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Cunera church of Rhenen
The Rhenen church tower is 81.8 metres tall, a rather tall church tower for such a small city. In the province of Utrecht only the Dom Tower (112.3 metres, finished in 1382) in the city of Utrecht and The Tower of Our Lady (98.3 metres, finished in 1470) in Amersfoort are taller.

The Rhenen church tower was built in the Late Middle Ages, between 1492 and 1531. Its construction was made possible by a brave journey by Lodewijk van Leefdal of Rhenen to Rome.

Cunera chuch
Church in Rhenen
Pope Sixtus IV
Pope Sixtus IV

In the Middle Ages Rhenen was a city at the unsettled border region on the edge of Utrecht and Guelders (Gelderland). The Bishop of Utrecht used Rhenen as an important defense post against the dukes of Guelders. It brought income to the city, but there were also disadvantages. Because of its location Rhenen was frequently attacked and set on fire. Its inhabitants then had to pick up the pieces and build things up again.

Lodewijk van Leefdael, who was going to play an important role for Rhenen, was in his younger years a mint master for the Bishop of Utrecht, a lucrative job. He came from a family that became rich in a short period of time. The Bishop of Utrecht and the city council of Rhenen gladly made use of this, when they were strapped for cash due to, for example, a Guelders attack. Therefore Lodewijk van Leefdael was within the community of Rhenen a respected man.

Rhenen was in the Middle Ages not only known for its role in the defense of Utrecht, but also for its city Saint Cunera. The Saint Cunera had a modest reputation for healing especially breathing difficulties. There was a small wooden church dedicated to her in Rhenen, where she lived in the 4th century.

There are few written records of this period, as there were few people able to read and write, but people loved to tell stories.

Cunera's legend tells that she was a princess from the region of York, England.

Siege of Rhenen 1499
Siege of Rhenen 1499
Saint Cunera
Saint Cunera, ca. 1500
The legend of Cunera
According to a fourteenth-century legend Cunera was one of the 11,000 virgins who accompanied Saint Ursula on her pilgrimage to Rome in 337 AD. On its way back by ship the company suffered an attack by Huns in Cologne, during which all maidens except Cunera were killed. The "King of the Rhine", Redbod, saved her and took her to his palace at Rhenen, a place on the Lower Rhine.

Cunera's privileged position - she was given the keys of the court and became therefore the guardian of the royal hoard during the king's absence - incited they envy of queen Aldegonde, Radbod's wife, who decided to strangle her. Thanks to the unusual behaviour of the king's horses and a miraculous light in the form of a cross the murder was discovered. The queen was tortured and threw herself off the Grebbenberg mountain.

Cunera was buried on a hill in Rhenen. In the years after the funeral, miraculous cures started happening at the grave hill. People with throat illnesses were experiencing spontaneous healing when coming to pray at the grave. Also ill horses, when brought to the grave, were curing in a miraculous way.

The story quickly circulated among the people of Rhenen, and continued to do so for quite some time. A few centuries later, Willibrord (658-739) was traveling through Rhenen, where the inhabitants told him about Cunera. At their request, Willibrord canonised her on a subsequent visit by having Cunera's body dug up and placed in a shrine. The presumed death anniversary of Cunera, 28 October, was set as a public holiday.

The life and death of Cunera
In the Middle Ages people strongly believed that the saints in heaven interceded for those on earth, and that their powers were preserved in physical remains, or relics. Many tales of miracles and other marvels were attributed to relics. These miracle tales made relics much sought-after during the Middle Ages.

Reliquary holder St Willibrord
Reliquary holder St Willibrord
Reliquary holder St Lucy
Reliquary holder St Lucy
The martyrdom of Saint Cunera
The martyrdom of Saint Cunera
The cloth used to strangle Cunera
Relic; cloth used to strangle Cunera
Pictures: Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht

Lodewijk van Leefdael was married with Elisabeth Willemsdochter. Together they had three children, one of them named Cunera. After his wife Elisabeth died at a young age, Lodewijk started a relation with a much younger woman, Christina de Wilde. Albeit not married, they had at least six children.

Partly due to the relics of Saint Cunera, Rhenen became a modest place of pilgrimage in the first centuries after her death. But the clergymen of Rhenen were ambitious. They wanted to grow and spread the name and fame of Saint Cunera even further. To make her even more popular, the church of Rhenen was completely dedicated to Saint Cunera in the 15th century, hoping to attract even more pilgrims.

