Altar dedicated to St Felix, Hergiswald, 1656 (detail).
A cemetery transformed into a theatrical space. Resurrection: the terrified dead rise from their graves, the righteous into the welcoming embrace of angels, the damned dragged away by bandy-legged demons. At the back, Archangel Michael, the master of ceremonies, brandishing a flaming sword and set of scales for weighing souls, is flanked by two angels proclaiming the Last Judgment with trumpets. Altar dedicated to St Felix, Hergiswald, 1656 (detail). Photo: Hermann Lichtsteiner

Baroque: love it or hate it?

Here is a simple test. The pilgrimage church of Hergiswald at the foot of Mount Pilatus contains a visually stunning depiction of biblical scenes from the baroque period, circa 1650. What response does this cultural-historical cosmos elicit from you?

Kurt Messmer

Kurt Messmer

Kurt Messmer is a historian with a focus on history in public space.

If you take the postbus from Lucerne towards Eigenthal and alight halfway up the mountainside in Hergiswald, you'll find yourself right in front of the imposing chaplaincy house, the residence of the priest in charge of the pilgrimage site. It's a superb spot from which to look out over the church and its surroundings. Chaplaincy house, sexton's house, hostel and church – a small, multi-functional settlement grouped around a spiritual centre. A typical place of pilgrimage whose church, standing exposed, serves as a landmark. Similar types of settlement elsewhere might also include a confessional building, shelter for horses and carriages, and a washhouse.

Dramatic impact

It's a rare sight in these parts: the pilgrimage church of Hergiswald appears to be a central-plan building – as indicated by the rather short side aisles. A crossing tower rises above the intersection of the roof ridges, marking the centre point. The architecture is bulky: the steeply sloping roofs of the nave and transept cover an extensive area, the roof of the porch juts out, the sober façade sports arched windows. Yet the earthen weight is counteracted by the lightness of the heavens above.
Pilgrimage church of Hergiswald near Kriens
Treetops and church towers engrossed in a tête-à-tête. Nature and culture closely entwined in a forest clearing. Simply the perfect location for the pilgrimage church of Hergiswald near Kriens, 800 metres above sea level. With views of the northern outskirts of Lucerne.
Lines sweep down in gentle, rhythmical curves from the lantern and dome of the crossing tower to be picked up by the curved transept choir roof and brought back down to Earth. Three open ridge turrets resemble petite hooks dangling down from the sky, almost giving the impression that the weighty building is floating. It's impossible to imagine it without these little towers crowned with tiny golden figurines. Joyous yet discreet.

Stepping into a completely different world

A surprise on entering the church: the imposing high altar stands in the centre of the nave, and hidden behind it is a chapel! The entrances to the side chapels are stylised as colossal triumphal arches. In stark contrast to all this grandeur, a vast coffered ceiling spans the space as if floating on air. The crossing, from which gentle vaults emanate on all sides, has been cleverly accommodated yet remains distinctive.
Hergiswald, revelling in imaginative design, wherever you look.
Hergiswald, revelling in imaginative design, wherever you look. The ceiling itself is a work of architectural genius: it spans the space like the canopy of heaven, holding everything together while appearing to defy gravity. Adorned with 323 panels painted by Kaspar Meglinger and featuring symbols of the Virgin Mary ‒ nowhere else boasts as many ‒ it is a painted litany in honour of the Mother of God.
Where a building is developed gradually over a century and a half, as happened here from 1501 to 1662, the piecemeal nature of its creation is usually reflected in its outbuildings, annexes, additional storeys and extensions. Not so in Hergiswald, where a lowly hermitage was transformed into a harmonious church space over five construction phases, as if fashioned by the hand of a single master. Subtle contrasts heighten our perception: the unadorned sandstone floor, crude wooden benches and bare walls set against the colourful portals, golden altars and ecstatic splendour. The entire concept, theological, dramaturgical and architectonical aspects included, was the brainchild of Ludwig von Wyl (1594–1663), a Capuchin friar from Lucerne. It was realised in all its folkloric, virtuoso, exaggerated glory by wood carver Hans Ulrich Räber, also from Lucerne, and Kaspar Meglinger, the man who painted the Dance of Death on that city's Spreuerbrücke covered bridge. Three masters of their art in the same place at the same time, struck by divine inspiration. The epitome of serendipity.

