The barons of Hohenklingen are depicted outside the stable in Bethlehem, the same size as the Three Wise Men. Created around 1420, the memorial painting in the noble family’s burial chapel in Stein am Rhein is a carefully staged work of chivalric self-aggrandisement.
Felix Graf was a curator at the National Museum Zurich until 2017. Now he works as a freelance publicist.
Walter VII von Hohenklingen was at the peak of his power when he had the southern wall of the Lady Chapel (Marienkapelle) in the monastery church of the Benedictine abbey of St George in Stein am Rhein painted with a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi. The scattered estates of this 15th-century knight, who was married to Kunigunde von Fürstenberg, stretched from Hegau to Thurgau and Lake Zurich. Their daughter Anastasia was Abbess of Zurich’s Fraumünsterabtei (Fraumünster Abbey) from 1398 to 1418. In a deft balancing act, Walter managed to maintain a strong position between the Habsburgs and the empire.
The centre of his power lay in the immediate area of Stein am Rhein, where the outflow of the Rhine from Lake Constance created a geographically strategic point for transport. He was patron of the monastery and the town, provided an escort for convoys of merchants, and collected the substantial toll charges for waterborne and onshore traffic. In the town he owned three or four townhouses, two of them with extensive farmlands, and the granary on the site later occupied by the town hall. The heart of his dominion was the ancestral seat of Hohenklingen Castle, perched high above the little town, which he had extended and remodelled into a distinguished lordly residence. It was under him that the castle was given its current appearance.
The crest crosses the line
In full armour the four barons of Hohenklingen, followed by their wives, are depicted behind the Three Wise Men as they offer homage before Mary, who is seated in an open building with the Christ Child on her lap. The image, painted al secco over earlier pictures, occupies the entire wall between the chancel of the monastery church and the burial chapel. There is a vaulted alcove, also richly painted, in the wall for the family’s coffins. The noble couples kneel in prayer in front of a white background studded with blue stars. Elaborate crests are emblazoned above the heads of the knights and their escutcheons, bearing their coat of arms, hang at their feet. Behind the knights and the Three Wise Men rise two hills separated by a wooded ravine; on the first a castle towers into the sky, and on the second sits a shepherd playing music. The noble couples are the same size as the figures from the history of salvation. And that’s not all: the crenellated tower of the castle, the crest of the second knight and the coat of arms with the stylised blue oak at his feet protrude into the border of the picture, as does the hem of the robe worn by the woman kneeling in front of him. Of the iconographic props of the Christmas story, only the star of Bethlehem rises above the picture’s border! The couple shown directly above the apex of the arch of the coffin alcove are the man who commissioned the painting, Walter VII, and his wife, Kunigunde von Fürstenberg, and the noble pair in front of him are his mother, Elisabeth von Brandis, and his father, Ulrich VIII of Hohenklingen.
If the castle is to be understood as Hohenklingen and the hill on the right as Klingenberg, which we can assume is the case, then the hill on the left as seen by the viewer, with the Annunciation to the Shepherds, must be the Wolkensteinerberg. Earthly and otherworldly topography overlap. The picture is intended to be a window on eternity and, conversely, a view from heaven into the present-day world.
An investment in the fourth pillar
The entire work is about the spiritual salvation of the knightly couples, and eternity: Ulrich VIII and his son Walter VII of Hohenklingen endowed the chapel in 1372 as an appropriately grand resting place for Elisabeth von Brandis, respectively their wife and mother, and for themselves. The mural, probably commissioned by Walter VII sometime between the Council of Constance and 1420, is merely the visible part of an elaborate system of provision for the afterlife: the pious endowment also included the Jahrzeiten, the annual requiem mass to be said in honour of the deceased on the anniversary of each of their deaths, the generous feeding of the poor with 100 km of bread from the monastery’s bakery and ‘erbs und smalz dazu, als wie gewohnlich ist’, the procession of chanting monks, the ringing of the church bells, and the worldly goods necessary to finance the whole effort. The construction of the chapel, the paintings and the Jahrzeiten specifically serve to shorten the time the deceased will spend waiting in Purgatory between the provisional ‘particular judgment’ immediately after death, and the final judgment on Judgment Day. So what we’re looking at is a ‘donation for the soul’ – in modern terms, an investment in a kind of fourth pillar. If making provision for the afterlife can also be combined with magnificent knightly self-portrayal in the here and now, then all the better!
The barons of Klingen
The barons of Klingen are one of the best-documented baronial noble families in eastern Switzerland. Probably the most famous representative of the extensive family is the minstrel Walter von Klingen von Klingnau, immortalised in the Codex Manesse. However, the sources are just as scattered as the estates the family owned in eastern Switzerland, on the Upper Rhine and in Tyrol. The two lines of von Altenklingen and von Hohenklingen, named after their ancestral castles, can only be clearly distinguished from 1312 onwards.
One difficulty in identifying individual male representatives is that they only use the names Ulrich and Walter. The Steiner branch of the family appears in the sources for the first time in 1209. The oldest part of Hohenklingen Castle is dated to 1219. The name Hohenklingen doesn’t appear until 1327. In the Battle of Sempach in July 1386, ‘zwene ritter von clyngen’ (two knights of Clyngen) were killed. Whether the funerary sculpture of a knight of Altenklingen from the Lady Chapel in the Cistercian abbey at Feldbach in Steckborn is of one of these two knights, or even the last of the line, Walter von Altenklingen, cannot be said with any certainty.
When the Altenklingen line died out in 1394, Walter VII von Hohenklingen inherited their imperial fiefdom and, in addition to his own coat of arms with the stylised blue oak on a yellow background, he also used that of Altenklingen, featuring the white lion on a black background. On the memorial painting in the Hohenklingen Chapel at Stein am Rhein, he had himself depicted with the Hohenklingen coat of arms and the Altenklingen crest.
The legends of the saints are written without footnotes. They can’t be checked and verified. The significance of these legends lies in the moral ideal that lives on in elaborate portrayals as a gentle entreaty to follow their saintly example.
Swiss-German playing cards with the suits Schellen (Bells), Schilten (Shields), Eicheln (Acorns) and Rosen (Roses) have been around for more than half a millennium. Though they have only been used for the game Jass for the last 200 years or so.