But there was another way to make Saint Cunera more popular; indulgences.

Indulgences
According the religion in the Middle Ages, evil souls went to Hell after death. For lesser sins, souls first needed after-death purification to achieve the holiness necessary to enter Heaven. The state or process of purification was called Purgatory.

An indulgence was a way to reduce the amount of punishment one would had to undergo for sins after death in Purgatory. The issue of letters of indulgence was a very common practice in the Catholic Church just before the Reformation. After confessing or doing other godly work, the faithful received a decree exempting them from punishment for their sins.

Letters of indulgence were bought en masse on certain occasions. As such, Pope Nicholas V. issued a "complete indulgence" in 1451 and used the money he collected for these to finance the war against the Turks. By selling letters of indulgence for charitable acts en masse, the Catholic Church partially financed the building of the new St. Peter's Basilica. Furthermore, the local sovereign and the preacher issuing the indulgence also profited from the sale.

A fiery purgatory by Ludovico Carracci
A fiery purgatory by Ludovico Carracci
The selling of indulgences
The selling of indulgences
The pope and his cardinals determine how indulgences are granted. The recipient of an indulgence must perform an action to receive it. This is most often the saying of a specified prayer, but may also include the performance of specific good works or the visiting of a particular place. One could visit a church specifically designated for that purpose by the papal authority.

If one's local church became such a place, it would attract a large number of pilgrims from which a city could make good money. The clergy and the city council of Rhenen had also thought of this, and so wanted an envoy to go to Rome to convince the pope and his cardinals that the Cunera church of Rhenen should also become a place of indulgence.

The city council sent Lodewijk van Leefdael to Rome for the Cunera church to become a place of indulgence, which was a great honor for him. In 1475, when Lodewijk was 45 years old, he embarked on the long journey to the Vatican. After several months, Lodewijk arrived at the Vatican of Pope Sixtus IV. The long journey was not in vain. What Lodewijk did in the Vatican is unknown, but the fact is that 18 cardinals signed the indulgence of Rhenen!

Letter of Indulgence of Rhenen
The Letter of Indulgence of Rhenen from 1475
From Rhenen to Rome
From Rhenen to Rome
On the basis of this letter, signed by 18 cardinals, pilgrims would have to stay one hundred days (Centum Dies) less in purgatory if they visited the Cunera church in the week of June 12. With the new indulgence, Rhenen became a popular place of pilgrimage. Hostels and eateries were specially set up, and all kinds of Cunera merchandising was sold. It is known that the church hired entertainment along the pilgrim route, to make the penance as pleasant as possible, and to attract as many pilgrims as possible.

The journey of Lodewijk van Leefdael earned the city a lot of extra money in the following years. The city council was very happy with him, and rewarded Lodewijk by appointing him as municipal officer. During his life Lodewijk saw the results of his long journey to Rome, as Rhenen became richer and richer.

Soon Rhenen was able to start the building of a gothic tower, during the lifetime of Lodewijk. The building activities started in 1492 and the tower was finished in 1531. The completion within 40 years was an unprecedented short period of time for medieval standards.

Rhenen 1648
Rhenen, 1648
One hundred days less in purgatory
One hundred days less in purgatory
The church has often been damaged. In 1897 the tower burned and a restoration was done with a different spire. During the next restoration in 1934 the roof burned down and during restoration of the roof a section collapsed.

During World War II most of the town of Rhenen was devestated, but the church and also the townhall, both dating back to the 15th century were spared although much damage was suffered. The building material used for subsequent repairs was so bad that in 1968 restoration of the tower was necessary again.

To this day the burial mound, known as the Cunera hill, can be visited. The pilgrim's road, called the Cuneraweg is the very same that was used ages ago. Cunera was taken off the list of Saints by the Pope at the beginning of the 20th century.

Cunera church with WWII damage
Cunera church with WWII damage
At the Cunera Hill
At the Cunera Hill
Veleda with Cunera merchandise
Veleda with Cunera merchandise
Cunera merchandise
Cunera merchandise (pilgrim sign)
Rene with the Cunera church
René with the Cunera church
Rhenen townhall and Cunera church
Rhenen townhall and Cunera church

Rhenen
Rhenen

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