The Cistercian Landscape of Herkenrode (Full Article)

The heritage site of Herkenrode is located in the city of Hasselt, Belgium (Fig 1). The history of the site goes back to 1182 when the foundations were laid for this former Cistercian abbey. Herkenrode has had a chequered history, with periods of impressive heights, but sadly also periods of demise and dereliction. In 2000 I studied, for a research project at the University of York, the ongoing conservation project at Herkenrode and compiled some documentation about the evolution of its wider landscape.  This study occurred at a time when focussed efforts to revive Herkenrode were gaining momentum. Since 2000 the site has experienced a transformation through a series of ambitious conservation and development projects.

Fig. 1: The abbey of Herkenrode in 2000 during ongoing conservation works (Haenraets, 2000).

The Cistercians had been forced to vacate Herkenrode by the end of the eighteenth century but new monastic residents arrived in 1972 when the Regular Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre moved into some of the surviving buildings. The remainder of the site fell though ever more into disrepair. However, since 2000 new conservation initiatives have encouraged the wider public to once again find their way to Herkenrode. Through investments in visitor facilities, the renovation of key heritage structures and buildings, and its landscape, the site has been made accessible to the wider public. One of the recently completed projects in the opening in 2011 of the new visitor centre and interpretative exhibition together with a refreshed website that takes Herkenrode proudly into the digital age. Another contemporary addition to the site are the ‘inspiration gardens’ or display gardens as part of the new herb garden, which opened a couple years back. Details of all these developments and the history of the site can be found on the new Herkenrode website.

In 2014 another series of major redevelopments occurred and the appearance of the site and its integrity have now changed dramatically and plenty subjective opinions exist about the impact of the redevelopment of the site. This article provides some documentation about the landscape of Herkenrode as a background against which the current redevelopment works can be interpreted, and general sources and information for whoever would like to know more about Herkenrode. While there is now already much documentation available on Herkenrode, I thought that it would still be of interest to share some of the fragments of the research texts that I compiled in 2000-01. The result is this brief overview of selected historical plans and drawings that give a glimpse of how the layered landscape of Herkenrode evolved over the centuries. To put this within a historic context a brief introduction is given into the Cistercians and their traditions in laying out their monastic landscapes.

The Cistercians

Robert, a Benedictine abbot moved in 1098 with a group of followers away from their abbey in Molesme (Zarnecki, 1975: 69). They were dissatisfied with the way the ideal of the Rule of St Benedict was abandoned by the Benedictine and Cluniac houses. In search of a more austere life and a stricter commitment to the Rule they chose the site of Cîteaux, in the rough and isolated forest and marshes south of Dijon in Burgundy, for a new monastic community. Under their third abbot, Englishman Stephen Harding (d. 1134), the ‘Charter of Charity’, the rule of the Cistercian order came into being (Aston, 2000: 83).

Their asceticism demanded that they would live as remotely as possible from power and wealth. Strict regulations dictated that their abbeys had to be built far from cities and villages. They shortened their time spent on liturgy in order to have more time to work on the estates and outlying land. Labour on the fields became again a part of the monk’s day. With their organisational skills they soon became the pioneers of an agrarian revolution throughout whole Europe. The abbeys soon became profitable which resulted in less discipline among the Cistercian monks. Under these wealthier circumstances the austere ideals and life in solitude became once again less strictly followed.

The order was very successful and by the end of the twelfth century they counted 530 houses, and a century later 742 (Zarnecki, 1975: 70). Herkenrode was officially accepted to the Cistercian order in 1217 and became the first Cistercian nunnery in the Netherlands.

The Cistercian landscape

The Rule of St Benedict required monasteries to be self-sufficient. Consequently the Cistercian abbeys were integrated in their surroundings and could almost be seen as an ecological dream where the monks succeeded in answering their own needs by working their own land (Leroux-Dhuys, 1998: 7). In the mean time the Cistercians were busy builders who left a huge architectural heritage and many marks on the landscape (Aston, 2000: 85). Herkenrode, a splendid example of this monastic tradition, is therefore a suitable case study within the context of more awareness for our historic surroundings.

