The Cistercian Maulbronn Monastery is considered the most complete and best preserved medieval monastic complex north of the Alps. The monastery's church, mainly in Transitional Gothic style, had a major influence on the spread of Gothic architecture over much of northern and central Europe. The water-management system at Maulbronn, with its elaborate network of drains, irrigation canals, and reservoirs, is of exceptional interest.
After their lack of success in building a new monastery at Eckenweiher, land in the Salzach valley belonging to the Bishop of Speyer was donated to a small community of twelve monks led by Abbot Dieter from the Cistercian abbey of Neubourg (Alsace). Here in 1147 they began building their monastery of Maulbronn, under the protection of the Holy See. Nine years later it was taken under the direct protection of the Holy Roman Empire by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. The church was completed in 1178 and consecrated by Arnold, Bishop of Speyer.
Over the next century the temporary wooden buildings of the community were progressively rebuilt in stone. The Reformation was a time of great turmoil, not least for the Monastery of Maulbronn. It was seized in 1504 by Ulrich, Duke of Württemberg, who reformed and secularized it 30 years later, after it had twice been plundered during periods of unrest. The Emperor Charles V returned it to the Cistercians in 1547, only for it to be reformed again in 1556 by Christoph, Duke of Württemberg, who established a Protestant monastery school there and allowed private owners to acquire some of the buildings. During the Thirty Years' War it was once again handed back to the Cistercians by the Emperor Maximilian in 1630, but they were to stay only three years, and it finally became a Protestant establishment with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.The entire church property was secularized by King Friedrich I of Württemberg in 1806 and in the following year it became a Protestant theological seminary, which it has remained to the present day.
The architectural ensemble reflects developments within the Cistercian 0rder in the 12th-16th centuries, and the effect of secularization and conversion to Protestant use. It is clearly defined and separated from the town by its fortifications and its location on the outskirts of the town. The church is typical of first-generation Cistercian architecture: a two-storey Romanesque nave and a low chevet leading to a transept with three rectangular chapels opening off each arm. A stone screen separated the monks from the lay brethren. The Gothic vaulting of 1424 that replaced the original wooden beams modified the rigorous spatial divisions practised during the lifetime of St Bernard of Clairvaux, incorporating the Romanesque traditions of the Hirsau region into the Cistercian requirements of austerity and renunciation.
The fortifications consist of a wall and an inner wall, with a ward between the two. They attained their present form between the 13th and 15th centuries. The outbuildings of the former monastery comprise both stone and timber-framed buildings; the latter are mostly from the 16th-18th centuries, although often incorporating substantial remains of the medieval buildings that they replaced.
The basic medieval layout and structure of the central complex, which is typical of the Cistercian tradition, is virtually complete. The 13th-century buildings, in the transitional style of the Master of the Paradise, provided a decisive stimulus for the development of Gothic architecture in Germany. Only the monks' refectory and the lay brethren's dormitories have undergone transformations since the Reformation, in order to adapt them for use as a Protestant seminary. There are several post-monastic buildings within the nominated area, mostly in plastered stone. They include the former hunting lodge of Ludwig, Duke of Württemberg, and the ducal stables, which have Renaissance elements in their design and decoration.
The Cistercian Order was notable for its innovations in the field of hydraulic engineering, and this is admirably illustrated in the Maulbronn monastery complex. There is an elaborate system of reservoirs, irrigation canals, and drains, used to provide water for the use of the community, for fish farming, and for irrigating its extensive agricultural holdings. It was only after the secularization of the monastery's land-holdings in the 19th century that this was significantly changed, with the drainage of several of the reservoirs, and also the expansion of the town of Maulbronn.