Taken to the limits

Time and again, biblical scenes are rendered dramatically, theatrically, beginning with the crucifixion group on the crossbeam that joins the side walls, turning a purely functional feature into a decorative one.
How far apart should ‒ must ‒ the figures be?
How far apart should ‒ must ‒ the figures be? A question seldom asked, but one which is relevant to countless artworks in countless places, such as Annunciation scenes on choir arches or crucifixion groups, like the one here in Hergiswald. The spacing between the figures is crucial: too small and it appears less than respectful, too large and the harmony is no longer clear. In this example, the idea of a respectful distance has been pushed to the limit: the figures are as far apart as they could possibly be.
Humankind looks up, God looks down. The vertical, representing Christianity's claim to universality, is directed down towards the world, while the horizontal is divided here into three tiers, emphasised in each case by the way the arms are held: God the Father, with arms spread wide in blessing and offering; the Son, his arms nailed to the cross in atonement for the sins of humanity; the pelican, a symbol of Jesus Christ, also with wings spread, tearing open its breast with its bill, sacrificing itself to save its young by feeding them with its own blood. An unprecedented artistic rendering of an incredible message. It is difficult to imagine any more blood. It flows in thick strands from the arms, legs and gaping wound in the side of the crucified Christ. In baroque art, there is no such thing as enough. There is a second crucified figure on the reverse side of the same cross. Three red cords emerge from its wounds and stretch across the room to the statue of Saint Francis of Assisi, thus seen receiving the stigmata which mark him out as a saint. Nothing is left to the imagination. The suffering is made tangible in the form of these blood red strands.

Pointing the finger

An onrushing angel with a magnificently wild head of hair appears to Joachim, Mary's father, telling him 'a daughter shall be born unto you'. The wagging index figure is a symbol that must be seen in a wider context as a basic emotional element of baroque art.
Hergiswald, high altar, right-hand side.
Perhaps the boisterous entrance of this lively angel, full of joie de vivre, can ‒ just for a moment ‒ succeed in enchanting those who otherwise have difficulty identifying with the art of the baroque era. True, a romantic religious altarpiece from the 19th century (a small detail of which can be seen behind the angel) distracts somewhat from the unity of the high altar. But that's something baroque does to good effect: harmoniously blending disparate parts into a perfectly unified work. Hergiswald, high altar, right-hand side.
Moral posturing can also be done with the feet rather than by wagging a finger. As demonstrated by Saint Joseph in the way he valiantly resists every temptation. At first sight, the woman attempting to seduce him in Hergiswald appears to be an angel. However, the lower part of her body is that of a menacing serpent-like creature. Not the most flattering image of womanhood.
Hergiswald, high altar, right-hand side.
Neither rosy cheeks, blond locks, golden attire nor angel wings can help her: Saint Joseph tramples on the temptress's head – which at least rests on a sumptuous red pillow. Hergiswald, high altar, right-hand side.
The hierarchy of the three traditional types of sources – texts, images, and objects – doesn't really matter. Just as long as the original material sources are not neglected. Hergiswald provides many magnificent examples of this.

