St. Bernhard of Clairvaux and the old Church of Essenbaek. (Denmark)

St.Bernhard of Clairvaux's vita in 12 pictures at the reconstructed triptych of the church.

(The home-site of "Øm kloster" (Monastery of Oem) gives  informations about Cistercians and St. Bernhard + relevant links)


 | The old Church | The Triptych | St. Bernhard | St. Lawrence | St Benedict and St.Bernhard |

Model of the old Church from the Middleages 


The new Church of 

The old Cemetery

In the middle of the village Assentoft we find the old cemetery encircled by its stone wall and the grandiose entrance portal.

Today only a single gravestone is left half coverede by trees and shrub, but until 1867 it was a normal chuchyard with planting and graves in long lines.

 The old Church was here as well - in the northwestern corner. A Romanesque church made by stone ashlars - with later enlarged with tower and porch. The model shows the exterior of the church as it looked in 1865, when it was decided to demolish the church owing to "dilapidation".and to replace it with the new church in the southern part of the village.

Equipment and Triptych.

Even the triptych was scattered - sold to antique dealers or destructed. Over the years   four of the figures returned "home" and are now kept at the local Museum at Randers: Christ, the Holy Virgin, the apostles St. Peter and St. James. 

By computer- and phototechnique we placed the figures at their place  on the model. The rest of the apostles were copied from the triptychon in the neighbouring church at Vester Allling.  


The two models - respectively the old Church and its Triptychon - are now placed at the porch of the new Church, where they can be seen.

But it is only half the triptychon. "Wings" were placed on both sides, which connected with the back of the triptych (when closed) made two planes around the centre line.

To the left the Holy Bernhard are depicted in 12 motives. To the right - likewise in 12 motives - the life of the Holy Lawrence.


The motives are reconstructed on the basis of the careful descriptions made by the art historian Høyen, when he visited the church before the destruction. .

The Baptismal Font.  

At the destruction there was a "modern" baptismal font in the church in baroque style made from wood. The original font was found in the garden of the estate "Gl. Estrup" nearby and was brought back to the new church. It is a granite font  richly ornamented: Lions, Lamb with cross-staff,  Løver, korslam, heads "on stakes" and a bird. The heads on stages have been interpreted as motives of crucifixion, which is suppor- ted by the bird-motive. It can be the pelican piercing her breast to feed her young with her blood - a symbol of Christ shedding his blood on the cross.



The cemetery as it looks today.

(At the picture the model of the old Church has been placed fairly at the original place. To the right one of the drawings that made it possible to build a model in the proper scale)




As mentioned above the four figures at the museum in Randers are all left from the original triptychon of the old Church. The remaining parts we only know from the descriptions of professor Høyen made at a visit in 1830.

Alas no drawings at all - only descriptions in words - but fortunately rather satisfactory - which made it possible to give an informed guess concerning the outlook of the triptychon. 

To the left: Extrtact from the notebook of Høyen with a sketch of the triptychon

The Triptych:

The nucleus of the triptychon: The:central part  + 2 "doors", which can overlap the central part.. The original figures Christ,  the holy Virgin and the two apostles St. Peder and St. James. The other apostles and the triptychon reproduced after the triptychon from the neighbouring church of Vester Alling.

The alterpiece from the Church of St. Mary in Ystad as a key for interpretation.

The working out of the Essenbæk-triptych is traditional for its time about 1400. The center area with Christ and the holy Mother of God is traditional - as well - a forerunner for the later motive "The Coronation of our Lady", -

but there is unbelievable unused space i the middle area, as if a third figure was missing. A comparison with the partly preserved alterpiece from the Church of our Lady in Ystad, Sweden, (Left)  can be helpful for a educated guess at what has been placed at the empty place.

Below I compare the Essenbæk-triptych with a number of statements from the article "Veni de Libano, veni coronaberis", Bildprogrammen i de äldsta skånska altarskåpen. From the book: Billeder i Middelalderen -kalkmalerier og altertavler - Odense Universitetsforlag - 1999.

