The Splendour of Religious Ruins

Even in their state of decay, these religious buildings have lost none of their splendour, they have even inspired painters and poets, and still today teach us a lesson about the passage of time.


Glastonbury Abbey, England

Glastonbury Abbey is connected with legend to a degree that is unparalleled by any other abbey in England. Since Medieval times it has held legendary status as the earliest Christian foundation in Britain linked to Joseph of Arimathea, and the burial place of King Arthur. The internationally renowned site attracts visitors from around the world for its history, heritage, myths and legends as well as for its spiritual enrichment. There has been a church on the site for at least 1500 years, with evidence of even earlier occupation.

Glastonbury Abbey

Eldena's Monastery, Germany

The monastery of Eldena was founded around 1200 as a daughter house of the Danish monastery Esrom, and was supported by the prince of Rügen Jaromar. The oldest parts of the former monastery church date back to the beginning of the 13th century. The buildings were looted during the Thirty Years' War, after which, they fell into ruins and were used as a quarry. Their preservation only began in the 19th century.

Eldena's Monastery
Wikimedia Commons/Carole Raddato

Sardis Synagogue, Turkey

The Synagogue of Sardis was built in the late 3rd century under the rule of King Antiochus III. The ruins of the Synagogue of Sardis were discovered in 1962 during archaeological excavations conducted by the Harvard-Cornell Sardis Expedition.

Sardis Synagogue
Wikimedia Commons/JDesplats

Jumièges Abbey, France

The complex is currently in ruins, but remains part of the churches of Saint-Pierre and Notre-Dame. The abbey of Jumièges was founded in 652 by Saint Philibert. Following the Norman invasions in the 9th century, the Benedictine monks repopulated the abbey at the end of the 10th century, then William of Volpiano reformed the establishment. The abbey church of Notre-Dame was consecrated in 1067 and its choir was under construction in the 13th century. Saint-Pierre church combines pre-Romanesque (beginning of the nave) and Gothic (rest of the nave and choir).

Jumièges Abbey

Abbey of San Galgano, Italy

The Abbey of San Galgano is an ancient Cistercian abbey from the 13th century. The site includes the hermitage (called "Rotonda di Montesiepi") and the great abbey, today it is completely in ruins and has been reduced to only the walls. The prosperity of the monastery ceased at the end of the 14th century, when Italy was in a state of perpetual war, and warlords sacked the area. In 1577 a restoration of the setting began, but it did not prevent further degradation. In 1600, some sources claim that only one monk remained in the abbey, who had been reduced to becoming a hermit.

Abbey of San Galgano
Wikimedia Commons/Alexandru Baboş Albabos

St Catherine's Church, Sweden

Church ruins are numerous on the island of Gotland. After thriving as a trading post, the island declined in the late Middle Ages, and became prey to looting and disease. One of the most visited ruins is the church of St. Catherine, founded in 1233 by the Franciscan order and built until the 15th century. The church was never fully completed due to a lack of money. After the conquest of the island by troops from Lübeck in 1525, the church fell into ruins.

Wutsje / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Broerekerk, Netherlands

The Broerekerk was built in the 13th century as a monastery church of the Friars Minor. After iconoclasm, the church passed into the hands of reformists in 1578, after which the abandoned monastery buildings were demolished. It served as a reformed church until 1970. The church with three naves without a tower is in ruins following a fire in 1980. The building was given a glass roof in 2006 that was designed by architect Jelle de Jong.

Wikimedia Commons/Dolores Mª Macías Naranj

Aljama Mosque, Spain

The Aljama Mosque, built between 941 and 945, is part of the ruins of the Medina Azahara, an ancient city of the Caliphate of Cordoba (929-1031) classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The building is rectangular in shape and is about 25 metres long and 18 metres wide. Its plan reveals a division into two main parts, the prayer hall and the ablution yard. The minaret is square on the outside and octagonal on the inside. It is located next to the north gate at the entrance to the courtyard.

Aljama Mosque
Wikimedia Commons/EW wikitestaccountlogin

Athassel Priory, Ireland

The Priory of Athassel, founded at the end of the 12th century, is a former Cistercian monastery. In 1319 and 1329, Irish troops destroyed the monastery because the Anglo-Norman family of Burgo supported the monks. Later rebuilt, the monastery was destroyed again in 1447, causing it to decline because apparently the roof of the church had not been rebuilt.

Athassel Priory

St Andrews Cathedral, Scotland

St Andrews Cathedral was built around 1158 in the Norman style and is the largest church to have been built in Scotland. Towards the end of the 16th century, the central tower collapsed, taking the north wall with it. Much of the ruins were then removed for re-use in construction and nothing was done to preserve them until 1826, after which the cathedral was scrupulously maintained.

St Andrews Cathedral
Wikimedia Commons/BK59

Carmo Convent, Portugal

Convento do Carmo de Lisboa is a former convent of the Carmelite order of the Ancient Observance. The convent was founded in 1389 by Nuno Álvares Pereira (1360–1431), constable of Portugal at the time. Its current state of ruin bears witness to the 1755 earthquake that destroyed most of Lisbon.

Carmo Convent
Wikimedia Commons/Monica35890

Great Synagogue of Constanta, Romania

The Great Synagogue at Constanța was built in the 1910s in the Moorish style. During the inter-war period, there were two large synagogues in the city: the Sephardic-Romaniote Synagogue (built in 1908 in the Catalan Gothic style) and the Great Synagogue which is Ashkenazi. The Sephardic-Romaniote synagogue was damaged in the 1977 earthquake and was later demolished under Ceausescu's regime (1974-1989).

Great Synagogue
Wikimedia Commons/Saffron Blaze

Tintern Abbey, Wales

Tintern Abbey was founded in 1131 and was the second foundation of the Cistercian Order in Britain in the Middle Ages (after Waverley), and the first in Wales. The abbey was popular among pilgrims because the abbey church contained a statue of the Virgin Mary that people believed performed miracles. In 1536 Tintern Abbey was closed and the site was attributed to Henry Somerset, Earl of Worcester, who used the buildings (except for the Abbey Church) for a variety of purposes such as housing, crafts and even as a stone quarry. The abbey is now in ruins.

Tintern Abbey

Villers Abbey, Belgium

Villers Abbey was founded in 1146 by Bernard de Clairvaux and was one of the first "daughters" of the Abbey of Clairvaux. After a period of decline from the 14th to the 17th century, the abbey experienced a second golden age in the 18th century when some of its buildings were refurbished in the neoclassical style (facades of the church and the convent building). Sacked by the French Revolution and then confiscated by it as national property, its monks were then expelled and its estate sold in lots.

Villers Abbey
Wikimedia Commons/Puffancs

Premontre Church, Hungary

The monastery and church of Zsámbék Premontre were built between 1220 and 1234 in late Romanesque and early Gothic style. The architectural ensemble was destroyed by the great Komárno earthquake in 1763 and has not been rebuilt since, leaving the monument in ruins.

Premontre church