The pilgrimage church at Wies owes its creation to a miracle. After a weepy, neglected, carved effigy of the scourged Christ began restoring sight and curing illnesses in 1738, a pilgrimage grew up almost overnight, flooding the tiny Bavarian village in the Oberammergau with tourists. By 1745, the Premonstratensian monks of Steingaden, who owned the site, undertook to replace the small wooden chapel housing the miraculous image with more dignified structure capable of accommodating the numerous visitors flocking to Wies. To that end, in 1745, they hired renowned architect to Dominikus Zimmermann (1685 -1766) to design and direct the construction of a new church.
VERY FEW CHURCHES were built de novo in the early modern period. Most ecclesiastical architectural commissions involved restoring, rebuilding, refurbishing and/or re-decorating pre-existing churches. The forms and fabrics of many of those venerable buildings had historic and symbolic connotations, which had to be recapitulated, preserved or at least noted in the new work Given these usual constraints on the design process, one can imagine Zimmermann’s reaction to being handed a blank slate by a wealthy patron. Seizing the opportunity, he designed an entirely modern building, every cubic inch of which was harmonized and coordinated to create a unified setting sufficiently glorious for the spectacle of divine intervention in the profane world that the miraculous image effected.
Wies gave Zimmermann the chance to refine and develop the pilgrimage church solution he had created at Steinhausen in the late 1720s. Both have ovular central plans with timber domes supported by a ring of free standing composite supports, a typology with early Christian origins. At Wies, an elongated, tunnel-like choir with a two-story gallery projects from the east end, focusing attention on the miraculous image preserved on the high altar. The interior is indirectly illuminated by a multiplicity of pculi, hidden and visible.
Dominikus entrusted his brother, Johann Baptist Zimmermann, with the painting of the central domed ceiling, as he had at Steinhausen. The fresco unusually depicts the Last Judgement—Wies’ dedication to an obscure object with no pictorial tradition, necessitated iconographical innovation. At the center of the composition appears the rainbow upon which Christ sits in judgement, as specified in the Book of Revelation. Johann Baptist used the it as visual metaphor for the church decoration as a whole: it is composed of vibrant, soft colors; it is shaped like an arch, a visual shorthand for architecture; it is at once symmetrical and asymmetrical; and it literally bridges the architectural and pictorial realms of the building, therefore symbolically bridging the sacred and the profane worlds, just as relics and miraculous objects do.
Although he worked as an altar builder and marbler for the first 20 years of his career, and referred to himself in an inscription inside the Wieskirche as baumeister, by 1745 Zimmermann was primarily sought out for his skills as a master stuccateur. Polychromed stuccowork as a medium falls somewhere between fresco and sculpture—3D painting if you will—and Zimmermann uses stucco as a transition from the highly sculptural architectural and painted portions of the interior. Like wall frescoes, it is an medium with an exacting schedule—the stuccateur lays on a much wet plaster as he can shape and paint in the brief period before it dries and hardens. Once hard, the colors and forms bind permanently to the plaster and cannot be changed or altered without chipping it all out and beginning anew. Both fresco and stucco are performances that demands physical agility and a quick, sure touch.
Zimmermann clearly felt the building of the church to be a life-defining experience. After the nine years on the site overseeing the construction, and carrying out the extensive stucco work himself, upon its completion in 1753, he permanently relocated to Steingaden, spending the remaining decade of his life in close proximity to his masterpiece at Wies.