Two weekends ago I went to see a real, true-blue Romanesque church, one of the few in the area around Munich. (Bavaria was caught up in the love of Baroque Catholic architecture, so most of its churches, even its small village churches, were rebuilt or at least redecorated in the Baroque era.)
I had never gotten around to researching outlying churches, but one of my language exchange partners, Peter, knew some places already. He has an interest in local history and has tracked down or accidentally discovered some of these very old churches.
(My interest in local history means I go to the Whatcom Museum and look at their (admittedly cool) photo exhibits of the logging days and other things, around a hundred or hundred and fifty years old. His interest in history means he goes to 900 year old churches. But I’m not bitter.)
So anyway: this church.
Built from 1104-07 (that’s 905 years ago) in the “Alpen-ländisch” style of a simple three-aisled Romanesque basilica, Petersberg was a monastic church. The hill itself has been inhabited since Celtic times (there are Celtic graves on the hill) and the Roman road to Augsburg passed along the hill. The village at the northeast side of the hill, Eisenhofen, dates from at least the 6th century. By the time the church was built in the early 12th century, there was a wooden castle, called “Glaneck,” built on the hill. Glaneck was owned by Count Otto II of Scheyern* and his relative in 1104, when they offered it to a group of Benedictine monks.
*(Around this time, the Scheyerns were in the process of moving from Scheyern to Wittelsbach — and by 1180 this family, now the Wittelsbachs, were the ruling dynasty in Bavaria.)
Where did the monks come from? Well. In late 11th century Germany, Abbot William of Hirsau was a considerable figure who kicked off what is known as the Hirsau reforms, a German relative of the Cluniac reforms. Sometime after he took office in 1069, he sent twelve monks and twelve laybrothers to start a new monastery at Bayrischzell, where they stayed for a while until the harsh climate prompted them to move — with the help of another noble patron — to Fischbachau, where they built a church in 1087. But this situation was also unfavorable, so the community moved once again, this time to the hill near Eisenhofen, to the castle owned by Count Otto III. They used the castle as their cloister, and built the church in the small courtyard or bailey.
The western side of the church remains without whitewash and shows the stonework. The church was built of rubble-stones transported here from the Danube. The door you can see in the center was not original — the original building, as today, had entrances only on the north and south: the south door may have led to the cloister and was for the monks, while the north door was for the village people. Apparently having entrances on those sides also helped protect from the weather and wind.
It was late afternoon by the time we got there, and nearly dark, so I only got one good photo of the exterior before we went inside. (And when we came out again, it was dark already.) So I’ll add in a couple pictures from the internet with better lighting.
Here you can see the east side, with its three apses, and the bell tower (which was built in the 18th century, but there may have been a belltower here in the first building, because bells had an important liturgical function for Benedictine monks).
The church was restored to its original Romanesque appearance in 1907 — during the time when many neo-Romanesque churches were being built. The main thing they had to do was fix the roof. In the 17th or 18th century, it had been severely damaged in a storm, and when they finally got the money to rebuild it, they just built up from the side-aisles, instead of rebuilding the roof above the nave with its clerestory. They walled up the clerestory windows, so light could only come in through the side aisle windows, making it very dark. Today the clerestory has been restored:
This is more or less what it must have looked like when it was built — aside from the altar and other details, and the pews. There weren’t pews in churches until the late middle ages, and it only became universal after the Reformation. The people stood or knelt or moved slowly around.
The frescoes on the central apse were uncovered during the 1907 renovation, hidden under six layers of Baroque plaster and stucco. They were restored, and new frescoes were added to the side apses.
The left apse is dedicated to St Martin…
(The German missal was way better than anything available in the US – until now!)
St Martin giving his cloak to the beggar…
and sitting enthroned as bishop. The sword across his lap — supposed to be a symbol of his former life as a soldier — is anachronistic, betraying that this is just a Romanesque-style recreation. In the iconography of the time, Martin would never have been holding a sword as a priest or bishop.
The right apse is dedicated to St Benedict, and the altar holds the (modern) tabernacle.
“Multi ad eum convenerunt discipuli.” Many gathered to him as disciples.
St Benedict destroys the temple of Apollo that sat on top of the mountain where he would build his abbey, Monte Cassino.
Dying at the altar, his soul (the little baby) is given a hand up by, well, God. He died on March 21, 547, while standing before the altar — which is why his brothers are rushing forward to try and catch him.
