6 January 2016
The eye roves incessantly. The trompe d’oeil ceiling sparks interest in the pulpit, then in the inlaid wooden railings around the altar. Gold and glitter jump out from every corner, one detail leading on to the next. It is a feast—almost a gluttony—of German rococo ornamentation. One of Ludwig II’s fantasy castles? A major cathedral? The high point on a tour of Wurzburg? In fact, it is none of the above.
This is the Wieskirche, a pilgrimage church set just off the Romantic Road (near Steingaden) in rolling countryside back dropped by the white peaks of the Bavarian Alps.
It is no surprise to find such a gem in Bavaria, which was long a center for rococo adornment. But there is irony in the fact that what most authorities consider to be the finest rococo church in Germany is found, not in regal Munich, or even the bustle of a market town, but standing forth in solitary grandeur amongst a handful of houses in the tiny community of Wies. After all, rococo, with its profusion of glitter and pomp, is most closely associated with the flamboyant court life of the 17th and 18th centuries. Who would build such a masterpiece in a tiny country hamlet?
The answer lies within. On the cover of a tomb in an obscure corner of the sanctuary is written the name, Dominikus Zimmerman. Here is the key to understanding the Wieskirche. Dominikus Zimmerman was one of the finest—and certainly the most prolific—architects ever to work in the rococo style. And he was born just outside Wies.
But what we have here is not the usual case of a lad from humble beginnings going on to fame and fortune and then in his old age bequeathing a large sum of money so that his home town could erect something in his honor. No. Dominikus Zimmerman gave not money, but time. He labored for a full decade (1744-54) to complete the Wieskirche. For a full decade he poured his heart’s blood and artistic talent into a house of worship for the townspeople of his home.
The result is known throughout Germany as “The Wonder of the Wies.” Sunstreams slide through the windows, illuminating an interior of delights both majestic and miniature alike. Here a Biblical quotation lies enshrined in golden carvings. There a cherubic leg suddenly juts forth from a fresco into the third dimension. Imposing statues of the saints stand in a circle around the sanctuary, lending a human element to the ethereal setting.
From every angle the oval sanctuary exudes light and space. As the angles of light change with the hour of the day, worshippers come and go. Some seek healing, and leave crosses and crutches as tokens of their thankfulness. Others find solace in the notes of the church organ, whose ponderous tones fill the sanctuary with waves of sound. And still more just come to sit in stillness. Their eyes are first drawn forward, to the richly decorated altar; and then above it, to where a bronze statue of the Lamb of God reminds them of the true object of their faith. For whatever the modern viewer’s reaction, the Wieskirche remains first a house of worship, and only secondly a museum of rococo art.
This is as it should be, for Dominikus Zimmerman poured his energies into this project not to outdo himself artistically, but to keep a faith promise with himself and with all those who share the same belief.
This piece originally appeared in Messenger (Italy), December 1984.