The chandelier in the parish church at Rothenthurm, where it has brightened up the interior since 1995.
The chandelier in the parish church at Rothenthurm, where it has brightened up the interior since 1995.   Michael van Orsouw

Jerusalem in Rothenthurm

This is the story of a political refugee in Switzerland who went on to become Emperor of France. He left behind a few traces as he passed through our country – including some that still shine brightly today.

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw has a PhD in history and is a performance poet and author. He regularly publishes historical books.

The parish church of St Anthony in Rothenthurm sits at right angles to its surroundings and to the main road. The lofty gabled roof looks like an iron beam suspended across the high valley; the 65-metre-high tower is visible from miles around. At 57 metres, this house of worship is immensely long for a church because, as legend has it, the builders wanted the Rothenthurm church to be larger than the one in the canton’s capital, Schwyz. And it accomplishes that feat – we’re told St Anthony’s outperforms its rival by precisely one foot. Just as impossible to miss is the chandelier that hangs inside the church: it’s more than five metres high and four metres in diameter! This is remarkable in several respects. Firstly, the chandelier is much older than the church – it dates from 1865, while the church was only consecrated in 1940. This isn’t unusual, however, and it happens in many churches in this country that an altar, an image or a sculpture is much older than the building.
The church St. Anthony in Rothenthurm.
View in the church of St. Anthony in Rothenthurm.
Views of the church of St. Anthony in Rothenthurm. Michael van Orsouw
The story of the chandelier, on the other hand, is very unusual. It has the touch of the imperial hand. The French Emperor Napoleon III gifted the heavyweight treasure to Einsiedeln Abbey in 1865. But what does a French emperor have to do with a provincial monastery in Switzerland? More than you might think! At a young age, in 1815, the emperor was on the run with his mother. After the fall of his uncle Napoléon Bonaparte, Louis-Napoléon, as he was formerly known, was roaming from place to place with no fixed address and no clear plan. The biblical Christmas story comes to mind. That’s quite an exaggeration, because while Hortense and her little Prince Louis-Napoléon were in fact exiles, they did have at their disposal a bit more than just a donkey and a stable, namely, three carriages for themselves, their servants and their luggage. Before they took up residence for a short time in Constance, and then in Salenstein in Thurgau for many years, the French fugitives found a safe haven for a few days at Einsiedeln Abbey. They were eternally grateful for the kindness of the monks.
Portrait of Emperor Napoleon III.
Portrait of Emperor Napoleon III. Swiss National Museum

The emperor speaks Thurgau dialect

In 1865 Louis-Napoléon returned to Switzerland as Emperor of France. In his old hometown on Lake Constance, a hero’s welcome was laid on in honour of the erstwhile refugee: gunfire heralded the joyful visit, the Salenstein male choir serenaded the imperial guest, triumphal arches decked the streets, and a grand fireworks display lit up the night sky. Napoleon III was delighted to be back in Thurgau, “the scene of my happy youth”, and at Arenenberg Castle the emperor himself filled his guests’ cups with champagne. He handed out accolades, happily went among the cheering crowds shaking hands, and conversed freely in Thurgau dialect, which he still spoke fluently. The Konstanzer Zeitung newspaper took poetic flight in its account of the imperial visit: “Like a hitherto unknown comet, he swept in with a rush and a roar on wings of smoke, trailing after him a tail of courtiers and mouchards, and, before one had even fully recovered from the shock, just as quickly disappeared again, sprinkling a rain of gold over Arenenberg’s vicinity…” The emperor did in fact present the three parishes with a total of 30,000 francs for the benefit of the district’s poor.
Arenenberg Castle in Salenstein, Thurgau, 1922.
Arenenberg Castle in Salenstein, Thurgau, 1922. Swiss National Museum
The emperor’s journey continued to Einsiedeln, to the monastery that had once offered him and his mother refuge and where he had received his first communion. The emperor presented the monastery with the magnificent gilded chandelier. This clarifies the relationship between Einsiedeln and the emperor. But Einsiedeln is not Rothenthurm. So how did the chandelier get there? The superb work from the Paris goldsmith workshop of Louis Bachelet was installed first in the Predigtraum (sermon room) of the collegiate church in Einsiedeln, even though the chandelier didn’t really fit into the Baroque world of the abbey. It also obstructed the view of the elaborate ceiling frescos. But you can’t just rebuff an imperial gift that even in those days had an immensely high value of around 40,000 francs.
19th-century print of Einsiedeln Abbey.
19th-century print of Einsiedeln Abbey. Swiss National Museum
After 88 years, however, its time was up: Einsiedeln Abbey sent the hefty chandelier – all 1,200 kilos of it! – into retirement. The chandelier was taken down, dismantled into pieces and sold on to Arth. That still doesn’t explain the Rothenthurm part of the story. The 2-metre-high inner section of the chandelier then spent decades illuminating a sitting room in a private home. In 1976, Arth doctor Norbert Kamer made a house call at the residence. He saw the magnificent piece and remembered having seen the chandelier in its time in the abbey church, when he was a pupil at the church school. Kamer promptly bought the chandelier from his astonished patient. The doctor had the chandelier disassembled, packed in 35 jute sacks and transported by horse and haycart to his cellar, where he stored it for almost 20 years. When Schwyz historical monument conservator Markus Bamert was restoring Rothenthurm Church in 1992, he remembered the chandelier sitting in storage. He had the chandelier hung in a barn to try it out, created photomontages and finally convinced the parish of Rothenthurm to give the imperial chandelier a home. The monks of Einsiedeln once gave shelter to the emperor; now the people of Rothenthurm did the same for his chandelier.
View of Rothenthurm, around 1921.
View of Rothenthurm, around 1921. ETH Library Zurich
The chandelier is in three sections and has 96 lamps. Stylistically it resembles medieval Radleuchter, or wheel chandeliers. Three hoops support a small temple, known as a tempietto, in the centre of the chandelier; iconographically, this tempietto refers to the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem. Plant motifs in various colours and transparent glass elements are set into a glazed enamel overlay. The chandelier is suspended from a forged iron bar mounted in the vault of the church roof. Because the chandelier is so heavy, the carpenters had to massively reinforce the roof structure! After the renovation was completed in 1995, monument conservator Bamert discovered a design drawing for four chandeliers inside St Anthony’s Church: they were miniature versions of the imperial chandelier. They were never made.

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