Competition of the monstrances in Central Switzerland. Illustration by Marco Heer
Competition of the monstrances in Central Switzerland. Illustration by Marco Heer

The Zug Monstrance Competition

There is benefit for the church in rivalry between king and emperor. As in Oberägeri and Unterägeri in the canton of Zug, which each acquired an extraordinary baroque monstrance – with a political message attached, mind you.

Urs-Beat Frei

Urs-Beat Frei

Urs-Beat Frei is a specialist in Christian religious art and culture. He is engaged as conservator of the Lucerne Treasury, and works as a freelance consultant and author.

Let us begin at the end. The parish church of Unterägeri keeps a register of anniversaries of death. It used to be read from the pulpit every year. It contains an entry that sounds very strange to modern ears: 'We wish especially to call to mind His Most Christian Majesty King Louis XV, of France and Navarre, who on the 25th day of November in the year of our Lord 1735 most graciously endowed this parish church with a precious monstrance [...], upon which may the royal crown of France flourish for all time and be blessed from high Heaven as solace to the whole of Christendom.' In the early 18th century Unterägeri was a municipality with a population of around 600. It was its priest, Dr. Bernard Fliegauf, who assured Louis XV that the people of Unterägeri would in future pray for him and for the French royal family when he wrote in Latin to the King to ask for the gift of a monstrance. Of course, there was more to it on both sides than simply prayers for divine grace. In earthly terms it was very much about representation and rivalry. While the French king was then vying for power and influence with Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, Father Fliegauf himself was in competition with the mother parish of Oberägeri. His parish had split from the latter in 1714, and he himself had made a substantial financial contribution to the new church building, consecrated in 1725.
Unterägeri's royal monstrance, donated by Louis XV of France.
Unterägeri's royal monstrance, donated by Louis XV of France. by courtesy / Wikimedia
And now back to the start of our story. It all began with a burglary. On the morning of 21 July 1726 the priest of Oberägeri discovered that someone had broken into his sacristy overnight and that all of the church's most valuable items, including a monstrance, four chalices, and a crown for the statue of Our Lady the Virgin, had gone. The parish therefore needed to gather a new set of liturgical devices. It received gifts from various donors, the most remarkable of which came from none other than Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation. It was an enormous golden monstrance that stood almost a metre high. The work of renowned Augsburg goldsmith Franz Thaddäus Lang, it remains the centrepiece of the treasury of the church of Oberägeri, and is one of the most significant baroque monstrances in all of Central Switzerland.
An imperial gift: the enormous monstrance at Oberägeri.
An imperial gift: the enormous monstrance at Oberägeri. by courtesy / Wikimedia
The church has Peter Nussbaumer to thank for this imperial gift. Nussbaumer was one of the two Zug delegates to the Tagsatzung, the legislative and executive council of the Swiss Confederacy at the time. He turned the pro-Church attitudes of the Habsburgs to his advantage, and was also aided by the Emperor's efforts to fracture the French king's influence in Zug at the time. Zug was then ruled by a patriciate, namely the Zurlauben, a family that had become rich from, but also dependent on, the French king, by supplying him with young and largely poor local men as mercenaries. The monstrance was presented by an envoy from the Emperor at a banquet on 14 September 1727. Its design was indeed a strong statement against French influence in the canton of Zug, and a pointed power-political expression of the Emperor's self-image. It is striking and unusual in that the central enamel medallion on the front of the base features Saint Joseph, Jesus's adoptive father, but not the Son of God. Instead, its counterpoint on the reverse presents the likeness of Charles VI, in the sense of both the father and protector of all people of (the Catholic) faith.
Saint Joseph, in the exalted company of Emperor Charles VI, adorns the Oberägeri monstrance.
Saint Joseph, in the exalted company of Emperor Charles VI, adorns the Oberägeri monstrance. by courtesy
Further clues to the Emperor's political intentions are found in the motifs of the halo and the depiction of Our Lady of Victories below the window through which the Host – the wafer representing the body of Christ – can be seen. The image of Our Lady of Victories was much worshipped in Europe at the time. Only a few years earlier, in 1716, Emperor Charles VI's formidable general, Prince Eugene of Savoy, had delivered a decisive victory over the Ottoman Empire. The Emperor subsequently used this image of the Virgin Mary as a way of positioning himself as the successful defender of Christianity against Islam.
The monstrance also commemorates Prince Eugene of Savoy's memorable victory.
The monstrance also commemorates Prince Eugene of Savoy's memorable victory. by courtesy / Wikimedia
At the time there was ongoing conflict in Zug that went down in history as the Harten- und Lindenhandel. It was a dispute about political power between the France-facing Linden ('soft') party and the Harten ('hard') party that was sympathetic to Germany and Austria. Once again, Peter Nussbaumer made astute use of the situation for his own ends. This time, he put his case to the French ambassador in Solothurn that Louis XV should endow Unterägeri with a monstrance for its new church. His Most Christian Majesty would certainly not want his munificence to be secondary to that of the Roman-German Emperor. After all, the people of Zug felt a stronger allegiance to him than to the latter. As noted above, Father Fliegauf of Unterägeri also used precisely this argument in his begging letter to the French king. We know that Louis XV granted his petition. He approved the sum of 1,000 livres for his ambassador in Solothurn, Jean-Louis d’Usson, Marquis de Bonnac, to commission a monstrance for Unterägeri from goldsmith Johann Heinrich Büeller, still working at the age of 82. Although a little smaller than the monstrance gifted by the Emperor to Oberägeri, it is lighter in design with an almost courtly elegance. Art historian Linus Birchler described it as one of the finest baroque monstrances in Switzerland. Naturally, it is impossible to mistake the identity of the benefactor. A royal crown with French lilies floats above the heart-shaped luna. Underneath is the double coat of arms of France and Navarre, bordered by the chain of the Royal Order of Saint Louis, formed by L-shaped links.
Nobody could mistake the origin of this monstrance: the royal crown with French lilies (left) and the double coat of arms of France and Navarre, Order of Saint Louis (right).
Nobody could mistake the origin of this monstrance: the royal crown with French lilies (left) and the double coat of arms of France and Navarre, Order of Saint Louis (right). by courtesy
Such considerable monarchic investments were evidently seen as a worthwhile promotional exercise. And no wonder, since the churches subsequently attracted thousands of people a year following the pilgrim's path to the Madonna of Einsiedeln.

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