Six Marvels in a Nutshell

"Anyone who ever stood on the threshold of a rocaille-style church in ever so Catholic Bavaria was entitled to expect the strangest revelation."

A short peek at each of the following six examples reveals one or another of their outstanding features:

Ilgen - Wallfahrtskirche (pilgrimage church) Mariä Heimsuchung
This small rustic ensemble was built in 1721 by an architect as unknown then as he has remained over the centuries, a certain Schmutzel. A master of rococo rusticity, Schmutzel excelled in particular at harmonizing colors. Here he used an off-white, an almost lemon yellow, and a caramel tone - shades that hardly go together, but that he managed to translate into an aesthetic effect bordering on a perversion of taste. The three colors are allowed to subtly interplay with each other, until they resolve into the ceiling of pure white. Schmutzel underscores the architectural and spatial impact of this field of white by leading up to it in a series of wreaths, mascaroons, cartouches, and strings of putti, all of which leave off at the wall tops. Upon entering this little church of Ilgen, we see how the surprising polychromatic harmony joins with the upward thrust of the vibrating wall elements and, in their resolution within the white of the ceiling, thus engaging our gaze in that direction.

Steingaden - Pfarrkirche (parish church) Johannes der Taüffer
The decor here is more dynamic, turbulent, and surprising than any you might ever imagine. The colors - daringly pinker than to be found in the boudoir of a marquess, bluer than blue - are handled so dynamically it makes our eyes blink to look at them! The truth is that the artist, Johann Georg Bergmüller, was familiar with painting: something that comes as no surprise, for he had worked as a local assistant to Tiepolo at Würzburg. Over the organ case (itself an incredible candy box in white and gold stucco), Bergmüller covered a large surface with a fresco depicting the creation of the Steingaden Church in the 8th century. It shows the Duke and the architect of Steingaden, and a plan of the church about to be remodelled. Strangely, the artist resorted to light and dark effects, leaving the construction site in darkness and the event itself, that is the Duke's acceptance of the construction plan, in such a light shade it almost conveys the idea of a miracle. Contrary to appearances, the wooden ramp between the organ case and the painting is not in the least architectural: it is pure illusionism. The artist was both clever and daring enough to distance the painting from the organ case by drawing a line - in this case, the ramp - between them. This depiction of a heavy wooden element, with dark shadows underneath it, is a manner of exorcising the organ case and enabling the motif to reappear a bit higher up, in the church's dedication ceremony. Ettal - Klosterkirche (monastery church)
The rich confessional booths here are beautiful enough to make you want to confess! Although the native Bavarian architect/decorator/stuccoer Joseph Schmuzer (in collaboration with his son Franz Xaver Schmuzer) was responsible for this church's restoration and redecoration in the late 1740s (due to fire damage), the confessionals were executed after his death, in time for the restored church's consecration in 1762. The stunning booths are carved out of a very rare and precious wood, above inlaid boxes of incredible beauty and inventiveness.

Füssen - Kloster (monastery) St. Mang
The stucco work in this tiny church, designed by Johann Jakob Herkomer, is on a par with what one could find in an imperial palace. This small room is enlarged by a fake balustraded floor, in turn occupied by strikingly imaginative figures representing the four parts of the world (West, Asia, Africa, and America). These four parts of the world are set on the four room quoins, above which cherubs have been painted as if supporting the ceiling. The ceiling, moreover, depicted as if in prolongation of the architecture, depicts a weathercock whose body corresponds with a gold arrow indicating another part of the world. What could be more illustrative of the illusionist science so in favor during the 18th century?

Rottenbuch - Pfarrkirche (parish church) Mariä Geburt
This church, redecorated by the stuccoer-decorator Joseph Schmuzer and his son Franz Xaver Schmuzer, boasts a particularly fabulous element: its stucco pulpit by Franz Xaver Schmädl (1747) is no doubt the most beautiful pulpit of Bavaria. A large angel guards the entry to it, while its balustrade is an outstanding example of marble and bronze trompe l'oeil. The figures of the four church Fathers, encircled by angels, are seated in the pulpit, and the entire arrangement dissolves into the pulpit canopy. The feeling is that the divine spirit breathes in this work, that the swoosh of its wings over the priest's head during mass puts the pom-poms and guirlands into sway.

Weyarn - Stiftskirche (collegiate church) St. Peter
The two sculptures to be seen in this church are particularly splendid examples of rocaille style. The wood carver Ignaz Günther was one of the greatest geniuses of European Rococo (certainly on a par with Serpotta for Sicily). He was commissioned for some processional floats for Good Friday, two of which are still extant: The Annunciation and the Pietà. The Annunciation stands out for its daring imbalance, dramatic staging, and hanging folds, as well as for the emotion on the faces of its figures. Further qualities are its masterful beauty, and the magnificence of its polychromy. The unusual Pietà stages an enormous Christ and an unbelievably fragile Virgin, whose face is marked by a staggering Rococo emotional quality.


Distinguishing between Baroque and Rococo - The Rococo Style - The Age of Rocaille - Bavaria - Six Marvels in a Nutshell - A Foretaste of Paradise - In the Main Roles - The Fabulous 18th Century - 18th-Century Composers