Scots Monastery, Regensburg

Scots Monastery, Regensburg

The Benedictine abbey of St James ("Jakobskirche") in Regensburg, Germany, was founded by Hiberno-Scottish missionaries and for most of its history was in the hands of first Irish, then Scottish monks. Hence it is known as the Scots Monastery, in German "Schottenkirche", "Schottenkloster" or "Schottenstift". (In Middle Latin, "Scotti" meant Gaels from Scotland or Ireland, so that the term "Schottenstift" already dates from the Irish period.) The full official name of the actual church, the most prominent building within the abbey complex, is "Die irische Benediktinerklosterkirche St. Jakob und St. Gertrud" (literally: "The Irish Benedictine Abbey Church of St. James and St. Gertrude"). [R. Strobel, "St. Jakob zu Regensburg. Architektur und Geschichte," in Paulus, "Romanik", p. 147.]


The abbey was originally to the south of the city walls around the year 1070, but this proved to be too small to accommodate the influx of Irish monks. A new site outside of the western city gate was purchased, and construction of a new abbey began around 1100. [Strobel, "Schottenkirche", pp. 2-4.] Around 1300 the city walls were extended and St. James became a part of the fortified city. [Gaisberg, "Schottenportal", p. 14.] The new western gate became known as the "Jakobstor".

The abbey complex consisted of a number of buildings. The two most significant structures, the church and the cloister, both survive. The cloister is however significantly altered, having been destroyed by fires in 1278 and 1546, and rebuilt between 1866 and 1872. [Strobel, "Schottenkirche", pp. 7-8.] The entire complex was originally surrounded by a wall, which separated a cemetery to the north of the church from the street that led westwards out of the city. [Gaisberg, "Schottenportal", p. 14.]


The first abbey church was built at the beginning of the 11th century. It was a three-aisled basilica with three apses. The only portion of this building to survive in full is its eastern end (the apses and the two flanking towers). Traces of the western wall have also been discovered, which indicate that the building was much shorter than the present structure, although of the same width. [Strobel, "Schottenkirche", pp. 10-11.]

A new church, the structure which has substantially survived up to the present day, was constructed at some point between 1175 and 1180. [Gaisberg, "Schottenportal", p. 15.] It is a very fine example of Romanesque architecture: a three-aisled basilica with three apses, towers at the east, and a transept at the west. A gallery, in which an organ has since been installed, extends over all three aisles in the transept.

The nave is separated from the aisles by cylindrical masonry pillars (not monolithic columns), whose capitals are fine works of high Romanesque sculpture. Their arrangement indicates forethought, as capitals with botanical decoration alternate with those with figural decoration. The figures include wild men, lions, eagles, and crocodiles, and may have Christological significance. The corners of the pillar bases are decorated with the heads of less noble beasts, including pigs, dogs, donkeys, and vultures. [Strobel, "Schottenkirche," pp. 14-15; idem, "St. Jakob zu Regensburg," 148.]

Under the triumphal arch at the entrace to the central apse stand three wooden sculptures of the late twelfth century, which together form a crucifixion scene. They originally stood on the altar, but were repainted in 1874 and set in their present position in 1893. The apse itself was decorated between 1866 and 1872 by Bavarian and Austrian artists in a Romanesque revival style.


The most famous architectural element of the church is its north portal (the "Schottenportal"), which occupies a full third of the north wall, and is richly decorated with both ornamental and figural sculptures. The proper interpretation of this sculptural program has been debated since the beginning of the 19th century. [Strobel,"Schottenkirche", 19.] In the 1990s it was suggested that only the tympanum, archivolt, and jambs formed an original composition of the 12th century, while the remaining portions of the "Schottenportal" were assembled from spolia during the Renaissance. [Volkmar Greiselmayer, "Anmerkungen zum Nordportal der Schottenkirche St. Jakob in Regensburg," in Paulus, "Romanik", pp. 154-67.] While this theory would have absolved art historians of the duty of interpreting the program as a unified whole, it has not met with wide acceptance. Indeed, a thorough examination of the structure seems to have demonstrated conclusively that the entire portal was assembled in the late 12th century, simultaneously with the construction of the second church. [Gaisberg, "Schottenportal", "passim".]