A glimpse of life four centuries ago

A child has just been born. Her name is Mary, her parents are Anna and Joachim. The dwelling of simple people like these would certainly not have been festooned in gold – there would have been no golden apparel or linen, let alone a magnificent canopy over the bed. But in all other respects, the image provides us with a glimpse of real life in the period around 1650. Although angels were already rare at that time.
Hergiswald, central section of the high altar.
Birth of the Virgin Mary. The vaulted coffered ceiling, shown here at an angle, studded with golden stars, is a stereotypical element of the iconography, as is the window on the right. It is through this opening, although covered with a grille, that an angel will one day appear to announce to Mary that she will give birth to Jesus. The window of the chapel situated behind the altar, the dwelling of the holy family, seen here at top left, serves the same purpose. Hergiswald, central section of the high altar.
The birth has gone well; the baby girl is healthy. Knowledgeable women take tender care of the newborn, bathing her, drying linen by the open fire, keeping the house neat and tidy, even stowing the slippers under the bed. They want the mother who has just given birth to regain her strength quickly; she is being passed a dish of food and further sustenance stands ready on the table. A neighbour looks in at the door to see whether she too can be of assistance. A group of women whose solidarity lets us believe in a better world, even now, four centuries later.


Another phenomenon frequently encountered in baroque spaces: the breathtaking perspective of a ceiling painting creates the illusion of a vault stretching out into lofty heights. At the edge of the painting sits a small angel, its upper body painted, its abdomen and tiny legs made of plaster. Unmistakably baroque. – Illusion is taken further in Hergiswald than anywhere else.
Angels carry the house in which the holy family lived to the pilgrimage church of Hergiswald.
Grace and awe in unison. Angels carry the house in which the holy family lived to the pilgrimage church of Hergiswald. Can there be a more magnificent depiction of their extraordinary mission?
Rütli was not the only pivotal event in 1291. Elsewhere in the world, Marco Polo was setting off from China on his return to Venice, while the Turks were conquering Christian sites in the Middle East. To prevent the unthinkable, the house in which the holy family had lived had to be saved. Angels flew it over to the coast of Dalmatia, where it was finally safe. Or was it? Not in the baroque world. It was moved again, this time across the Adriatic sea to Loreto near Ancona in Italy. But even there it took a further three attempts before a site deemed fully worthy was found.
Painting by Johann Dieterlin (1652/54) on the right outer wall of the Loreto Chapel in Hergiswald.
Depiction of the legendary 'translation' of the Santa Casa, the Holy House, from Nazareth to Loreto in Italy – via Dalmatia – and then to Central Switzerland. As was the case in Loreto, viewers are given the impression that it took more than one attempt to find a suitable location: 1. Lucerne, 2. Kriens, 3. Winkel near Horw, 4. Hergiswald. Painting by Johann Dieterlin (1652/54) on the right outer wall of the Loreto Chapel in Hergiswald.
Hundreds of replicas of this Loreto chapel or Santa Casa popped up all over Europe, especially from 1450 onwards. At the time of the Counter-Reformation, realistic reconstructions of biblical places were particularly popular. And so, a Santa Casa was also built in Hergiswald in 1650.
At Hergiswald, a chapel within the church
At Hergiswald, a chapel within the church. In size, form and painted decoration, the Marian shrine is an exact replica of the Santa Casa in Loreto. The section behind the altar represents the kitchen. – Once again the vertical is emphasised: God the Father, the dove (Holy Spirit), baby Jesus (on the altar table). The Lucerne coat of arms on the right-hand side of the altar indicates that the city supports this place of pilgrimage, as it does others. Throne and altar, secular and spiritual authorities joined together in mutual support.
Many places of pilgrimage boast a secondary shrine that further enhances their appeal, and Hergiswald, with its chapel dedicated to Saint Felix, is no different. The faithful believed that the remains of the saints would bestow salvation and blessing upon them, especially when viewed in close proximity. In 1651, the relics of St Felix were transferred from the catacombs of Rome to Hergiswald. According to one expert, the holy person being venerated is "a 'Roman' hero-cum-saint with an imaginary name".
The triumphal arch, or arch of honour, in the chapel dedicated to St Felix at Hergiswald
The form of this annunciation is almost as important as the announcement itself: the triumphal arch, or arch of honour, in the chapel dedicated to St Felix at Hergiswald. According to Dieter Bitterli, the foremost authority on both place and subject matter, parts of it may have been used as scenery for the special theatrical performance staged in Felix's honour in 1651, including the two life-size figures of Ursus and Victor, the magnificently armoured Theban saints standing guard on either side of the entrance. Above the portal, Mary, floating on a cloud, hands the infant Jesus to Saint Francis, who is particularly venerated in this part of the world. Constructed to resemble an open peep box, the arch is both ornamental and a support propping up the ceiling above. The ornamental made functional.

