Casual visitors to the village of Rijnsburg in the ‘Dune and Bulb district’ near the Dutch coast would probably not be aware of the huge tomb slabs of two abbesses of the former abbey of Rijnsburg, which lie hidden beneath the wooden floor in the centre of the church. One of these is the renaissance-style monument to Abbess Maria Schenck van Toutenburg (or Tautenburg), who died in 1552.
Little survives of the prestigious abbey of Rijnsburg, which was founded in 1133 as a Benedictine nunnery by Petronilla of Lorraine (or Petronilla of Saxony, d. 1144). Widow of Floris II, Count of Holland, Petronilla had become regent of Holland during the minority of her son Dirk VI after her husband’s early death in 1121. Henceforth Rijnsburg Abbey would enjoy the protection of the countesses of Holland and become the richest and most important nunnery in the county: several of Petronilla’s descendants became abbess there. Whereas Floris was buried in the Benedictine abbey of Egmond, founded in the early 10th century, Petronilla would choose Rijnsburg as her last resting place, and many other members of the family were buried there, notably counts Dirk VI (d. 1157), Willem I (d. 1222) and his son Floris IV (d. 1234), and the murdered Floris V (d. 1296) and his young son Jan I (d. 1299).
The later abbess Maria was born around 1510 to Georg Schenck von Tautenburg (c.1480-1540) and his first wife Anna de Vos van Steenwijk (d. 1526). Georg was a German nobleman from Thuringia who in 1521 became stadhouder of Friesland and later also of the provinces of Groningen, Drenthe and Overijssel. In 1517 or 1518 his daughter Maria entered the nunnery at Rijnsburg where she was to be elected abbess in 1535, thanks to her family connections and in particular her father’s service to Emperor Charles V, who supported her candidacy.
The new abbess made the most of her connections. Already in 1536 she requested the emperor to grant the abbey collegiate status, which would allow the nuns not just the right to own property but also more freedom of dress and movement. Although this meant that the nuns had to be self-supportive, Maria must have managed quite well to run her household and pay her servants on an annual prebend of 2300 guilders. Furthermore, in 1547 the bishop of Utrecht – her uncle George or Joris van Egmond (a brother of her stepmother Johanna van Egmond) – granted the nuns dispensation to enjoy dairy products during Lent.
Consequently Rijnsburg Abbey gained the reputation of a decadent aristocratic house where the nuns prayed in the morning but danced in the afternoon. The abbess herself was rumoured to have squandered part of the abbey’s lands to support this lifestyle. It was after Maria’s relatively early death in 1552 that the Habsburg regent Margaret of Parma ordered an investigation into the abbey’s finances and morals, during which witness statements revealed that Maria had indeed enjoyed occasional dancing at night, music, evening excursions and expensive jewellery.
Maria’s tomb slab also suggests a taste for luxury and ostentation. Measuring 408 x 203 cm, it features in the centre, beneath a renaissance-style aedicula richly decorated with strapwork, volutes, fruit, cherub heads, and semi-human figures, a winged female whose flowing garments accentuate her shapely form. Two heraldic lozenge shields are suspended from ribbons held in her hands while four more shields are placed on the corners of the slab. The Dutch inscription along the edges of the slab reads:
‘Hier leyt begraven vrou / Marie, heer Georgen Scenck vrijheer van Toutenburchs dochter, / abdisse van Reynsburch / ende sterf int jaer ons Heren XVc ende LII opten XIII dach december.’ (Transl.: Here lies buried the lady Maria, daughter of lord Georg Schenck, baron of Toutenburg, abbess of Rijnsburg, and died in the year of our Lord 1552 on the 13th day [of] December.)
The centrally placed letters D W D or D D W in raised Roman majuscules may be the initials of the abbess’s personal motto.
Maria was outlived by her elder brother Frederik Schenck van Toutenburg (c.1503-1580), whose career she had actively supported, e.g. with the gift of the lucrative parish of Rijnsburg (where he appointed a vicar to represent him). In 1561 Frederik was to be consecrated as the first archbishop of Utrecht but he proved too weak to stem the tide of the Reformation and his funeral in Utrecht Cathedral in 1580 – still with Catholic rites – was permitted but then disturbed by Protestants. These were indeed turbulent times.
By then Rijnsburg Abbey itself had already been formally dissolved in 1572, despite Margaret of Parma’s earlier disciplinary measures after Maria’s death to restore its reputation. Its nuns took refuge in Leiden after the pillage and destruction of its buildings in 1574 and it was here that the last abbess of Rijnsburg, Stephana van Rossum, died in 1603.
The current parish church of Rijnsburg still incorporates one of the two romanesque towers of the former abbey church as part of its fabric. Those who wish to see the impressive tomb slabs of Maria Sterck van Toutenburg and of the last abbess, Stephana van Rossum, there will need to time their visit carefully: they are shown only during the Open Monuments weekend in September when the floor boards are lifted specially to reveal the splendid carvings beneath.
Medieval Memoria Online (MeMO), https://memo.sites.uu.nl/, especially ID 1612 for Maria’s slab.
Kees Kuiken, entry (in Dutch) on ‘Tautenburg, Maria Schenck van’, Dutch Digital Vrouwenlexicon, available at http://resources.huygens.knaw.nl/vrouwenlexicon/lemmata/data/Tautenburg