Category Archives: stucco

SPÄTBAROCK IN SÜDDEUTSCHLAND II: The Pilgrimage Church at Wies


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.

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SPÄTBAROCK IN SÜDDEUTSCHLAND I: The Asamkirche

KLEIN ABER FEIN: ST JOHN NEPOMUK (ASAMKIRCHE), 1733 – 1746, MUNICH.

Cosmas Damian and Egid Quirin Asam were born in Mannheim in 1686 and 1692. Their father, the fresco painter Hans Georg Asam, determined that both sons would be artists and, in 1711, and sent them to study art in Rome at the Accademia di San Luca, where Cosmas was trained in fresco painting and Egid in stucco work, sculpture and altar decoration. Cosmas won the first prize in painting two years later. Although they were not trained as such, both Asams considered themselves architects— Cosmas signed his ceiling fresco at Weltenburg pictor et architectus and Egid designed the Asamkirche. Upon their return to Germany, they mobilized the skills and the connections to church officials they had acquired in Rome to secure a succession of major church rebuilding and decorating commissions, including the the abbey church at Ingolstadt and the cathedral of Freising.

By the mid 1720s, the Asams had gained enough fame as master craftsmen and had made a large enough fortune in doing so to cause them to fear for their salvation. To atone for any sins of pride and avarice that their work as artists may have engendered, they decided to employ the same skills to cure them by designing, financing and constructing a Votivskirche. The votive church, built on a lot adjacent to Egid’s house in Munich’s Sendlingerstraße, was dedicated, appositely, to St John Nepomuk, a confessor saint who associated with the sacrament of confession which is followed by penance. The confessional-penitential theme is strongly felt in the layout of the church’s interior, which has four confessionals in a church of only 12 rows of pews.

Because the church was a gift to God, there were no limits to its decoration, embellishment and ornamentation. There were, however, spatial limits: the lot measures only 20x x 12m—meant that the decorative programs the brothers had developed for large churches either had to be scaled or compressed. For the architecture, they drew on their knowledge of intimately-sized churches on cramped lots by Bernini and Borromini where monumental effects were preserved by scaling down moldings, columns, and domes. In terms of decoration, the Asams compressed the entire gamut of baroque motifs, forms, effects, and materials into the small space: the plan composed of over-lapping ovals, the undulating walls and flared mouldings, an illusionistic ceiling painting the fictive architecture of which carries on from the actual one below, twisted columns polychrome marble, stucco arabesques that blur hounaries, a rippling façade, intarsiated marble revetement, and so on. The result is a density of opulence and decoration that makes even the most richly-elaborated of the contemporary large church interiors seem restrained.

The Asamkirche was originally conceived of as a private chapel attached to the large Asamhaus next door, for use by the brothers alone (Egid went so far as to pierce one the walls in the house so he could see the altar from his bed). However, the burgers of Munich and the church objected to the foundation on many grounds and threatened to hold up the works until the brothers agreed that the church would be open to the public. Cosmas died before the consecration took place in 1746 and Egid lived only 4 years later so the Asamkirche was as much a gift to the city of Munich as it was to God.

SPÄTBAROCK IN SÜDDEUTSCHLAND SERIES:

1. KLEIN ABER FEIN: ASAMKIRCHE

Spätbarock in Süddeutschland

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A sequence of seven posts on 18thc. architectural monuments, mainly in Bavaria, including churches (Wies, Vierzehnheiligen, Ottobeuren, Weltenburg, the Asamkirche), palaces (Würzburg Residenz, Schloß Brühl, Amalienburg) and theatres (Bayreuth).