A Foretaste of Paradise

"Anyone who has spent any time in Bavaria will have noticed the strange and fierce pietism upheld by its citizens to this day."

Two churches in particular have been selected for more detailed analysis: the Wies church as one of Bavaria's smallest and most intimate churches, and the Ottobeuren Church as one of its largest and most majestic.

Wies - Wallfahrtskirche (pilgrimage church) zum Gegeisselten Heiland

"Gegeiselte Heiland" means the flagellation of Chirst.
Why is this church located in the midst of pasture land? Why would such a marvel be found there? It could only be due to a miracle!

In 1730, at the Steingaden monastery, preparations were underway for the Good Friday procession. Everyone with even the slightest talent worked on the famous processional floats to be paraded through the city, but two people worked harder than the rest: Reverend Father Magnus Straub and the lay brother Lukas Schweiger. These two participants were working on a beautiful representation of the flagellation; to make it seem truer to nature, the wood was stuccoed and leather was added. Touches of red paint were applied here and there, as were some dabs of blue and green to the wounds. When it was paraded on Good Friday in 1730, the resulting depiction was so true to life that it scandalized viewers with its terrifying realism.

By popular request, the lay brother was asked to put his flagellation of Christ in storage - anywhere would do, as long as he promised to keep it there! He decided to store it in the attic of his best friend, Jérémias Reele, the monastery innkeeper.

It so happened that the innkeeper's mother-in-law, who lived just a bit farther away, in the countryside (which, in Wies, consisted of three farms), came to visit him one day. Out of boredom, she decided to have a look at the attic, where she fell on her knees before the flagellated Christ. When it was time to leave, Maria Lory, as was her name, asked permission to take the Christ with her. Permission was granted, and she hauled her Christ on a little wooden cart all the way to Wies.

Up until this point, our story is merely anecdotal: it was transformed into far more when, eight years later, in 1738, a miracle took place. That year, on the 14th of June, Maria Lory looked up from her daily prayer to the Christ sculpture to see tears streaming down his face. The neighbours whom she excitedly called in to share in the experience bore witness to the fact that the Christ was indeed crying. The neighbors of the neighbors followed on their heels, and so forth, until a whole crowd, from as far as Steingaden, had gathered to witness the event. For many days thereafter, processions were organized and, of course, the Christ figure was transferred to the church in Wies.

Unfortunately, that church could hold only about fifteen people at a time, a state of affairs that inspired a decision by the Steingaden chapter to build a new church. In 1743, the monastery abbot Hyazinth Gassner proceeded to name those to be entrusted with realizing a setting for the Flagellation. In typical Bavarian style, he chose the best architect and the best sculptor to be had, respectively Dominikus Zimmerman and Anton Sturm. Dominikus Zimmerman had already proven his mastery throughout Bavaria, and was about to retire. Thus he was prepared to give his all to a last work he considered as a sort of spiritual bequest.

The first stone was laid on August 31, 1746. The dedication ceremony took place on September 2, 1749 - that is, only three years later! Thanks to a varied cast of actors - Maria Lory, Zimmerman, Sturm - the small church of Wies, set in the middle of the Bavarian countryside, was replaced by a magnificent and far larger one, all in white and lemon yellow. The church is strangely shaped like a kidney: inside, the oval section serving to seat the worshippers is flanked on the left by the pulpit, and on the right by the choir loft.

The high altar, set to the rear, was built to Zimmermann's plans, and its design owes a great deal to Sturm. It serves as backdrop to the Flagellation at the origin of the new church. The interior as a whole is totally anti-Baroque, due to its oval shape with large openings, used by Zimmerman to allow light to burst forth from all parts and thus cancel all shadow. In Baroque architecture, shadow served to underscore the message of God, sole source of light; Rococo exorcises shadow in order to allow God's message to permeate the entire structure.

Above the sources of light, a series of transverse arches (real and illusionist arches, in a spiral interplay of wide and recessed arches) seem to attain a most surprising formal frenzy. The fact is that Zimmerman resorted to everything he had ever invented here, in what he was leaving as a bequest to posterity. Thus the decor repeats all the architectural volumes: the paintings, sculptures, and bas-reliefs reiterate the perpetual motion afforded by contrasts between the church's concave and convex spaces.

The pulpit represents the prow of the Holy Spirit, one of the major Rococo formulas, and was executed in wood and stucco by artisans from the Benedictine abbey of Wessobrunn, on the basis of a plan submitted by Zimmerman. The big angel on the central part holds in check a deluge of gold- and silver-painted wood shells and swells that seems to engulf the putti in their midst.

