Sunday, August 7, 2016


Let's start off all the art stuff from this trip with something exuberant and extravagant.

Rococo is one of my guiltiest pleasures, and on this trip I was determined to see one of the great Bavarian pilgrimage churches like Ottobeuren or Die Wies.  I saw the best of them all, Vierzehnheiligen, the Church of the Fourteen Saints in the hills on the road between Bamberg and Coburg.  It is the masterpiece of the great architect Balthasar Neumann, best known for the Residenz of the Prince Bishop of Würzburg.

Rococo is the style of prince and peasant, and definitely does not appeal to bürgerlich virtues of thrift, earnestness, and honesty.  Rococo is about spectacle. extravagance, and theater.  Bavarian pilgrimage churches are Rococo for the peasants.  The one emotion that comes through in all Rococo pilgrimage churches, and especially this one, is joy.  The Rococo is a pleasure style, and in these churches the delight of this style expresses a kind of spiritual happiness.

Vierzehnheiligen is still an object of pilgrimage in the area, and it was pilgrimage season when I visited.  Workers were setting up extra chairs in the church anticipating an arriving pilgrimage that evening.  As I left the church, the pilgrims were indeed arriving, not in procession up the hill, but in chartered buses.  All of them were quite elderly.
Outside the church were the sorts of businesses associated with pilgrimage sites, shops selling candles, rosaries, crucifixes, and devotional images; and since this is Germany, a nice cafe where you can get coffee and ice cream as well as a nice lunch.

Except where noted, these are all my pictures.

The bell towers were in scaffolding when I was there, but that was all that was in restoration.

Here is the cover of the little English language guidebook that I had showing what the west front of the church usually looks like.

Even the floor plan of the church is beautiful.  The present church was built to replace a much smaller 15th century chapel over the spot where a shepherd named Hermann Leicht saw a series of visions of the Christ Child with 14 saints in 1445.  The local ecclesiastical authorities rebuilding the church in the 18th century instructed Neumann to move the church a little further up the hillside, placing the shrine in the middle of the church instead of in the apse of the former chapel.  Neumann met the challenge by designing a brilliant variation on the traditional basilican church.  He placed the shrine in the center of the nave and remade the nave into a great oval recalling ancient circular churches such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built over sacred places.  He then remade the basilican church interior into a sequence of interlinked ovals and circles.  The outside of the church, except for the west front, is very plain and traditional, giving no hint of the extravagance inside.

I am rather proud of this photo taking advantage of the afternoon light shining into the church.

Neumann's great ovals and circles of space inside the church create dramatic views and remarkable light effects.

The shrine looks like a giant porcelain confection for a table top, but it is in fact made of polished marble and colored stone.

A sampling of some of the Fourteen Saints on the shrine;  left to right, Saint Erasmus, Saint Denis (headless and seen from the back), and Saint Giles.

Saint Hubert with his deer on the shrine.

An affectionate Holy Trinity group over the high altar.

A statue of the Christ Child with a red cross on his chest as Leicht described him in his vision tops the shrine.

A picture scanned from the guidebook showing the Holy of Holies, the spot where the vision that built this church occurred in 1445.  The gates were closed when I was there, though I could see through the open work.  The star above the spot where Hermann Leicht saw the Christ Child lying on the ground is an exact duplicate of the star over the traditional site of Christ's birth in Bethlehem added in the 20th century.

A devotional card of the Fourteen Saints with the Christ Child above the Franconian hills.

According to local tradition, Hermann Leicht saw a child lying in a field, a child with a red cross on his chest.  The child disappeared when Leicht approached.  The child appeared a second time, and then a third accompanied by 14 Saints who commanded Leicht to establish a chapel on the spot for all who are in need to come to pray.  Those who came to pray for generations were the local tenant farmers of the region.  Today, their elderly descendants still come to pray here.  I wonder if the pilgrimage will still be around in twenty years when all these people are gone.
I must admit that I find this kind of veneration of helper saints to be alien to my Protestant post Enlightenment outlook on the world.  It calls to my mind mixed feelings about a world filled with such spiritual presences to generations of tenant farmers whose religious knowledge mostly came from what the parish priest told them, and from dimly remembered beliefs and practices of a pre-Christian past.
Perhaps that is not entirely fair.  Such beliefs sustain people through hard times and come out of very real human need which should not be so easily discounted.  All of us long for friends in transcendent places to come to our help whether it's the Fourteen Saints or the Justice League.  Such beliefs sometimes inspire people to become those friends to those in need from Saint Francis to firefighters.

I will say one thing for this visionary miracle, it was one of the few from this era that didn't kill anyone.  In this case, the Virgin Mary didn't appear to a butcher's apprentice on the Regensburg Synagogue followed by a pogrom the next day as in 1519.  Neither did the Heavenly Jerusalem appear to an Anabaptist fanatic as at Münster beginning three years of bloodshed, mayhem, and misery.

The elaborate Rococo style of this church, like its Baroque predecessors, was meant to reward the pilgrim at the end of a long hard journey on foot.  The extravagance and exuberance of the place somehow made the pilgrim's hard journey worthwhile at the end, and put her in mind of the glory that waited for her at the end of a long hard slog through the Valley of Tears.  Rococo works best in overall effect and in the inventiveness of its small details.  The biggest weakness of this style for religious art is a tendency to minimize tragedy to maintain the happiness of the overall effect.  Thoughtfulness becomes reduced to irrelevance before so astonishing and thrilling a series of emotional effects.  As a result, the joy in these places has an unmoored ephemeral quality.  But as ephemeral spectacles go, this church is wonderful, and still serves its purpose.

An engraving from 1696 shows the shepherd's vision above and the original 15th century chapel below.  This was scanned from the guidebook.

The architect Balthasar Neumann from Wikipedia
Neumann wears armor in this picture because he began his career as a military engineer specializing in artillery (note the canon).  He holds in his hand not a church or palace floor plan, but a design for fortifications.   Like another career military engineer Mimar Sinan who worked for the Ottoman sultans, Neumann became an architect relatively late in life.


Gerrit said...

'The one emotion that comes through in all Rococo pilgrimage churches, and especially this one, is joy. The Rococo is a pleasure style, and in these churches the delight of this style expresses a kind of spiritual happiness.'

..and I love it. When, in 1984, hitch-hiking down to Firenze I vistited one of those Bavarian 'pilgrimage churches...Rococo for the peasants'; there was a service going, and I sat there in a pew with my head in my neck taking in the ceiling - a perspective which led the eye to way above the actual church roof. IL GESÚ at the Danube! I was noticed by a fortyish lady who invited me to go see some more churches. I gladly accepted, and her small VW took us around. I think she really just wanted to keep me in Bavaria ( I still was young and dastardly handsome in those days -SMILY),but I was en route to Italy so....


Anonymous said...

I am glad to see yu are traveling again. Wish I could be a mouse on your travels!

JCF said...

I'm fine w/ the vision and piety. But not particularly a fan of Rococo. For someone w/ Byzantine tastes, it just doesn't feel very spiritual to me. But interesting, nonetheless.