Stained windows & strained faces

December 17, 2010

On my way back from Basel to Vienna I made a stopover in Bern to visit some friends. But, of course, I also used the opportunity to visit Bern’s late medieval Minster, built mostly from 1421 to 1521, which is considered the most important piece of late Gothic architecture in Switzerland. Probably even more remarkable than the Minster’s architecture, however, are the stained glass windows in its choir:

With their bright, vivid colours those windows claim all your attention even when seen from the entrance at a distance of about 80 meters. But they also merit a closer look: Dating mostly from the mid-15th century they are among the most noteworthy surviving cycles of medieval stained glass not only in Switzerland but in the whole of Central Europe.

I was particularly impressed by the window dedicated to the story of the Three Magi, executed between 1447 and 1455. It’s more than 13 meters high so I had to split it into two photographs. The lower part shows the well known Adoration of the Magi, while the upper parts depict the lesser known story of their long journey to Bethlehem. But subject matter aside, aren’t those colours simply amazing? Just look at that red!

An even more colourful, yet also more gruesome window is to be found in the southern side nave. It’s the early 16th century Dance of Death window, designed by Niklaus Manuel:

As you probably know, the Dance of Death was a very popular subject in late medieval and early modern art. It was particularly widespread in the medium of wall painting, and some of the most famous mural cycles existed, of all places, in Basel and Bern. They are now lost, but fortunately the stained glass window in Bern Minster survives and still shows how Death comes to claim people of all ages, regardless of their social standing:

Today, those stained glass windows are more or less all that remains of the Minster’s late medieval furnishings and decorations. Originally, though, there would have been all kinds of altarpieces and memorials, panel paintings and sculptures, carved in wood and cut in stone. Of the latter, only the complex sculpted representation of the Last Judgement over the main portal (ca. 1460-1480) has come down to us. For reasons of preservation, most of the portal’s figures have, however, been replaced by replicas that somehow lack the quality of the originals. So, if you’re interested in medieval sculpture – or, indeed, in any kind of sculpture – it’s really worth to check out Bern’s Historisches Museum [Museum of History] where the original figures are on display:

I was really impressed by the figures of the apostles from the Last Judgement. There seems to be so much strain and tension in them. You know, according to Christian belief they’re Christ’s old pals, even his assessors in the Last Judgement, but even they seem to be totally shocked and taken aback when they witness his Second Coming and the dead rising from their graves. Yet, at the same time, they seem to watch with amazed interest, gripped by what they see. I find it simply brilliant how the sculptor – Erhard Küng – manages to express all this commotion in the statues’ body language.

As for the Minster’s other medieval sculptures, they were all destroyed by the iconoclast attacks of the Reformation. Luckily enough, the Protestant reformers dumped many of those artworks in the nearby churchyard where their fragments have been discovered during archaeological excavations in 1986. Those fragments, too, are on display in the Bern’s Historisches Museum and many of them, too, are of an amazingly high quality.

They are, of course, mutilated: The Protestant iconoclasts made a serious effort to treat those Catholic images as if they were real life enemies or criminals and subjected them to all kinds of corporal punishments, including capital punishment. Indeed, many of the sculptures have been beheaded, their limbs have been torn off, their bodies broken into pieces, their faces attacked with chisel and hammer.

Oddly, that state of semi-destruction just adds to those sculptures’ aura, as does, admittedly, the museum’s dim, atmospheric lighting…

The highlight of the ensemble is a series of four heads (pictured above), executed around or even a little after 1500 – i.e. not too long before the iconoclasts laid their hands on them in 1528. Just look at the expressive, wrinkled faces of this bishop…

…or of this male saint, presumably an apostle:

Those are the kind of artworks that will deter even hard-boiled art-historians and medievalists from any analytical thought and simply leave them with their mouths wide open in amazement…

2 Responses to “Stained windows & strained faces”

  1. Prof. Tsion Avital said

    Hi, I like your description of the destroyed pieta. Please write me your name because I would like to quote you in a book which I am writing.

    Prof. Tsion Avital

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