read part 1 here
read part 2 here
So the thing about my trip to southern Germany is that we saw a lot of churches– 1.5 a day on average according to Olaf, who did the math. So they get their very own bonus post. I would like to be clear: This blog is not about my own personal experiences in Germany. It is just about churches. If you’re interested in my experiences in a broader sense, check out the links at the beginning of this blog.
There are three main towns around Lake Constance with churches to see, and those towns are Konstanz, Reichenau, and Stein am Rhein. Konstanz is the home of a magnificent Gothic cathedral with some of the most lovely stained glass I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing with my own eyes.
The thing about Medieval churches is that I adore them more than most things on the planet. They’re phenomenally and beautifully built, with an austerity and simplicity that facilitates the magic of the place and its contents. In opposition to later styles (I’m looking at you, Baroque), Gothic and Romanesque architecture operates with the prerogative of letting the nature of religion speak for itself– often literally, with narrative stained glass windows and impressive Judgment Day tympanum scenes.
These are one of my favorite genres in art history because they are so graphic and visually interesting. They usually appear at the entrances of churches, though this one was at the exit of a chapel, for a very specific function. The majority of churchgoers in the Middle Ages were illiterate, which was a minor hurdle in teaching Scripture. The Catholic Church famously relied on vivid imagery like this scene to remind folks why they should be God-fearing Christians, less they end up like those on God’s left hand.
Stein am Rhein, in contrast, had a church with the ugliest stained glass windows I’ve ever seen. They look like the upholstery of an out-of-the-way bus station that hasn’t been renovated in 30+ years.
The site with the most churches by far was Reichenau, not to be confused with Richelieu, whom I thought was a fictional character made up by Alexandre Dumas for much longer than I probably should have, and which I accidentally typed more than once in my Facebook album of photos from the trip.
Anyway, Reichenau is an island in Lake Constance that is considered a World Heritage Site because of its excellent and historically significant monastery. We saw three churches on this one small island, starting with the oldest one, the Church of St. George, which dates to around the 10th century. The exterior is an unappealing shade of yellow:
While the interior is a unique preservation of optical illusionary frescoes, the likes of which did not appear again for several hundred years:
Going to churches around this time of year, we saw many Christmas trees and lovely nativity sets. The nativity scenes were sweet and gave off a warm feeling of good cheer; the Christmas trees flanking Christ on the cross seemed a little out of place.
Onward to the Church of St. Mary and St. Mark.
Though this one lacked the colorful frescoes of the Church of St. Georg, it did feature a timber roof in the style of Viking ships and an iron gate that was equal parts breathtaking and infuriating: the perspective work was an amazing example of the Renaissance focus on perspective, but I couldn’t see behind it and that irritated me.
The final church on the island that we visited was the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, which dates to the 14th century, but the interior is much more modern.
It was an interesting juxtaposition of the Medieval-style frescoes as found in the apse (look at me, showing off my art history vocabulary) compared to the decidedly anti-Medieval ceiling decoration. I’m not saying one is better than the other, and the simple fact of seeing them together under one roof is a beautiful testament to the interactions between art and time and religion.
And fine, yeah, I’m saying Medieval is better than Baroque.
Like, yes, okay, it’s magnificent and splendid. But it’s also frilly and pink. Like, way too pink. Why is the exterior so fucking pink?
However, I did buy a Pope Francis charm that says “God bless you” at the church gift shop. I felt a little weird buying it because like I’m pretty sure Jesus flipped a table over that kind of thing, but I wanted it, and it was 3 euros, so. Gott schütze dich.
The town of Güttingen, where we stayed, had its own church, which was proportionate to the size of the city– that is to say, smaller than most of the other ones I’ve already discussed. However, it is also old as heck, and as such had some frescoes preserved from the early Middle Ages.
I know it takes a very particular kind of person to get excited by this kind of artwork, so I won’t gush here, but I ask you to think about it. This image is over a thousand years old, carefully preserved in a place where people still come to worship (and where Paul was recently confirmed). It was a very real, magical connection to God for the people who never read a Bible or learned Latin, and the way they got to know their creator. And still today, this art exists. I think that’s beautiful.
To bring this post full circle, I will end with the final church I visited, also in Konstanz: St. Stephan’s Church. It was kind of a random visit, in that we only went because we were parked outside of it, but it was incredible.
Also a sort of hodge-podge of artistic styles, St. Stephan’s had beautiful portraits of saints in a style reminiscent of Byzantine icons, Gothic stained glass windows, and a Baroque apse. But what I found exceptionally captivating in the church were paintings of the scenes of Christ’s crucifixion.
Given the techniques used in Medieval, Renaissance, Classical, Baroque, etc. figural representation, it’s often hard to take depictions of Christ, the Madonna, etc. seriously because they’re just so ridiculous.
But these paintings were not that way. They were some of the most impactful artworks I’ve ever seen in a church, and after this trip, I’ve seen a lot.
Prepare now for a photo blitz of things that didn’t fit within the text of this blog.
A gravestone that we’re pretty sure says anuses instead of years!