At the Marian shrine of Oberbüren (Canton of Bern), the medieval Catholic Church offered some very special services: children who were stillborn or had died at birth were briefly brought back to life so that they could be baptised and then properly buried.
Thomas Weibel is a journalist and Professor of Media Engineering at the Fachhochschule Graubünden and the Hochschule der Künste in Berne.
“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit,” Jesus replied to the doubting Pharisee Nicodemus. This dialogue in the Gospel of John troubled many theologians because in the interpretation of Church Father St Augustine it meant, in plain language, that children who die unbaptised are condemned to eternal damnation.
As if a stillbirth or the death of an infant were not already suffering enough, the idea that their innocent, unbaptised child would go to hell must have been unbearable for the grieving mothers and families. Pilgrimage churches and shrines of resurrection, known as sanctuaires à répit, cashed in on this belief. They offered to bring the dead child back to life briefly so that it could be baptised and buried, and could then rest in consecrated ground.One of these sanctuaries stood on the “Chilchmatt” in Oberbüren, a gentle elevation on the south-eastern outskirts of Büren an der Aare. In about 1470 a humble chapel dating from 1302 was replaced by an elaborate complex enclosed within a wall which, in addition to the elevated, 50-metre-long pilgrimage church complete with entrance tower, incorporated a reception building, a sizeable chaplain’s house with nine or ten rooms, fountains and an ossuary. The church belonged to the Diocese of Constance and was consecrated to the Virgin Mary, because it was expected that as a mother, she would take especial care of the souls of dead children.The supposed resurrection of the dead that took place on the high altar in Oberbüren was actually nothing but pure physics. “Certain women appointed by the secular authorities warm up the dead children among glowing coals and candles and lamps placed around them. A very light feather is then placed upon the lips of the now warm dead child or premature infant, and if the feather happens fortuitously to be lifted off the baby’s lips by a puff of air or the warmth of the coals, the women declare that these children and infants have breathed and lived, and they have them baptised immediately, to the ringing of the church bells and the singing of hymns. The bodies of these children who supposedly came back to life and immediately died again are then handed over for Christian burial, in a mockery of the Orthodox Christian faith and the ecclesiastic sacraments,” the Bishop of Constance, Otto von Sonnenberg, seethed in a letter to the Curia in Rome in 1486.This superstition had long been a thorn in the Bishop’s side, as the purported Wiedererweckungskirche (resurrection church) had considerable influence. Hundreds, if not thousands, of dead children were brought to Oberbüren from far-distant places; the discovery of late medieval coins on the site shows that pilgrims made the journey from Bern, Zurich, Basel and even from Tyrol, France and the Netherlands to secure heavenly peace for their dead children. In order to put a stop to this brazen deception, Bishop Otto had initiated an official investigation in 1485. But the church at Oberbüren was not just a spiritual centre; there were also economic considerations, because only the resurrection was free of charge – the baptism and the burial were not. And so Bern, whose budget was heavily strained by the expensive building of its cathedral, defended itself against every criticism and began to play the Bishop of Constance against his counterpart, the Bishop of Lausanne – knowing full well that the Diocese of Lausanne tolerated a number of such resurrection churches, in Lausanne itself, in Châtillens (Canton of Vaud), Neuchâtel and Montagny (Canton of Fribourg). Otto’s investigation was thwarted, and the Marian shrine continued to be diligently supported. In 1495, Bern acquired the right of patronage over the pilgrimage church from the Benedictine monastery of Erlach; in 1507 the council even installed its own treasurer as bailiff.In the end, it was the Reformation that heralded the end of the thriving business. After a disputation in Bern in 1528, to which the Zurich revolutionary Huldrych Zwingli and other Reformation leaders were invited, Bern decided to formally convert to the new doctrine. Virtually overnight, the resurrections in Oberbüren were banned, the pilgrimage church was closed and the miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary was publicly burned. Büren initially resisted but Bern ordered the altars smashed, under threat of harsh penalties. In 1530 the order was given to demolish the church and to use the stones for the town walls; two years later the church tower was also dismantled, down to its foundations. The last pilgrims flocking to the site despite all the bans were chased off by soldiers at gunpoint.The eventful history of the “Chilchmatt” was forgotten, until a planned development of the site in 1992 and archaeological excavations in Oberbüren in 1997 uncovered wall fragments of the extensive complex and around 250 skeletons of foetuses and children. Today, only a level surface with the outlines of the former pilgrimage church and a sculpture by Solothurn artist Gunter Frentzel, who died in 2017, mark the site of the medieval sanctuary. The towering iron sculpture named Die Feder (The Feather) consists of 17 chromium steel rods arranged in a fan shape pointing towards the horizon and is intended, as the artist wrote in 2003, to reflect the sunlight and evoke associations with movement, as a “symbol of lightness and flying”.
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