourg, in 1083. The current site of Neumünster Abbey was an artisan district comprising bakers, millers, fishermen and a whole host of the great unwashed that looked after Conrad's retinue.

Unfortunately, the original abbey on the Bock promontory was destroyed in 1542 and the monks decided to build a new one on the banks of the Alzette in Grund in the artisan district.

Neumünster Abbey consists of a church and four wings enclosing an inner courtyard, and today, after 10 years of restoration from 1994 to 2004, it is a cultural and conference centre that hosts concerts, performances, exhibitions and festivals, including the Science Festival (13-14 November) the Fête du Travail and Siren’s Call.

First the history…

When archaeologist Johnny De Meulemeester excavated the site, he unearthed wooden huts, low-blast furnaces and ovens dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. The wooden huts were later replaced by stone buildings in the 14th and 15th centuries many housing workshops on what was the road to Trier. You can still see the vestiges of the Krudelsporte built in the mid-14th century at the same time as the third city wall, in what is today the Abbey's Robert Krieps building.

From the 14th to the 17th century the site was used as a graveyard, and 850 tombs were also discovered. However as early as 1606 plans were in place to build the new monastery in its square arrangement incorporating a parish and hospital church and a cloister, under the guidance of Abbot Petrus Roberti. Sadly, much of his work was damaged in the bombardments of 1684 when Luxembourg was besieged by the French troops of Louis XIV.

Exhibitions and the work of sculptor Lucien Wercollier are hosted at the Abbey. Photo: Gerry Huberty
Exhibitions and the work of sculptor Lucien Wercollier are hosted at the Abbey. Photo: Gerry Huberty

The Abbey was reconstructed by military engineer Hubert Laloir of Liège, hence the restrained style of many of the buildings. Later, the French installed a prison and police barracks, which was subsequently used as an orphanage, and as a German military hospital by Prussian troops in Luxembourg. When they left, it continued as a prison and in 1885 the Robert Krieps building was erected to employ prisoners in bookbinding and making wicker chairs. It was still a prison in 1940 when the Gestapo used it as a holding place for some 4,000 men and women who were transported during World War II. In fact, it remained a prison until 1980.

Today it's held on to its historical importance as the site where Bulgaria and Romania signed their accession to the European Union.

For a detailed account of the history of the Abbey site since medieval times, click here.

The Abbey buildings

Covering 13,000 m², the current site overlooks the pretty terraced gardens below the Bock on the banks of the River Alzette, where you will also find a sculpture of Melusina created by Serge Ecker.

Melusina, the mermaid wife of Count Siegfried. Photo: Alberto Caffo
Melusina, the mermaid wife of Count Siegfried. Photo: Alberto Caffo

The chapel (the monk’s former library) has a baroque alter and a magnificent frescoed ceiling, the work of monk Abraham Gilson d’Orval and the only fresco from the building that has survived. The courtyard to Neumünster Abbey is named after French writer/screenwriter Marcel Julian Agora who was imprisoned by the Nazis. Its glass canopy contrasts with the ancient walls of the building.

The Lucien Wercollier Cloister, named after Luxembourg’s most famous sculptor, again commemorates the fact Wercollier was imprisoned by the Nazis in the Abbey. The cloister garden was a place of prayer and contemplation as well as a burial ground for the monks. Landscaped by Agnès Daval, it has contemporary stone benches which contrast with the rounded vaults and arches of the Abbey's windows. The benches rise at different heights to give the viewer an unusual perspective. Above the cloister the ambulatory spreads over three wings, which house the works of Wercollier.

The Robert Krieps Auditorium was the former prison workshop known as the Tutesall, and can seat some 283 people. Krieps, you guessed it, was a former Nazi deportee. He had the idea to transform the former place of detention into a place for cultural exchange.

The austere Robert Bruch building (Bruch was also imprisoned by the Nazis) is the former military hospital built between 1863 and 1866 and nicknamed The Criminal, in reference to Neumünster Abbey’s prison history. It houses the cultural centre's administration and has rooms for resident artists.

When can I see it?

You can visit the cultural centre from 10.00 to 18.00. Exhibitions are free. Guided tours in English, German, French or Luxembourgish and can accommodate 4 people maximum, with a cost of €4 per person (under 12 years are free). 

You can find out more about events and exhibitions hosted at the Abbey here.


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