Station: [9] The Abbey Complex – Architecture and Purpose

The abbey’s beginnings date back to 1287. Heiligengrabe was founded as a daughter house of the Cistercian nunnery of Neuendorf in the Altmark region, about 100 kilometres south-west of here. It’s said that the first nuns to arrive at Heiligengrabe came from there – presumably on the orders of the Margraves of Brandenburg, since they had an interest in consolidating their domain in the Prignitz region, which had been newly opened up. 

Over the following decades, the abbey buildings and the church on its southern flank were erected. In the late Gothic period, ribbed vaulting was added to the cloister, and the chapter house was moved from the east to the west wing of the abbey.

So by the end of the Middle Ages, the key components of a monastic complex were in place: the enclosed courtyard, the cloister and the surrounding buildings. But the construction work continued. In the early 16th century, Abbess Anna von Rohr was responsible for much of the new work. She built the present Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre, for example.

In 1548, the nuns were forced to convert: Heiligengrabe became Protestant. The change was preceded by bitter power struggles between the nuns with their allies among the gentry, on the one hand, and the Elector of Brandenburg with his chosen abbey governor on the other.

The abbey suffered badly during the Thirty Years' War in the early-to-mid 17th century, and its fortunes only improved in the 18th century.

Auf dem Bildschirm: Foto Orden „Par grace“

The Prussian King Friedrich II., also known as Friedrich the Great, elevated the abbey to the rank of Damenstift, in other words, a Ladies' Collegiate Foundation, and awarded the canonesses the order of "Par grace".

In the mid-19th century, Friedrich Wilhelm IV. had large-scale remodelling work carried out, for which his master builder Friedrich August Stüler was responsible. From 1847, a school was established in Heiligengrabe. In keeping with the thinking of the then abbess, it was intended to provide mainly impoverished aristocratic girls who had lost their fathers and grandfathers in the wars of liberation with an education befitting their rank. The schooling was austere and strict, although the girls’ letters and diaries also feature pranks and high spirits.

In the early 20th century, Kaiser Wilhelm II. had the chapel decorated in lavish style and presented the foundation with an abbess's crosier studded with gems. This was also when Heiligengrabe became an important museum site. That local history museum in the abbey’s south wing, which was founded in 1909, enjoyed national recognition. 

The end of the Second World War and the arrival of the Red Army brought conventual life almost completely to a standstill. The school and the museum were disbanded. The abbess fled, and only a few of the canonesses remained. But then the deaconesses of the "Friedenshort" charitable foundation took up residence in Heiligengrabe with the orphans in their care and ran several charitable and religious organisations on the site. Once again, happy children's voices echoed across the grounds.

Finally, after German unification, a great deal of building and renovation work was launched. Within just a few decades, the old monastic buildings had been restored to their ancient splendour.

Depiction 1 © Lorenz Kienzle
Depiction 2 © Klosterstift zum Heiligengrabe