The portal is divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically. At the lowest level, the door is framed at the center by richly decorated jambs, at each side of which stands a flat field interspersed with various relief sculptures. The second level is occupied by the tympanum and archivolt at the center and by blind arcades with caryatids at right and left. At the top, a frieze showing Christ with the twelve apostles stands at the middle, while figureless blind arcades stand at either side.

The interpretation of the tympanum is relatively uncontroversial: it portrays Christ, at the center, flanked by Sts. James and John. Numerous explanations for the remaining figures have been proposed; here only that of Richard Strobel has been presented. [See R. Strobel, "Das Nordportal der Schottenkirche St. Jakob in Regensburg," "Zeitschrift des Deutschen Vereins für Kunstwissenschaft" 18 (1964), 1-24, for a review of previous theories and for a full statement of the reading given here. Strobel's account is briefly restated in idem, "Schottenkirche", 19-24.]

There are various indications that the left side, as one faces the portal, is more highly regarded than the left. Its entablature carries a rich interlace, while that at right is undecorated; the arcade in the middle zone is filled by a row of human heads, while that at right is filled with those of animals. The central sculpture in the lowest zone at left, which is set on a throne and projects significantly from the ground, clearly represents Mary with the Christ child; the former, as the "new Eve," holds an apple, while the latter holds the book of life. The reliefs at either side show human figures caressing each other, that is, in attitudes of harmony. The corresponding central figure on the lowest zone at right, on the other hand, is bracketed by aggressive, hostile beasts; this may represent the Antichrist.

However, if the central figures at left and right are understood to stand for good and evil, respectively, the reliefs beneath them seem to represent a reversal of the situation. At left, a dragon is shown swallowing a lion, while at the lowermost level a siren appears, a symbol of temptation. At right, a crocodile is shown swalling a hydrus, wrapped in a ball of clay. According to a medieval legend, the hydrus, once inside, would destroy the crocodile from within; the story was understood to represent the Harrowing of Hell. [See further online the [ Medieval bestiary] .] At the lowermost level monks are depicted with gospel books in hand, thus pilgrims and missionaries. Therefore, if the central figures at left are auspicious, while those at right carry negative connotations, the exact opposite situation prevails at the lowest levels.

The general preference for the left side, however, is resumed at the middle level. Here the figures at right appear to represent vices. For example, the second caryatid from the right is a woman holding snakes to her breast; she may represent Luxuria (unchastity). The caryatids at left, on the other hand, appear to represent virtues. For example, the second figure from the left is a man wearing a plaited belt; he may represent Fortitudo (bravery).

The uppermost register, in which Christ appears flanked by the twelve apostles, is most likely a representation of the Last Judgment.

It remains only to describe the jambs, which are decorated with a striking array of ornament, and at top and bottom with a variety of kneeling figures. The identities of some of these figures may be ascertained through their attributes. For example, the foremost figure at the lower right holds a t-shaped staff, which accessory was commonly associated with hermits and monks. The central figure at the upper right plays a bowed instrument, while the innermost figure at the upper left holds a vessel on which animal pelts are draped. These figures may refer to the history of the monastery itself: the monk with his staff to its origin among the hermits of Ireland; the musician to their position within the courtly society of Regensburg; and the fur-trader to their involvement with mercantile expeditions to Kiev.

As the portal reliefs have suffered from exposure to the elements, it was decided to enclose them within a glass vestibule. The work began in 1999, and was completed in 2000. [Strobel, "Schottenkirche", 24; Gaisberg, "Schottenportal", 22.]


Irish period

The monastery was founded in the 12th century by "Scotti", that is, Gaels. (See Hiberno-Scottish mission.) Since at this period the term "Scotti" did not distinguish between the two parts of Gaeldom, it is possible that some of the "Scots" monks did come from what is now Scotland, but the bulk of them were certainly Irish. Regensburg was an important centre for the Irish mission to central Europe, and the Scots monastery in Vienna was a daughter establishment of St. Jakob. (See Celtic Christianity). The monks had a strong relationship with the famous school in Cashel.

Honorius Augustodunensis (died c. 1151), a highly influential medieval theologian, spent the last years of his life in the monastery. It is also possible that the 12th-century Middle High German "Kaiserchronik" was written here, though this is disputed.