If we take a look at the altarpiece of the holy Virgin at Ystad, it is clear that our reconstruction of the altarpiece of Essenbæk is incorrect. We have placed Christ and the Virgin in a wrong mutual position. They are not sitting close to each other, but on either side of the square with an open space between (the blue-painted area at he altarpiece of Ystad). Something has been placed here, but the altarpiece does not directly tell ,what it has been. An inscription at the altar however has been interpreted as v(erum): corp(us) = "The true body (of Christ)"- consequently the consecrated bread, the host. Add to this the scratches in the surface and not least the gap in the border list, which indicates that something has been placed in the area. "It is difficult to say something conclusive about the kind of device it has been about ..but we have to think about a little platform or something like that ... on this imaginary platform may have been placed a baldachin with trapdoors and lattice works - as a ciborium altar in miniature." (Ciborium = vessel to keep the consecrated bread. )

The quotation from the book in Christ’s left hand comes from the Song of Songs: "Come from Lebanon and you are going to be crowned" (Vulgata) - gives us the key to the interpretation of the context. In the first place it is about the coronation of the holy Virgin Maria, - but the total theological complex of ideas, which (on the background of the figurative language of the Song of Songs) understands Mary as the bride of Christ and at the same time identify her with the Church, provides the background. "Everything happening in the Church has the holy Virgin as its model, she and the Church are indissolubly connected and united. The holy Virgin is the mother of all Christians - like the Church, - Mary and the Church form a mystical unity."

The coherence in the picture-programme of the altarpiece is as follows: The risen and ascended Christ is blessing the whole mankind, while Mary, the Church, Christ’s bride raises her hands worshipping the consecrated bread - the form in which Christ is coming to his congregation in the liturgy. On the wings are the apostles, who brought the Gospel to the uttermost ends of the world. Below Christ, Mary and the apostles four Church-fathers are sitting, symbolizing the Church on earth, interpreting the Gospel, keeping up tradition in the Church until Christ’s second coming calling for his bride, the Church. The four Church-fathers are not to be found at the Essenbæk-triptych. They have been substitute with St. Laurence and St. Bernard of Clairvaux at the wings of the altarpiece. Not least St. Berard has played a great and decisive role for the interpretation of the Song of Songs as an image of the coherence between Christ and Mary as the bride of Christ in the shape of the Church.

" The whole triptych becomes an image of The heavenly Church and the Church on earth - and the administration of the Word by the apostles and the Church-fathers."

 The "Vitae" on the wings and the backs of the two doors:

Left:  Life of the holy Bernhard in 12 pictures.
Right: Martyrdom of the holy Lawrence - likewise in 12 pictures.

1.(Bernhard/ Benedict) 2.His mother's dream 3.Interpretation of the dream 4.Ttemptation of Bernhard  1.Sixtus is interrogated 2.Sixtus is executed 3.Birth of  Laurentiusl 4.Baptism of St.Laurentius
5.Christmas vigilie 6.Bernhard is preach 7.Received in the monastery 8.Bernhard with crosier 5.St..Laurentius and the poor 6.He preaches from  prison 7.He is flogged 8.Boiling oil
9 Exorcising the Devil 10.administering the sacrament 11.Blessing a woman 12.St.Bernhard dies 13. Hippolyt is dragged to death 10.St.Laurentius before the emperor 11.He is slowly grilled 12.He is placed in the coffin 


St. Laurentius.  (St. Lawrence)

Legend tells that he as a young deacon by the pope Sixtus II (martyred 258) was appointed treasurer for the congregation in Rome. The same year laurentius was martyred, when the emperor claimed the treasure of the congregation handede over. Lrentius brought a crowd of poor and sick people to the emperor. and explained that they were the eternal wealth of the cchurch. He is tortured and at last he suffers a terrible death being slowly grilled. Two of his warders, Hippolyt and Romanus, were convinced by St. Lawrence's faith and courage. They were executed as well..

