In my last post I mentioned that Bern Minster is considered the most important piece of late medieval architecture in Switzerland. So you’d probably assume that for a medievalist like me it would have been the absolute highlight among Bern’s many sights. Well, I have to confess: It was not. Instead, the metaphorical laurel wreath goes to the Pauluskirche [St. Paul’s Church], built by Swiss architect Karl Moser from 1902 to 1905:

One reason why I found that church so fascinating may simply be the fact that it came as a total surprise to me. I have now learned from Wikipedia that it’s generally held to be the most important art-nouveau church in Switzerland (there’s yet another superlative for you…), but before my short trip to Bern I didn’t even know it existed. Located in a residential area outside the city centre it’s quite a bit off the beaten (tourist) track, and I only stumbled upon it because I was staying with friends who live nearby.

The main reason why I found the Pauluskirche so fascinating is, however, its, well, iridescent style. On the whole, you could say it’s in some sort of “Early 16th century when Gothic started mingling with Renaissance”-Revival style, but some of the architectural details have a certain Romanesque flair about them, while other elements show a tendency towards the Baroque. All this, however, is held together by the rhythmic art-nouveau curves of its roofs and gables and by the fine, graphic art-nouveau ornaments – complete with inlays of gold – which seem to overgrow the whole building.

I would have loved to take a look at the inside of the church, too, but it was a Sunday morning and, apparently, they were just having mass: Even from the outside I could hear the distinct sounds of a church organ and the singing congregation, interrupted only by the occasional laughter of a little kid, playing outside the church with his/her dad.

Somehow, all this reminded me of that old Kris Kristofferson song, Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down, you know, that second verse:

In the park I saw a daddy / With a laughing little girl that he was swingin’ / And I stopped beside a Sunday school / And listened to the songs that they were singin’…

Well, now you know what song I was quietly humming for the rest of that day…

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 K√ľng – 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…