A cemetery transformed into a theatrical space. Resurrection: the terrified dead rise from their graves, the righteous into the welcoming embrace of angels, the damned dragged away by bandy-legged demons. At the back, Archangel Michael, the master of ceremonies, brandishing a flaming sword and set of scales for weighing souls, is flanked by two angels proclaiming the Last Judgment with trumpets. Altar dedicated to St Felix, Hergiswald, 1656 (detail). Photo: Hermann Lichtsteiner
Here is a simple test. The pilgrimage church of Hergiswald at the foot of Mount Pilatus contains a visually stunning depiction of biblical scenes from the baroque period, circa 1650. What response does this cultural-historical cosmos elicit from you?
Kurt Messmer is a historian with a focus on history in public space.
If you take the postbus from Lucerne towards Eigenthal and alight halfway up the mountainside in Hergiswald, you'll find yourself right in front of the imposing chaplaincy house, the residence of the priest in charge of the pilgrimage site. It's a superb spot from which to look out over the church and its surroundings. Chaplaincy house, sexton's house, hostel and church – a small, multi-functional settlement grouped around a spiritual centre. A typical place of pilgrimage whose church, standing exposed, serves as a landmark. Similar types of settlement elsewhere might also include a confessional building, shelter for horses and carriages, and a washhouse.It's a rare sight in these parts: the pilgrimage church of Hergiswald appears to be a central-plan building – as indicated by the rather short side aisles. A crossing tower rises above the intersection of the roof ridges, marking the centre point. The architecture is bulky: the steeply sloping roofs of the nave and transept cover an extensive area, the roof of the porch juts out, the sober façade sports arched windows. Yet the earthen weight is counteracted by the lightness of the heavens above.Lines sweep down in gentle, rhythmical curves from the lantern and dome of the crossing tower to be picked up by the curved transept choir roof and brought back down to Earth. Three open ridge turrets resemble petite hooks dangling down from the sky, almost giving the impression that the weighty building is floating. It's impossible to imagine it without these little towers crowned with tiny golden figurines. Joyous yet discreet.A surprise on entering the church: the imposing high altar stands in the centre of the nave, and hidden behind it is a chapel! The entrances to the side chapels are stylised as colossal triumphal arches. In stark contrast to all this grandeur, a vast coffered ceiling spans the space as if floating on air. The crossing, from which gentle vaults emanate on all sides, has been cleverly accommodated yet remains distinctive.Where a building is developed gradually over a century and a half, as happened here from 1501 to 1662, the piecemeal nature of its creation is usually reflected in its outbuildings, annexes, additional storeys and extensions. Not so in Hergiswald, where a lowly hermitage was transformed into a harmonious church space over five construction phases, as if fashioned by the hand of a single master. Subtle contrasts heighten our perception: the unadorned sandstone floor, crude wooden benches and bare walls set against the colourful portals, golden altars and ecstatic splendour. The entire concept, theological, dramaturgical and architectonical aspects included, was the brainchild of Ludwig von Wyl (1594–1663), a Capuchin friar from Lucerne. It was realised in all its folkloric, virtuoso, exaggerated glory by wood carver Hans Ulrich Räber, also from Lucerne, and Kaspar Meglinger, the man who painted the Dance of Death on that city's Spreuerbrücke covered bridge. Three masters of their art in the same place at the same time, struck by divine inspiration. The epitome of serendipity.Time and again, biblical scenes are rendered dramatically, theatrically, beginning with the crucifixion group on the crossbeam that joins the side walls, turning a purely functional feature into a decorative one.Humankind looks up, God looks down. The vertical, representing Christianity's claim to universality, is directed down towards the world, while the horizontal is divided here into three tiers, emphasised in each case by the way the arms are held: God the Father, with arms spread wide in blessing and offering; the Son, his arms nailed to the cross in atonement for the sins of humanity; the pelican, a symbol of Jesus Christ, also with wings spread, tearing open its breast with its bill, sacrificing itself to save its young by feeding them with its own blood. An unprecedented artistic rendering of an incredible message. It is difficult to imagine any more blood. It flows in thick strands from the arms, legs and gaping wound in the side of the crucified Christ. In baroque art, there is no such thing as enough. There is a second crucified figure on the reverse side of the same cross. Three red cords emerge from its wounds and stretch across the room to the statue of Saint Francis of Assisi, thus seen receiving the stigmata which mark him out as a saint. Nothing is left to the imagination. The suffering is made tangible in the form of these blood red strands.An onrushing angel with a magnificently wild head of hair appears to Joachim, Mary's father, telling him 'a daughter shall be born unto you'. The wagging index figure is a symbol that must be seen in a wider context as a basic emotional element of baroque art.Moral posturing can also be done with the feet rather than by wagging a finger. As demonstrated by Saint Joseph in the way he valiantly resists every temptation. At first sight, the woman attempting to seduce him in Hergiswald appears to be an angel. However, the lower part of her body is that of a menacing serpent-like creature. Not the most flattering image of womanhood.The hierarchy of the three traditional types of sources – texts, images, and objects – doesn't really matter. Just as long as the original material sources are not neglected. Hergiswald provides many magnificent examples of this.A child