I have found the motives described by Høyen as wall-paintings in Dansih churches. Pastor Viggo Jensen has reproduced hem in line-drawings. The wall-paintings can be found in two churches: Skamstrup and Over Draaby. (See: The "Kalkmaleriregistranten" )

Høyen's notes are now and then illegible and at times so short that it is difficult to decide which motive he is describing.  It seems as if 5 pictures have delt with the martyrdom of Sixtus. I have only found two; the remaining three I have substituted by other typical motives from the picture-cycle in Skamstrup, the birth and baptism of Larentius (nr. 3 and 4) and later with the scene of the "boiling oil" (nr. 8) . The notes indicates, that it is the execution of Romanos, which has been at the triptuchon. We have found no usable source to that motiv and have substituted it with the martyrdom of Hippolyt (nr. 9). The motive with the coffin is substituted by a corresponding picture of St. Nicolaus. The rest is according to Høyen's informations - and the reconstruction of the triptych answers to the original one -  even though some details are not authentic.

The Holy Bernhard.

His life is described in "Vita Prima" - Bernhard's Legend, which is the source of "Legenda Aurea", which next is  the model of the pictures, which  Høyen describes at the triptychon in Essenbaek.  

Bernhard's mother, Aleth,  had a "profetic" dream, when she was pregnant with him: She was going to give birth to a puppy, which barked loudly.(picture nr. 2). Of course she got frightened and told about her dream to a holy man, who comforted her: She was going to be the mother of a real guard-dog for God's church, going to bark loudly and and for a long time against the excesses of the church. "He is going to be a famous preacher and will cure many souls by the healing power of his tongue" (Picture nr. 3). About motiv nr. 4 Høyen states: "The matron  in confinement". But there is not any picture from the birth of Bernhard, but numerous of his "temptation" and it is without doubt the situation with the naked tempter in the bed, Høyen has misunderstood. Høyen mentions a motiv: "She entrusts her son to a schoolmaster". It has not been possible to identify this motiv - and I succumbed to the temptation and replaced it picture nr. 1 (St. Bernhard and St. Benedict) in order to hint at the riddle, which is connected with the triptych.

Picture nr. 1 does not belong to the context. It is not mentioned in the notes of Høyen, but is found in the old Church of Skive (DK). It shows St. Benedict (with crucifix) and St. Bernhard (with monstrance). It is very likely, that the triptych in originally has been placed in the Essenbaek monastery only about 1 km. away and owner of the old Church in Essenbaek before the Reformation. But Essenbaek was a Benedictine monastery - and why should a triptych with the vita of St. Bernhard be placed in a Benedictine monastery - and not in one of the many Cisterciansian monasteries in Denmark: Esrom, Løgumkloster and Vitskøl?

St. Bernhard is a rare  bird in Danish iconography. We have mentioned the old Church of  Skive. Moreover the chapel of the holy Birgitta at the cathedral of Roskilde, where the motive is the same as on the original alterpiece at Esrom. Finally at Løgumkloster we find a picture of St. Bernhard standing opposite St. Benedict as in Skive.

For that reason I very badly needed help to get an impression of the Bernhard-half of the triptych. I got in contact with the wellknown expert on Cistercian iconography James France from Oxford. He visited me at Essenbaek and took on the job to find pictures, which on the whole fitted the description of Høyen.
They could not be found in a single place, as the Essenbaek-triptych seems to be unique. The illustrations were found in a manuscript from Cisterciansian monastery in Bebenhausen, from the altarpiece of the cathedral of Palma de Mallorca and from the monasteries Altenberg in Germany and Zwettl in Austria. 


James France: The Cistercians in Medieval Art. (Sutton Publishing UK - 1998).
Arno Paffrath: Bernhard von Clairvaux - Leben und Wirken - dargestellt in den Bilderzyklen von Altenberg bis Zwettl (Bergisch Gladbach - 1984). 

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