Fig. 2: The standard layout of a Cistercian abbey can be seen in the plan of Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire (Robinson, 1998).

The architecture of Cistercian monasteries was sober but solid. Bernard of Clairvaux started with the first large Cistercian architectural project at Clairvaux II in 1135 (Leroux-Dhuys, 1999: 38). From that moment on the same standardised architectural concept has been applied to later abbeys (Fig. 2). The architectural layout for the main buildings was structured around a square ground plan for practical reasons, but as well for creating a stronger social connection within the abbey. Local circumstances sometimes caused variations to this concept but even the location of the abbey buildings at the chosen site was well defined. When picking a site for a new monastery they looked for an area near to a river as an unlimited supply of water was the key to a successful settlement.

The abbeys were built as near as possible to the river with constructed channels for a multitude of purposes such as sanitary drainage, mills and irrigation. The church was always orientated to the east with in general the main buildings on its south side (Impe, 1979: 163). Herkenrode was an exception with the principal buildings to the north side of the church. It is an example of how well the Cistercians interpreted and used the natural lay of the land.

The monastic garden

Fig. 3: The St Gall plan from about 820, with the different gardens pointed out (Aston, 2000).

Since the first available documents, such as the famous St Gall plan from about 820 (Horn, 1962: 126) some typical types of monastic gardens can be found (Haenraets, 1990: 40). A cloister garden, orchard with graveyard, vegetable garden and medicinal garden can be seen on the St Gall plan (Fig. 3). The layout of these gardens was very basic with rectangular plant beds and simple geometric paths. A garden for the abbot became also a common feature in monasteries and outside the enclosure walls there were more fields, orchards and fishponds. The Cistercians succeeded in keeping a balanced setting around their abbeys, which appeared as ‘…a public garden, where beauty, order and fruitfulness were apparent to all….’ (Meyvaert, 1886: 45).

Many documents will tell about plants in monastery gardens, including the St Gall plan or the ‘Capitulare de villis vel curtis imperii’ from about 794-812 (Haenraets, 1990: 31), which contains lists of plants and was prepared for Charlemagne, the holy Roman Emperor (Mann, 1981: 23). Many different styles will influence the monastic gardens. Herkenrode was for instance also influenced by French formal landscaping and later on by the English Landscape Style.

Herkenrode until its dissolution in 1796

The origins of Herkenrode go back to 1182 when Count Gerard of the earldom of Loon gave a lay brother named Henry some alluvial lands at Herkenrode in order to found a convent for Cistercian nuns (Impe, 1979: 157). The Counts of Loon had their residence at the nearby castle ‘Prinsenhof’ at Kuringen, located near Hasselt, and until then did not have an abbey under their influence. Once the decision was taken to found a new abbey, several monks started with the construction program. The first works involved the felling of trees, which were used for construction and drainage of fields (Maes, 1994: 13). The river valley was very wet, swamped and flooded frequently in wintertime. Therefore a new irrigation and drainage system was set up with a new bed for the Demer and a channel to feed the Tuilter mill. Channels, dykes, fishponds and roads were constructed while works advanced on the first buildings.

Count Gerard died in 1194 during the third crusade and was buried at Herkenrode. From then on the abbey had the privilege of being the official cemetery of the Counts of Loon (Boiten 1998, 16). The Sacrament of the Miracle increased its status as a place of pilgrimage since 1317 (Moons, 1971: 7). Gifts from the successive Counts, including the tithe rights from several nearby villages turned the abbey into one of the richest abbeys of the Netherlands, by far the richest nunnery. Their property consisted of a total of 3.108 hectares land (Boiten, 1998: 17).

