For their constructions, the kings, emperors, or princes of the time could call upon the greatest artists; thus, for instance, Tiepolo for Würzburg. Those who were not kings, not even princes, but who wanted to keep in step with the times anyway, were obliged to resort to the students of the greats, perhaps the students of the students, and so forth. The artists they commissioned were nomads with no fixed address for their workshops but who, travelling across Europe, were in the habit of renting out their services. Hence, it was thanks in large part to these itinerant artists that the Rococo style spread throughout Europe in quite coherent fashion, and due to them as well that the newly enriched upper classes would gradually acquire a taste for such an extravagant style.
Due to Bavaria's geographic location, its roads became those most frequently
travelled by these artistic nomads and, for some unknown reason, the village
of Oberammergau, at its center, their favorite stopover. Today, the facades of
Oberammergau constitute one of the most extraordinary Rococo settings conceivable ...
all in trompe l'oeil!
It would happen something like this: first we have the village. Secondly, a smoking room with cabbage soup wafting its delicious smell under the nose of a passing "skin-and-bones" figure, the itinerant artist. In his broken German, the artist proposes: "For a plate of soup, I'll paint you a window. For a week of sauerkraut, a façade. For a month's food and lodgings, the whole place!" As simple as that! Indeed, these artists could drum up quite a business for themselves, what with monumental staircases, balustrades, fake statues... The first to arrive were from Northern Italy, mainly the Piedmontese, followed by a generation of Tyrolians, and a third generation simply of Bohemians. This Piedmontese-Tyrolian-Bohemian conjunction is the origin of Rococo in northern Europe.
Having thus transformed an entire village, there was no reason these artists shouldn't work on the village church. After having served the bourgeoisie, why not serve the Lord? Hence, once the houses of Oberammergau had been painted, attention turned to the village church. At a dizzying height above its high altar, some artist - undoubtedly Italian - painted a sort of pastiche of the baldachin (by Bernini) at St. Peter's Church of Rome. Thus Oberammergau, now boasting its own St. Peter's in miniature, could compare with the biggest basilica of the Christian world. And since this style inspired play with materials, the fresco was expanded to include sculpted wood and plaster decoration. These were in turn painted, so that, after some time, no one would be able to tell the real marble from the fake, the real fake marble from the fake real marble. And thus, gradually, illusionism began appealing not only to royal art patrons, but to the little villages of 18th-century Bavaria. From one end of Bavaria to the next, from the princes to the peasants, Rococo infiltrated the nooks and crannies of the land.
How, one might wonder, could these little villages afford such luxury? The answer is twofold:
In the first place, they were highly motivated. After centuries of religious unrest in
Germany, the Peace of Westphalia (1648) somewhat structured the two main religions which,
thanks to the treaty, managed to live more or less peacefully with each other. Thus
there were provinces, principalities, even kingdoms and empires, that were fiercely
Protestant, and others just as fiercely Catholic. Of the latter, Bavaria was the
fiercest (still today, it staunchly defends Catholicism) and, as such, it sought to
adopt the style celebrating that religion. Bavaria adopted Rococo in the manner one
adopts a country, turning it into an emblem of both its faith and its patriotism.
Secondly, and more pragmatically, 18th-century Bavaria was prosperous. Wise alliances had been forged there with the aristocracy and with the estate owners - in the main, convents and monasteries; also, the villages and property owners took a healthy stance towards money, so that Bavaria was able to get through the Westphalia Peace period without incurring the bankruptcy suffered by many of Germany's royal coffers.
Hence, Bavaria was doing well for itself: a network of alliances, marriages, and a certain
form of land speculation all combined to make its citizens rich - the princes, the abbots,
the upper classes.
Prince Karl-Philippe von Greiffenclau, to pick an example, who also held the title of bishop, was able to afford Würzburg, and to commission Tiepolo, clear across the world (that is, in Venice) for its decor. There was also the very wealthy abbot Ruppert II of Ottobeuren, who undertook the renovation of the abbey church. Today, the Ottobeuren Church is considered one of the most fabulous examples of rocaille style in all of Europe.
The Wies village church, nicknamed "Die Wies", illustrates how the wealth of the upper classes, in this case unusually allied with the peasantry, contributed to the style's spread. In Wies, it was the monastery Steingaden and the farms that funded the church. In a period where the links with the monasteries were very close, the bourgeoisie knew just when the time was ripe to sell their lands, just as the peasants knew when it was ripe to buy them. Transaction by transaction then, the village became wealthy enough to treat itself to a church. No means were to be spared in the process, for they wished it to be the most beautiful and richest church of all.
Nor were any means to be spared in what it would take to attract people to church: the Cistercians of Salem built, at their own expense, the lovely Rococo church of Birnau, in the hopes of attracting a congregation from the neighboring town of Uberlingen, in order to sell them their surplus fruits, meat, and beer! Be that as it may, the result was the magnificent Church of Birnau.
Another example would be the religious community of Landsheim who, in a letter to the Bishop of Bamberg (a letter that truly exists!), claimed: "We are prepared to build a church right next to our fief, just outside on the uncultivated lands, a church so beautiful everyone will come to it! Thus we will honor both our Father and, by the same token, God. And we will attract so many people there. So we are ready to build such a church if you, Bishop of Bamberg, are willing to grant us the proceeds of the first ten years of church collections and profits." Vierzehnheiligen, one of the most beautiful Rococo churches, is hence the fruit of negotiations between the Landsheim monks and the Bishop of Bamberg.
As a final example, we have the monks of Andechs, where a marvelous hop plant produced the best beer in all of Germany. Unluckily, there were no customers for it. What could be done with 2 million litres of beer a year? Build a pilgrimage church of course, and customers would flock in!
So we see that not all these churches were erected in a strictly spiritual spirit. There is also a decidedly earthly aspect to what, once realized, came to represent among the most beautiful architectural settings, sculptures and wood carvings in the world. To put it simply, in Bavaria there is a marvel to admire every five kilometers!