Station: [4] The Chapel

The chapel, with its distinctive stepped gables, is the heart of the Heiligengrabe abbey complex. “Heiliges Grab” means “Holy Sepulchre”, and that’s exactly what is housed in the chapel – and what gave this place its name. In the late Middle Ages, the sepulchre is said to have attracted crowds of pilgrims.

However, the present building isn’t the first to stand on this site. The chapel you see now was built in around 1520 and replaced two earlier and much smaller predecessors.

Anna von Rohr, the abbess at the time, carried out extensive alterations and extensions to the abbey between 1510 and 1530. She had the chapel rebuilt and enlarged the abbey. She also commissioned 15 large panel paintings that recount a typical medieval founding legend with a distinct anti-Semitic flavour. 

Pilgrims arriving from the west entered the chapel through the gabled door on the side facing away from the abbey. Upon entering, they saw a tombstone at ground level with a carving of the body of Jesus lying on it. There was a gallery, on which the 15 painted panels depicting the abbey’s anti-Jewish founding legend were displayed. The host, known as the "Holy Blood", for reasons that will become clear later, was displayed in a monstrance. This was what the pilgrims had come to see. But nobody knows whether there really were as many pilgrims as often claimed. Nor is it clear whether the abbey actually received the income it had hoped for. 

After the Reformation, there were no more pilgrimages. The chapel lost its significance and was at risk of falling into disrepair. In the 18th century, the Prussian King Wilhelm I. even decreed that the chapel should be demolished. Fortunately, it was only converted into a granary instead. It was not until the 19th century discovered its passion for all things medieval that the chapel was revived. Another King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV., ordered its restoration, and it’s now used by the canonesses for their daily prayers. So it’s where they hold the offices, sometimes called the canonical hours.

In the early 20th century, Kaiser Wilhelm II. donated a further fifty thousand marks for restoration work and even visited the Ladies’ Foundation – an event accompanied by a great deal of pageantry. In honour of that occasion, the choir stalls, the stained glass windows and the elaborate wall paintings were created. They tell the story of the abbey and the collegiate foundation in a pseudo-medieval visual style.

Depiction 1 © Hagen Immel
Depiction 2 © Paul Donnerhack