Fig. 4: The map of Peter Meysman from 1669 is a view of the abbey from the west. The Demer, channels, fields, fishponds, orchards are beautifully illustrated as well as the formal garden east of the old abbess’ residence (Bussels, 1982).

Once settled the abbey steadily grew with frequent alterations to the architecture and landscape. Some remarkable maps from 1669-1685 by the surveyor Peter Meysman illustrate the abbey with the surrounding fields (Fig. 4). From the south an avenue leads to the gateway where you enter the abbey walls. Past the gatehouse in the west lies the impressive farmstead. The church with its cloister and dormitories is located in the centre. From the gatehouse another path leads past the horse stables and an avenue to the abbess’ residence (De Maegd and Van den Bossche, n.d.: 376). Situated to the east of the abbess’ residence is a large, geometric garden surrounded by a terrace walk and water ditch, which is connected with the Demer. The main stream of the Demer runs on the north side of the abbey, from where several irrigation channels depart as well as the channel to the abbey mill and the Tuilter mill. The colourful drawing also shows several orchards, fields and fishponds near the abbey.

Fig. 5: A drawing by Remacle Le Loup from about 1740 illustrates Herkenrode. The drawing is more accurate than the engraving (Vrienden van het Stedelijk Museum Stellingwerff-Waerdenhof, 1993).

Some drawings provide views of the abbey, including a letter from 1363 with an early illustration of the church and a procession of the nuns. A sketch drawing and an etching by Remacle Leloup from about 1740 shows a view of the abbey from up in the gatehouse (Fig. 5). The church, cloister and dormitories, which were demolished in the nineteenth century, are central in the view. The farmstead lays on the left and the abbess’ residence with the geometric garden to the right. The same landscaping features as on Meysman’s map are visible, including avenues, a cemetery and the parterres of the formal garden.

Fig. 6: Herkenrode on the Ferraris map from about 1771-75 (Ferraris, 1770s).

A mid eighteenth century survey of Herkenrode by Charles Le Comte was intended to solve a conflict between Herkenrode and the village of Kermt concerning some land (Maes, 2000: 26). It is very similar to Meysman’s earlier survey, which was possibly used as a template. In addition to these properties the abbey had more belongings further away and the tithe rights of several villages (Impe, 1982: 17). The Ferraris map from about 1771-75 contains a later but again comparable image of the abbey and its surrounding landscape (Fig. 6).

Fig. 7: A drawing by Denet in 1938 shows the remaining buildings of the abbey (black) and the ones that disappeared (orange) (Denet, 1938).

The French Revolution led to the dissolution of the monastery and on 13 December 1796 the nuns had to abandon their abbey (De Dijn, 1982: 26). The architectural drawings of Laurent-Benoît Dewez show what the abbey looked like shortly before the dissolution. Dewez was appointed by the abbess to design a new fashionable monastery. He also recorded the situation before the intended alternations, which resulted in an unfinished but accurate drawing of the buildings and canelization. He made a design for a ‘noble’ abbey, which would change the existing layout completely and leave little of the original Cistercian concept standing, even with a completely different orientation of the church. Only part of the design for a new classicist abbess’ residence was constructed. After the dissolution this residence was adapted into a chateau.

Herkenrode from its dissolution until 1998

The dissolution of the monastery resulted in a public auction at Maastricht on 19 February 1797 (De Dijn, 1982: 26), where the industrial families of Pierre de Liboton and Guillaume Claes acquired its ownership. The abbey was turned into an upper middle-class private mansion set in a beautiful landscape. The formal abbess’ garden was sacrificed for the English Landscape Style while other building received industrial uses after being stripped of their religious contents. The use of the site for agriculture, a spinning mill and gin distillery had disastrous effects and within short time a large part of the abbey buildings disappeared (Fig. 7). Unprofitable buildings were demolished or accidentally went up in flames (Impe, 1979: 223-224). By 1841, when Libotton died, Claes owned the estate by himself (Moons, 1982: 28).

