Thorn, Netherlands

Text and Photographs, Copyright 1995, E-mail Louis Reens

Thorn is a small village, just off the highway, about 45 minutes north of Maastricht in the Netherlands.It is unique, architecturally and historically.
They call it "The Little White Town" because all its brick houses are whitewashed. This gives it its Mediterranean look. The houses surround a large church, and the streets between them are paved with cobble stones in mosaic patterns. The village exists because of the church.

Starting as an abbey in the 10th century it became a sovereign state (though probably the smallest, ever) of the German Empire.
Here, the high aristocracy found a haven for their unmarried daughters. Originally a convent, it soon changed its status to a religiously focused, but secular establishment.
In Dutch, as well as in German, this type of institution is called a "stift" (there is no equivalent English word.) Vows were not required, and the Vatican was petitioned repeatedly to permit worldly dress. It took about two hundred years before the ladies would wear anything but black.

The abbess, who ran the "stift" and the town, ranked as a reigning monarch, and lived in a small palace. In Thorn, only women with the most impeccable pedigree were accepted.
They dwelled in luxury in the white houses, being attended by servants and owning property. If they married, they left.

A walk through and around the village will reveal picturesque views through narrow streets and into cobbled court yards. The cobble stones that pave most of Thorn's streets are from the bottom of the river Meuse, literally not much more than a stone's throw away from the village.

The interior of the church is an all white Gothic shell, a perfect foil for the soaring Baroque main altar that is as ornate as the nave is pristine.
The nave is flanked by a half dozen side altars from various periods of the church's existence.
Below the main choir is the crypt where, along with other tombs, the eternal rest of two abbesses can be observed through their glass topped coffins.

A small museum at the rear of the church exhibits paintings and other memorabilia of the haughty Thorn women. They offer an interesting insight into Thorn's daily life, two centuries ago.


The abbey of Thorn was founded at the end of the 10th century by Ansfried, a count from the Meuse district who later became bishop of Utrecht.
His wife, Hilsondis, assisted him in this. She is buried in the church. The abbey and its surrounding estates became, in the later middle ages a sovereign "stift" of the German Empire.

The abbess with a chapter of canons and canonesses were its administrators. Of the abbey's original large building complex only the church remains.
In the 12th century it was a sturdy Romanesque building. Of that, only the western half still stands with two stair towers and a crypt.

At the end of the 13th century, the church was renovated in the Gothic style and in the fifteenth century it was expanded in the same style with chapels along the side naves.
The late Baroque furnishings of the choir date from the 18th century.

After more than eight centuries, in 1797, the French invaded the country, and declared the church a property of the State. Life as Thorn had known it, came to an end.

Between 1860 and 1880 the church was thoroughly restored under the supervision of the, in Holland well known architect, Dr. P. J. H. Cuypers, whose best known buildings are the Rijksmuseum and the Central Station of Amsterdam. The top of the tower dates from this period.<


Thorn is situated about 2/3 of the way towards the southern end of the Dutch province of Limburg. It is less than a kilometer from the Belgian border and less than 20 kilometers from the German border.

View from the organ loft (57 K). On the right, a rare double sided wood sculpture, representing the Virgin Mary, dating from about 1500 AD.

Close up of the late 18th century Baroque altar structure (76 K). A central group represents the birth and adoration of the Christ Child. All figures are executed in a marble like material that, in Italy, is called "scagliolo".

Exterior view of the Gothic East side (42K).

View of the Romanesque, earliest, West facade with the tower (49K), added in the mid 19th century.

Formerly the abbesses' palace (58K) and now the town's city hall. The foreground mosaic executed in cobble stones, retrieved from the Meuse river, depicts the eagle of the German Empire.

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