The ornamental refinement bestowed upon the choir loft and the organ loft testifies to the importance of music at the time. With an eye to the plastic coherency of his church, Zimmermann even went so far as to design the church benches; these feature the same shells and rhythms found throughout the edifice. Four figures - each 2,90 meters high - dominate the church's four cardinal points: these are the Church Fathers, created for Zimmermann by Anton Sturm. By no means do the figures anchor a church whose architecture and decorative rhythms are in perpetual motion. Rather, it as if their robes serve as sails to what thus appears as a vessel of faith, full sail ahead.

One of the handsomest of the four figures is Saint Jerome, shown meditating on the Bible, but as well on the skull: it is the last of the four to be sculpted by Sturm, and certainly the most accomplished.

And there you have the story of the lovely "Die Wies", a hidden little valley church through which the breath of the divine blows.

In direct contrast to the movement and dynamic spirit of "Die Wies", the church of Ottobeuren is a solidly anchored construction, with a clearly defined past. It started out as an abbey church to the Benedictine monastic complex of Ottobeuren; although founded in the 8th century, it enjoyed sufficient prosperity by the 18th century to celebrate its 1000th-year anniversary with a full renovation.

The first stone for this grand project was laid on May 5, 1711, and the new building was dedicated on September 28, 1766. Obviously, updating the original building and redoing the monastic buildings was an exceedingly expensive proposition. It took fifty-five years to accomplish what became certainly one of the greatest Rococo ensembles in the world. The architects responsible for this achievement were Joseph Effner and Johann Michaël Fischer.

Reverting to the contrast with "Die Wies", it must be noted that by the 18th century, Ottobeuren was a solidly established church with roots harking back over 1000 years, and a recognized status that had lasted over 1000 years. The layout for Ottobeuren is altogether traditional: a long central nave, an impressive high altar, a transept crossing and broad transept arm. The transept crossing harbors four enormous pillars that were fitted with the mummies of the four patron saints of Ottobeuren. The church frescoes are most generous, and the architecture and painting were conceived on a grand scale, yet the final effect is less breathtaking than the evanescence of the "Die Wies" church's beauty. This quality of beauty comes across in Ottobeuren only when one replaces the overall view with a detail, particularly in the stucco work, which merits a description of its own.

The stucco artists who were commissioned for Ottobeuren were among the greatest; students of Anton Sturm, these were Josef Weinmüller and Johann Michael Feichtmayr. The pulpit as a whole is supported by an angel on which Weinmüller used a coating with a great deal of milk, providing an almost varnished and marmoreal appearance. As applied to the angel here, the effect is somewhat supernatural, as if marble had been set flying. Stucco reaches a zenith of illusionism in this work, which benefits from Weinmüller's wealth of imagination. Above the baptismal fonts, a group of sculpted figures represents the baptism of Christ. Towards the bottom of this group, a strange dialogue takes place between an angel and a putto, surrounded by an amazing play of cartouches and fleeting clouds. Angel and large archangel figures, for the most part the work of Weinmüller and Feichtmayr, inhabit the side chapels. Their skillful execution bespeaks a thorough familiarity with stucco: indeed, such angels with their strangely shredded wings, their very Mannerist hands, would be impossible to realize in any other material than stucco. This stuccowork represents an inimitable culmination point. At the time, it was very much the fashion to consider sculpture as a source of total ambiguity. It is said that the angels of Ottobeuren are capable of inspiring the rarest of feelings ...

In conclusion, we take pleasure in presenting one of the great abbots of Ottobeuren, Karl-Eugen von Greiffenclau, a distant cousin of the famous Würzburg prelate. Actually, he was more of a prince and less of an abbot... In fact, so little an abbot that he never got to Ottobeuren. Since this raised some complaints among the monks of Ottobeuren, Greiffenclau compensated his physical absence with a statue of himself on casters! Certainly one of the wildest jokes ever played by a von Greiffenclau! However, as much of a joke as it was, the sculpture itself is a most striking Rococo work of art, as illusionistic conceptially as it was artistically. The prince appears with all his mundane attributes - breastplate, walking stick, sword, bounteous wig, and plumed hat - yet his face wears a totally unexpected angelic expression. Perhaps he was, above all, the most Rococo of Bavaria's prelates!

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