The central apse! This one is the coolest because it is actually what was painted here in 1107, when the church was finished. On top is Christ Pantokrator or Christ in Majesty, a common iconographic depiction of Christ — he is flanked by Peter and Paul (the patrons of this church), and under his feet are the symbols of the Four Evangelists. In Carolingian and Ottonian churches (from just before the Romanesque period), this seems to have been the only theme depicted on the dome of the apse. So this is a thoroughly traditional choice of design.
In the middle section, Peter (left) and Paul (right) are shown at their martyrdoms.
Below is Mary, Seat of Wisdom, enthroned with Jesus on her lap (like a seat, do you get it) and holding an apple-like object with a cross on it. This is the Reichsapfel or Globus cruciger, a symbol of imperial rule, salvation, and the Church — and insofar as it is red like an apple it is a symbol of Mary as the “New Eve.” (Mary is called the New Eve because her assent to give birth to Jesus was the ultimate bookend to Eve’s disobedience and the Fall of Man — and because as Eve is the mother of all humans, so Mary is the mother of God Incarnate and of the Church.)
Notice how Jesus is halfway smiling at you!
Below runs the text of the Salve Regina. This most beautiful of Marian hymns (in my opinion…) was most likely written by a German monk in the 11th century. So in 1107 when this wall was painted, it was fairly new. (That is, if the inscription was part of the original painting. It strikes me now that none of the info I’ve found lists specifically which parts of the central apse are original and which were filled-in by the artist-restorer, so I’m not sure.)
Peter wanted to know what all the Latin said, so I translated it all in whispers (there was an elderly lady praying nearby) while he dashed back to the light switch every five minutes or so — they were on a timer to save money!
In front of the altar there was a Baroque nativity scene.
At one point, as we were finishing up reading the inscription, the lights went off and we started to back down off the altar steps — almost into the nativity figures. The older woman who was there came up to us in the dark and made sure we didn’t bump into them, and then she proceeded to talk animatedly to us (well, to Peter, but I could understand what she was talking about every once in a while) for like TEN MINUTES STRAIGHT. She was talking all about the church and what other old ones were in the area, and on and on about lots of other things I couldn’t catch. In complete darkness, with just a little light coming through the windows as it got closer to dusk. It was funny. Finally she tried to ask me something and Peter told her I was American, so she spoke to me very carefully in English and told me she hoped that I was enjoying German and that all the people were treating me well. It was really sweet! Don’t let anybody tell you that Germans aren’t friendly… at least Bavarians!
Anyway, then we left. But I’m not QUITE done.
Here in the right-hand aisle is a late Gothic statue made by none other than the Blutenburg master! The one who made the statues of the Apostles in the chapel at Schloss Blutenburg!
And here’s the arcading, where you can just make out that there is a round (not a square) column on the far right. This alternation of supports was done a lot in Romanesque (alternation gave the bulky architecture of the nave a kind of rhythm), but this is the earliest example of it in Upper Bavaria. And since it’s just one pillar that is different, they aren’t sure why it was done — maybe to demarcate the area for the monks from the area for the people?
Getting back to our story, the monks who built this church only lived here for sixteen years before moving once again. They said they were too isolated from resources (like water), but it also probably had to do with the Counts of Scheyern (now Wittelsbach), who wanted to convert their old home in Scheyern into a monastery. There all the members of the family could lie in the graveyard and be prayed for by the monks “in perpetuity.” So the monks went to Scheyern in 1124, but two priests were left to say Mass — and then two hundred years later, around 1340, the church was handed over to the care of a nearby parish.
The Benedictines at Scheyern are still there, by the way.
Skipping forward over a lot of stuff that is probably not that interesting — past the 1907 restoration and on to World War II:
Bishop Johannes Neuhäusler was born in Eisenhofen, in the village by the hill, and was imprisoned in Dachau concentration camp, just 15 kilometers from where he grew up. While in the camp, he vowed, “if he, like St Peter, and through the intercession of St Peter, should come out of this prison alive, then he would keep the church on Petersberg well-maintained and make it the religious center of the whole region.” In 1952, he fulfilled that vow with a new restoration of the church (more like a cleaning this time). (He also supported the founding of the Carmelite convent which is now on the site of the camp.)
And finally. These are real medieval locks and hinges (though they didn’t come from this church). Cool, huh!
So it was a really satisfying trip, and I’m happy to have found a church-visiting buddy who knows his way around. This weekend we might go to another Romanesque village church, but perhaps before then I’ll post about my trip to see some Roman roads…