has just been born. Her name is Mary, her parents are Anna and Joachim. The dwelling of simple people like these would certainly not have been festooned in gold – there would have been no golden apparel or linen, let alone a magnificent canopy over the bed. But in all other respects, the image provides us with a glimpse of real life in the period around 1650. Although angels were already rare at that time.The birth has gone well; the baby girl is healthy. Knowledgeable women take tender care of the newborn, bathing her, drying linen by the open fire, keeping the house neat and tidy, even stowing the slippers under the bed. They want the mother who has just given birth to regain her strength quickly; she is being passed a dish of food and further sustenance stands ready on the table. A neighbour looks in at the door to see whether she too can be of assistance. A group of women whose solidarity lets us believe in a better world, even now, four centuries later.Another phenomenon frequently encountered in baroque spaces: the breathtaking perspective of a ceiling painting creates the illusion of a vault stretching out into lofty heights. At the edge of the painting sits a small angel, its upper body painted, its abdomen and tiny legs made of plaster. Unmistakably baroque. – Illusion is taken further in Hergiswald than anywhere else.Rütli was not the only pivotal event in 1291. Elsewhere in the world, Marco Polo was setting off from China on his return to Venice, while the Turks were conquering Christian sites in the Middle East. To prevent the unthinkable, the house in which the holy family had lived had to be saved. Angels flew it over to the coast of Dalmatia, where it was finally safe. Or was it? Not in the baroque world. It was moved again, this time across the Adriatic sea to Loreto near Ancona in Italy. But even there it took a further three attempts before a site deemed fully worthy was found.Hundreds of replicas of this Loreto chapel or Santa Casa popped up all over Europe, especially from 1450 onwards. At the time of the Counter-Reformation, realistic reconstructions of biblical places were particularly popular. And so, a Santa Casa was also built in Hergiswald in 1650.Many places of pilgrimage boast a secondary shrine that further enhances their appeal, and Hergiswald, with its chapel dedicated to Saint Felix, is no different. The faithful believed that the remains of the saints would bestow salvation and blessing upon them, especially when viewed in close proximity. In 1651, the relics of St Felix were transferred from the catacombs of Rome to Hergiswald. According to one expert, the holy person being venerated is "a 'Roman' hero-cum-saint with an imaginary name". In the special theatrical production staged in Felix's honour in Hergiswald, a heathen tyrant ordered that the martyr be beheaded and his decapitated skull thrown into the jaws of hell. The stirring drama must have touched Father von Wyl and Hans Ulrich Räber in the same way. With one accord, they allow an almost life-size Felix to stand resurrected, as it were, at the centre of the retable, in the guise of a triumphant baroque knight.In the centre, on the altar, the resurrection preceding the Last Judgment. Around it, the drama of the Last Days, depicted as a rise and fall. Death enters the scene. If one person cannot be allowed to die it is the gravedigger, for who will then take care of the dead in his place? But in the central wooden relief on the front of the altar table, the figure of Death has already drawn its bow. The headgear strewn around the feet of the deadly archer shows that the most powerful spiritual and secular dignitaries had to die before the gravedigger’s turn came. Once their lesser sins have been atoned for in purgatory, at bottom left, the purified dead step out of the fire, as can be seen on the altar table above, and wend their way around the pillar as they are guided – or coaxed – up to heaven by angels. Amazingly, on entering paradise they are restrained in their jubilation and exclamations of hallelujah. Nevertheless, von Wyl and Räber created another visual feast in their staging of this part of the retable. Once again, there are figures standing watch on either side. The gates of heaven are proving difficult to open. There is a simple explanation: Saint Peter's golden key is half the size of the man himself. An angel holds an olive branch of peace over those who have been redeemed, while another raises a flaming sword over the souls of the damned. With loud trumpet blasts, another two angels sound the signal for the end of all days to the world. At the very top stands Christ, triumphant, as the judge of humanity. An abundance of detail wherever the eye looks. On the right-hand pillar, the condemned are being driven by demons down into hell, where even the furnace of fire is crafted from gold. But is this likely to bring them any consolation when faced with eternal torment and damnation?You either like it or you don't. It's that simple – perhaps too simple. Hergiswald shows how irreconcilably opposed good and evil can be in baroque art: salvation versus damnation, paradise versus hell, a host of angels versus Satan's brood. Hope in life after death is pitted against fear and terror, renunciation against seduction and sin. Baroque is all about demonstration, a mise-en-scène with moral overtones, excessive contrasts intended to create a hugely overpowering emotional effect. While all of this is true, it does not tell the whole story. Baroque is also the result of exuberant creative joy and – in its best examples – of sublime creative power. Austerity stands alongside playfulness, reality is confronted with illusion, fear of death meets an unadulterated zest for life and mellifluousness head-on. Conclusion: this epoch challenges us. Not the worst thing that can happen. P.S. Just a few hundred metres to the south of Hergiswald there are several places that contain the German word for hell – Höll(e) – in their names, like Höll, Höllboden and Oberhöllboden. There's even a Höllhütte, or 'hell hut', with "Open 24 h" carved into one of its beams. Probably best avoided!