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October 2003

Towering Success

Part two of our feature on Munich's churches

In part two of our series on Munich’s churches we shall take a look at the Jesuiten Kirche St. Michael, the Heiliggeistkirche and the Salvatorkirche.

At the heart of the city’s pedestrian zone, between Marienplatz and Karlsplatz, is the Jesuit Church of St. Michael. It does not dominate the neighborhood with gigantic towers in the same way that the Frauenkirche does, nor can you climb its rather modest tower for a view of the city and the Alps. All the same, to be put off by the simple exterior would mean missing out on an architectural masterpiece that comes into its own once you step inside the building.

St. Michael’s is notable not only for the fact that it is the largest Renaissance church in northern Europe and that its barrel vaulting is second in size only to St. Peter’s in Rome, but also in that it was built by Duke William IV as a monument to the Counter-Reformation and Bavaria’s support of it. More than 50 years earlier, in 1517, the monk and as yet unknown theologian Martin Luther had nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, thereby triggering the Reformation, a religious movement that sought to reform the abuses perpetrated by the Roman Catholic Church. In southern Germany, however, Duke William IV, head of the devoutly religious ruling family of Bavaria, the Wittelsbachs, chose to remain faithful to the strong Catholic traditions by siding firmly with Rome. His son and successor, William V, was educated at a Jesuit college in Ingolstadt—the then fledgling Catholic order contributed much to the Counter-Reformation in Germany—and like his father was dedicated to the cause of the Counter-Reformation. In accordance with the wishes of the Jesuit founder, Ignatius of Loyola, William V and his wife, Renata of Lorraine, had the first stone laid for a new Jesuit college in Munich, in 1583. This was not to be just any Jesuit college, though. It was to be built on the same scale as the imperial Habsburg residence near Madrid, the Escorial, which is itself hailed by many as the eighth wonder of the world. Indeed St. Michael’s is where the Duke and Duchess had their wedding ceremony, said to have been one of the most magnificent celebrations of the entire Renaissance, and it was at these festivities that the figures of the Glockenspiel on Marienplatz are supposed to be dancing.

Construction of the church was begun in the same year as the college. The 22 cm thick vaults spanning more than 20 m were completed in 1587. Two years later the nave was finished—in what is basically its present form—with a small, adjoining choir and bell tower. However, cracks appeared on the walls of the tower even before the church had been consecrated and, after hanging the bells in spite of the obvious risks, the tower crumbled to the ground in 1590, destroying the choir too. This did not deter William, however, who took the disaster as a sign from God that this particular church was simply not meant to have bells. He also saw it as a sign that the original design of the church was not sufficiently grand. So it was decided to extend the hall with a deep choir, to add a transept and abandon the tower. In the end, the church got a small, brick tower as a replacement, but it has no bells and is only a few stories high. The rest of what you see today is the gloriously ironic result of an initially botched attempt. Apparently, William expressed his displeasure over the tower debacle by having the master stonemason, Wolfgang Miller, jailed for eight days.

In 1773, when the Jesuit order fell into bad favor with Pope Clement XIV, the church became a Hofkirche (Wittelsbach court church) and more or less remained so until 1917, when World War I brought the existing power structure in Bavaria and Europe to an end. It now belongs to the Jesuits again. The church’s royal sephulcher is the final resting place of some 41 deceased Wittelsbachs, including the wedding couple themselves and “mad” King Ludwig II. Renata, apparently a respected and lively personality, is said to have asked that her coffin be placed directly under the skylight in the ceiling of the burial vault so that she would be able to see Jesus on the high altar on Judgment Day. Three stories high and a tribute to high Baroque styles, the altar alone is worth the trip to this church.

In World War II the colossal church was more or less completely destroyed, except for the outside walls and the central arch. It took until 1953 to rebuild the piers and the ceilings, and the remainder of the restoration lasted until 1983. The care taken in the detailing is remarkable and the church boasts some impressive sculptures, including the massive stone tomb (1830) of Eugène Beauharnais, stepson of Napoleon and husband of August Amalia, the daughter of Maximilian I of Bavaria.

Beyond Marienplatz, directly behind “Old Peter” (Alter Peter) and across the street on the Viktualienmarkt, you’ll find the Heiliggeistkirche (Church of the Holy Ghost), the roof and interior of which just recently underwent major renovation. After four years under scaffolding Munich was able to uncover yet another wonderfully preserved landmark, this time dating back to 1252. At that time, the road that now connects St. Peter’s and the Heiliggeistkirche (the Rindermarkt) was actually the location of the old city wall and the Heiliggeistkirche stood outside this wall. The reason for this lay in its function, not just a place of worship but an infirmary and pilgrims’ hostel with an adjoining cemetery. For reasons of hygiene, it was erected beyond the crowded town center. The Gothic hall church we admire today was built in 1392 after the great city fire of 1327, which had destroyed the former edifice. Since that time it has been purely a communal institution.

The Baroque and Rococo interior boasts beautiful ceiling frescoes by Cosmas Damian Asam, which depict the founding of the infirmary, delicate stuccowork, some outstanding Rococo figures and the bronze tomb of Duke Ferdinand of Bavaria. Like many of the other buildings in Munich, this church was almost completely destroyed in World War II and it was only with the help of a famous priest, Konrad Miller, that the church was rebuilt. A marble tomb inside the church commemorates his contributions and honors his dedication to the parish.

The Salvatorkirche (Church of Our Savior), because of its small size, is somewhat of an oddball in this city of grandiose religious edifices. Set back from the Theatiner Strasse, next to the Literaturhaus, this Late Gothic brick building would seem more appropriately placed in a small country town than here in Munich, but there is a reason for its size and design. When the Frauenkirche was built, as the city’s second parish church, after St. Peter’s, there was suddenly a lack of graveyard space between the edge of town and the old Schwabinger Tor (Schwabing gate). It was decided in 1480 to construct the Salvatorkirche as the Cathedral’s cemetery chapel to accommodate Munich’s growing population. Its striking resemblance to the Frauenkirche is a direct result of this function. Though there seems to be uncertainty as to who the architect was, Salvator was presumably built by Lukas Rottaler, the successor of the Wittelsbach court architect Jörg von Halsbach, who had died in 1488 upon laying the last stone in his piece de resistance, the Frauenkirche.

Over the years the Salvatorkirche served as many things besides just a church, including a schoolhouse, a storage space, saltpeter and brimstone, and was even considered for conversion to a grain house in 1827. In 1828, however, as a diplomatic gesture to Greek allies who were fighting a war at the time against the Turks, King Ludwig I donated the church to 30 prominent orthodox Greeks who were living in Munich. Since then it has belonged to the Greek Orthodox community. Perhaps partly as a result of this auspicious relationship, Ludwig’s son, Otto, was elected King of Greece in 1832.

The interior of this quaint church is simple yet elegant. The high altar, unlike the other churches in town, is made of wood and painted with scenes from the bible. Remains of Late Gothic frescoes may be seen on the northeast side.

All these churches are open to the public and can be visited at your leisure. So next time you walk past, walk in. The history is awe-inspiring.

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