The ultimate in dramatic art

In the special theatrical production staged in Felix's honour in Hergiswald, a heathen tyrant ordered that the martyr be beheaded and his decapitated skull thrown into the jaws of hell. The stirring drama must have touched Father von Wyl and Hans Ulrich Räber in the same way. With one accord, they allow an almost life-size Felix to stand resurrected, as it were, at the centre of the retable, in the guise of a triumphant baroque knight.
Altar dedicated to St Felix, Hergiswald, left-hand side chapel.
Altar dedicated to St Felix, Hergiswald, left-hand side chapel. In this amazing visual expression of the Christian faith dating from around 1650 an unbridled urge for pictorial demonstration is unleashed. What are our eyes drawn to first? A detail or the whole work, the parts or the sum of the parts? Typical baroque.
In the centre, on the altar, the resurrection preceding the Last Judgment. Around it, the drama of the Last Days, depicted as a rise and fall. Death enters the scene. If one person cannot be allowed to die it is the gravedigger, for who will then take care of the dead in his place? But in the central wooden relief on the front of the altar table, the figure of Death has already drawn its bow. The headgear strewn around the feet of the deadly archer shows that the most powerful spiritual and secular dignitaries had to die before the gravedigger’s turn came. Once their lesser sins have been atoned for in purgatory, at bottom left, the purified dead step out of the fire, as can be seen on the altar table above, and wend their way around the pillar as they are guided – or coaxed – up to heaven by angels. Amazingly, on entering paradise they are restrained in their jubilation and exclamations of hallelujah. Nevertheless, von Wyl and Räber created another visual feast in their staging of this part of the retable. Once again, there are figures standing watch on either side. The gates of heaven are proving difficult to open. There is a simple explanation: Saint Peter's golden key is half the size of the man himself. An angel holds an olive branch of peace over those who have been redeemed, while another raises a flaming sword over the souls of the damned. With loud trumpet blasts, another two angels sound the signal for the end of all days to the world. At the very top stands Christ, triumphant, as the judge of humanity. An abundance of detail wherever the eye looks. On the right-hand pillar, the condemned are being driven by demons down into hell, where even the furnace of fire is crafted from gold. But is this likely to bring them any consolation when faced with eternal torment and damnation?
Altar dedicated to St Felix, Hergiswald (detail).
As if the agony of burning in the fires of hell were not enough, one of the sinners is also being bitten by a snake, while a female sinner is receiving unwelcome advances from a horned monster! – Altar dedicated to St Felix, Hergiswald (detail).

Baroque: love it or hate it?

You either like it or you don't. It's that simple – perhaps too simple. Hergiswald shows how irreconcilably opposed good and evil can be in baroque art: salvation versus damnation, paradise versus hell, a host of angels versus Satan's brood. Hope in life after death is pitted against fear and terror, renunciation against seduction and sin. Baroque is all about demonstration, a mise-en-scène with moral overtones, excessive contrasts intended to create a hugely overpowering emotional effect. While all of this is true, it does not tell the whole story. Baroque is also the result of exuberant creative joy and – in its best examples – of sublime creative power. Austerity stands alongside playfulness, reality is confronted with illusion, fear of death meets an unadulterated zest for life and mellifluousness head-on. Conclusion: this epoch challenges us. Not the worst thing that can happen. P.S. Just a few hundred metres to the south of Hergiswald there are several places that contain the German word for hell – Höll(e) – in their names, like Höll, Höllboden and Oberhöllboden. There's even a Höllhütte, or 'hell hut', with "Open 24 h" carved into one of its beams. Probably best avoided!
All the photos in this blog were taken by Hermann Lichtsteiner, Lucerne:

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