Fig. 8: A map of 1923 shows the park in English Landscape Style. The Albert Canal has been constructed to the north and a new train route can be seen to the south. The river Demer still meanders through the landscape (Institut Cartographique Militaire, 1923).

Cadastral drawings and the first military survey maps illustrate the alterations from this period, including a new avenue to the chateau, the disappearing abbey buildings and the English Garden. On mid nineteenth century maps the impact of the railway, Albert Canal and road improvements becomes visible in the landscape (Fig. 8). To the north of Herkenrode the Albert Canal forms a new boundary since 1845-54. The improved road between Hasselt and Diest in the south is part of a historic route between Leuven and Maastricht. The railway from Hasselt to Diest dates from 1865 and follows this route (Maes, 1994: 5).

Fig. 9: An aerial photograph of the landscape in the 1990s. The motorway can be seen as cutting diagonally through the landscape and the river Demer has been straightened (Afdeling Natuur, nd.)

Due to twentieth century urban development the site became an island surrounded by traffic routes. The landscape became more and more fragmented until the pressure from the post Second World War period results in a new kind of isolation. A destructive impact came from the construction of the Boudewijn motorway from Liège to Antwerp in the 1960s, which does not follow the east-west axis of the Demer valley in the same way as the previous routes, but instead cuts diagonally through the valley (Fig. 9). The highway stole the last silence from the site as it passes only a couple hundred meters from the abbey buildings (Maes, 2000: 3), right next to the Tuilter mill and straight over the historic site of the Tuilter entrenchment.

Fig. 10: The straightened, man-made appearance of the river Demer (Haenraets, 2000).

An ancient route in the west linked the northern Kempen with southern Haspengouw. The river Demer is the divide between these two characteristic landscapes (Hofkens and Roosens, 2001: 23). The straightening of the river Demer and steeping its banks in the late 1970s was of such impact that even the provincial administration with astonishment protested that ‘…with the very best will in the world, I can not at all agree with these actions….’ (De Dijn, 1976). The works continued nevertheless and contributed to the ruining of the channel system and the mills (Fig. 9 and 10). Intensified modern agricultural methods added to the further devaluation of the landscape.

Fig. 11: The main abbey buildings in about 1975. The white building on the right is the former abbess’ residence and chateau. The Demer still runs near the abbey mill (d’Haenens, 1975).

An optimistic event in the evolution of Herkenrode is the presence of the Regular Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre since the autumn of 1972. Since then they have owned the former abbess’ residence, surrounding buildings and the Landscape Garden as a place for retirement and meditation. For this purpose buildings were renovated and added to the site after a well considered planning project with a large advisory group. The spiritual presence and achievements of their community, named ‘Huize Herkenrode’, was one of the few respectful and constructive initiatives that had occurred at Herkenrode in the decades prior to the year 2000.

Fig. 12: The boundaries of Herkenrode’s listed landscape (Militair Cartographish Instituut, 1971).

Some actions were taken as protective attempts. In 1904 the Belgian Government bought the gatehouse and restored it in 1907 (Impe, 1979: 226). By 1973 a second restoration was necessary with by now unacceptable techniques. On 5 December 1974 the abbey with about 280 hectares surrounding landscape was officially listed by Royal Decree as a monument and landscape (Fig. 12) (Impe, 1979: 226). This protection has had only limited effects on halting the ruining and even less on the hoped renaissance of Herkenrode. No useful purpose for the gatehouse was ever found and this listed building is now once again in a ruined and vandalised state with floors and staircases partly removed.

Fig 13. The abbey’s mill in state of dereliction in 2000, before restoration (Haenraets, 2000).

It must be said that even though many buildings were lost and in dereliction, and while impacts on the landscape itself has also been huge, the basic historical structure of the landscape surrounding the abbey buildings still retained much of its historical features in 2000. The main damage had happened on the boundaries of the landscape and it had been fragmented by the building of the new roads, motorway and canal. The water systems had also been damaged and adapted significantly. Nevertheless, it remains a landscape full of relics, which explains its designation as an ‘anchor place’ in the Flemish ‘Landschapsatlas’ (‘Landscape Atlas’) (Hofkens and Roosens, 2001).

