From Cloister to Kunsthaus – Location, History, Life

Our idea of the monastic life has been shaped by novels and films such as The Name of the Rose. It is kept going by culturally determined caricatures of an impure life behind the convent walls, secret machinations, abuse of power, grandiosity – attributions that paved the way for secular modernity with the rise of the Enlightenment in the seventeenth century.

Some today may see the monastic life as a kind of prison – the still widely held idea of the convent as an ‘institution for the sustenance of unmarried women’ conforms with this somewhat pitying attitude towards the cloistered life. Others – for whom the word ‘convent’ evokes the varied activities of Hildegard von Bingen – tend to see this way of life as a spiritual alternative to the fragmentation of our time.

The brilliant reconstruction of the Gravenhorst complex attracts interest not only as an atmospheric exhibition forum for contemporary art; it also awakens a desire to know more about the history of the place, whose architectural form seems to echo far-off times. The ostensible unity of the monument should not deceive us of the fact that we have to do here with a time span of over 750 years, in which the convent was destroyed, rebuilt and converted several times. The communal religious life of the Cistercian nuns encompassed 555 of these years.

Kloster Gravenhorst was founded in 1256 by Konrad von Brochterbeck and his wife Amalgardis von Budde. Ten to fourteen women from the minor aristocracy of the dioceses of Münster and Osnabrück lived here in community until the convent was closed down.

The foundation took place at a time of general religious upheaval, and was irreversibly dissolved in 1811 with the French takeover of power in Westphalia on the way to a secular modern society. In between there were times when the sisters repeatedly had to fight for their way of life: they were affected by military conflict, pillaging and destruction; they had to re-found their communal religious way of life in the light of changing social values; ultimately both the ecclesiastical and sovereign authorities attempted to instrumentalise Gravenhorst in their own power struggles. Every era brought about its own form of monastic life and communication with God and the world. From the mid-eighteenth century onward the nuns ran a school for both Catholic and Protestant girls. Following the dissolution finally decreed in 1808 the sisters were permitted to remain in Gravenhorst until 1811, but then they were compelled to leave the convent for ever.

With the end of the monastic era Gravenhorst entered its industrial age: the abbess and convent of the ‘noble house of God’ – as it was still called in the early nineteenth century – signed a contract with Schmölder, Weßelinck and Co. in 1804 regarding the establishment of an iron-smelting works. This farsighted step inscribed the convent into the history of the coal-and-steel industry, for munitions, stoves and a variety of domestic and agricultural equipment and tools were produced in two ovens at the Gravenhorst smelting works and foundry from 1806 onwards. While iron was smelted to produced waffle irons, two ‘mechanici’, Egells and Uhtoff, founded their ‘establishment’ for the construction of a steam engine in another part of the convent. Although their entrepreneurial and technical ambition had to take several knocks, the two partners gathered important experience for successful engineering companies in Berlin and Bremen.

As a result of frequent changes of ownership in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the monastic complex was renamed Gravenhorst Manor before becoming the property of the municipality in 1932. The building was used during the time of National Socialism for forced labourers and as a store of emergency goods. During the bombing raids of the Second World War people Münster and the vulnerable Ruhr area found a new, apparently secure home and space to store furniture here. However, because of its location on the junction of two canals, Gravenhorst played a particularly important role in the war plans of the Allies: the junction was destroyed in order to cut transport routes to the Ruhr area.

Immediately after the war the British military authorities granted the miller Ludwig Müller permission to rebuild the convent mill in order to supply the population with flour and building material. Müller also purchased the former convent together with the Mayer family during the 1950s. The Mayers began to cultivate mushrooms, and thus contributed to a refinement of German cuisine on the way to the consumer society of the Federal Republic. Gravenhorst also stands for a time-specific trend in its transformation into a historical monument – for a need for places rooted in history in our fast-moving, confusing word. The complex was bought in 1986 by the Trägerverein Kloster Gravenhorst, who leased it to the municipality of Steinfurt in 1999. The municipality undertook the historical reconstruction of the site and its transformation into an art institution. As DA, Kunsthaus Kloster Gravenhorst, it has been attracting attention as a centre for art since 2004. Here contemporary art can be seen, discussed and created. Exhibitions, workshops, project grants and open art projects are a standing invitation to children, young people and adults to contribute, participate and be inspired. Parties, concerts, readings and theatre performances are a chance to experience culture at the DA.

Kloster Gravenhorst: the DA used to be a Cistercian convent.
The name Kloster Gravenhorst recalls an almost 600-year history of female religious community in the present-day municipality of Steinfurt. Founded in 1256 by Konrad von Brochterbeck and his wife Amalgardis von Budde, the beginnings of the convent lie in a time in which women were seeking religious fulfilment throughout the Western Christian world.

The ten to fourteen women from the minor aristocracy who lived here together with lay sisters and secular servants prayed as it were professionally for their founders and patrons. Their life was characterised by a strict daily routine of prayer, reading the Holy Scriptures, contemplation and remembrance.
The monastic complex not only conveys an image of the convent as a place of spirituality but also very much as an economic unit. It lies in the middle of woods and meadows, which brought in rent – both cash and natural produce; the stream provided fresh water, drove a mill and served the fish pond.
This was important for the diet of the sisters, who as Cistercians were forbidden to eat meat. Bread and beer from the bakery and brewery rounded off the menu. The complex also included stables and a smithy. Despite agricultural crises, the plague, confessional and military turmoil, the Gravenhorst sisters held on to their way of life until the politically forced dissolution of the convent according to the Principal Decree of Imperial Deputation of 1803.

Through petitions to the Prussian king they hoped – in vain – to suspend the dissolution. Their activities between heaven and earth, between spirituality and pragmatism, still characterise the place today, and so the secular use of the convent as quarry, sugar-beet factory, steam-engine workshop, hunting lodge, forced-labour and POW camp, home for refugees and expellees, remained strangely provisional. Only in our time has the DA, Kunsthaus Kloster Gravenhorst returned to the spiritual roots of its location. For both art and religion extend our perception, our consciousness and our ideas of the world and truth.