The foundation of the monastery is described, for example, by Konrad von Megenberg in chapter six of his "De limitibus parochiarum civitatis Ratisbonensis."

cottish period

A papal bull of 1577 transferred the monastery from Irish hands to abbots from Scotland. The Scottish monks were predominantly from lowland Scotland, and thus were not Gaels. The effect of the bull was therefore a complete break in the continuity of the abbey's tradition. In part it may have been motivated by the fact that the word "Scotti" had by this time come to mean 'Scots' in the modern sense, allowing the new abbots to claim that the Irish possession had always been illegitimate. It was also partly because the Irish community in Regensburg was in any case in terminal decline: the last Irish abbot had just died leaving a single monk and one novice. But the main reason was probably that the Scottish Reformation of 1560 had made a Scottish Catholic haven in continental Europe appear strategically desirable.

The first Scottish abbot was Ninian Winzet (pronounced IPA|/wnjt/: see yogh), the controversial critic of John Knox, who had been charged by Mary, Queen of Scots with the task of providing priests for Scotland. However it was not until the early 17th century that the abbey was able to send missionaries to Scotland. From 1623 this was done in co-operation with English Benedictines at Douai, in France.

Under the leadership of abbot Charles Arbuthnot (1775-1820) the Scots Monastery was uniquely successful in avoiding the secularisation of religious houses of the Napoleonic period, although after the death of Arbuthnot it was demoted to a priory. The Scots presence ended in 1862, when the government of Bavaria bought the monastery for use as a seminary.

cottish abbots 1560-1820

(incomplete list)
* c.1560-1592 Ninian Winzet
* 1608 John VII
* 1692 Placidus Flemming
* 1742 Bernard Stuart
* 1775-1820 Charles Arbuthnot

cottish priors 1820-1860

(incomplete list)
* to 1862 Anselm Robertson

Current use

In 1862 the abbey was reopened as a seminary (training college) for priests, belonging to the local German diocese of the Catholic Church.


The medieval library built up by the Irish monks included many manuscript treasures. It is possible that it also contained parts of the library of the Viennese abbey. When the two last Scots monks finally left Regensburg in 1862, Anselm Robertson of Fochabers, the last prior, transported many of the greatest treasures to the Benedictine Abbey at Fort Augustus, which closed in 1998, when the Regensburg books and manuscripts were transferred to the National Library of Scotland and the [ Scottish Catholic Archives] in Edinburgh.

Pride of place goes to a volume of texts written in 1080 by the Irish Benedictine monk Marianus, the founder of the community at Regensburg. This contains, in Marianus's hand, the earliest written Gaelic words to be found in any work in Scotland. There is also a translation of a Latin text into Scots, made in 1596 by Fr James Dalrymple and seen as of great importance as a Scots language text.



* Lore Conrad: "Die Bildsymbolsprache der romanischen Schottenkirche in Regensburg." 6th edition. Regensburg 1993, ISBN 3-9800355-5-7
* Helmut Flachenecker: "Schottenklöster. Irische Benediktinerkonvente im hochmittelalterlichen Deutschland." Paderborn, 1995, ISBN 3-506-73268-4
* Elgin von Gaisberg: "Das Schottenportal in Regensburg. Bauforschung und Baugeschichte." Regensburg 2005, ISBN 3-937527-07-9
* Paul Mai, ed.: "Scoti peregrini in St. Jakob." Regensburg, 2005, ISBN 3-7954-1775-9
* Helmut-Eberhard Paulus "et al"., eds.: "Romanik in Regensburg. Kunst, Geschichte, Denkmalpflege." Regensburg 1996, ISBN 3-7954-1095-9
* Alasdair Roberts: "Regensburg and the Scots", Aberdeen 2005.
* Mona Stocker: "Die Schottenkirche St. Jakob in Regensburg: Skulptur und stilistisches Umfeld." Regensburg 2001, ISBN 3-930480-56-5
* Richard Strobel: "Schottenkirche St. Jakob, Regensburg" (=Schnell Kunstführer Nr. 691). 18th edition, Regensburg 2006, ISBN 3-7954-4437-3
* Richard Strobel and Markus Weis: "Romanik in Altbayern." Zodiaque-Echter, Würzburg 1994, ISBN 3-429-01616-9

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