A Renaissance for Herkenrode?

The historic evolution of the Herkenrode landscape showed those involved that action was urgently needed to rescue the site from further neglect and in doing so arrive at a socially viable contemporary project (De Dijn, 2001: 5). Several new initiatives started in the 1990s and on 12 May 1998 the Flemish Region acquired 105 hectares of land including the historic buildings that were previously owned by the Hermant family, but excluding the properties of the Canonesses (Stichting Vlaams Erfgoed, 1998: 1). A new project was established and two main partners were appointed to lead the conservation process. The Nature Division (‘Afdeling Natuur’) of the Ministry of Flanders became after 1998 responsible for the historic landscapes around the abbey site. The second partner in the project was the foundation ‘Erfgoed Vlaanderen’ (‘Heritage Flanders’), until 1 July 2001 known as ‘Stichting Vlaams Erfgoed’. They were responsible for the core site of the historic abbey buildings and adjacent grounds (excluding the properties of the Canonesses). The local charitable Herkenrode group, were given a mandate by Erfgoed Vlaanderen’ to lead on many of the the conservation and development projects at the core site.

Fig. 14: The entrance to Herkenrode in 2000 with the historic gatehouse (Haenraets, 2000).

As mentioned, more than a decade later the outcome is that Herkenrode has seen a transformation. For some impressions of these changes you can visit the Herkenrode website which is written in Dutch and includes various images and photo albums. For the real experience, and to judge for yourself what you make of the changes at Herkenrode, a site visit and a slow stroll around the site is of course still best. Try to explore the wider landscape and natural environment of Herkenrode, as in my opinion, that’s where still more integrity remains. For true fans of Flemish delicacies, a must is to taste the new Herkenrode abbey beer when at the site, and possibly served by the volunteers at Herkenrode. The involvement of volunteers at Herkenrode is one of the success stories.

New Adaptations 2014-15 – Loss of Integrity and Authenticity, and irreversibility? [Update 14 February 2014 & 2 August 2021]

During the Autumn and Winter of 2014-15 Herkenrode was entering a new phase of construction and redevelopment in the core area of the former abbey site (the area between the motorway and river Demer). My personal opinion is that these adaptations inflict irreversible damage to significant elements of the historical landscape, and diminish the historic integrity and authenticy of the place.

The approaches appear to contrast with international conservation principles as for instance in the Burra Charter of ICOMOS Australia. The Burra Charter recommends that “Conservation is based on a respect for the existing fabric, use, associations and meanings. It requires a cautious approach of changing as much as necessary but as little as possible” (Burra Charter, Art. 3.1), which feels here not adhered to. The adaptations to the landscape also create an impression of a type of conjectural approach. The Burra Charter and other international conservation guidelines argue agains conjecture: “Changes to a place should not distort the physical or other evidence it provides, nor be based on conjecture” (Burra Charter, Art. 3.2).

In my opinion, the adaptations resulted in an urbanisation of a significant cultural and rural landscape, located in the peri-urban fringe of Hasselt. Many peri-urban landscapes are at risk due to urbanisation, especially in Flanders. Herkenrode is a most significant historical landscape in Flanders. Various exemplary approaches in conservation were successful, however, in my personal opinion it also is an example of what can go wrong in the conservation and management of significant landscapes in Flanders.

Text and Photographs by Jan Haenraets

The text was loosely based  on a case study in the Masters dissertation by Jan Haenraets dissertation at the University of York, UK. The dissertation title is ‘Conservation, awareness and the historic landscape: The example of Herkenrode’ and can be found in the library of the  University of York, UK. Additional references are available in the dissertation, and further information may also be requested from Jan Haenraets via contact form.

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