Tyrol Castle

August 26, 2011

Both our last two posts already featured pictures of Tyrol Castle, the ancestral seat of the Counts of Tyrol. In these photos [here and here, to be precise], you may already have admired the castle’s high rising keep with its pointed roof, and the battlements and parapets that surround it. Like most castle architecture that looks medieval, all of this was of course only built in the 19th and early 20th century. The only part of the castle which has more or less retained its medieval appearance is this:

This is the castle’s main residential area, the hall or, in German, palas. Of course, this area has undergone some later alterations and restorations, too, but its overall structure still presents itself in pretty much the same way as it probably would have in the High Middle Ages: In the photo, you can still make out a line of round arched Romanesque windows dating to the 13th century, and the protuberant apse of the castle’s two-storey chapel. The chapel’s upper part, too, was built in the 13th century while its lower parts are even older, dating mostly to the 12th century.

The chapel’s most prominent feature is its richly sculpted portal which is generally dated to ca. 1140 (though some authors have proposed later dates ranging from 1170 to 1250). Among rich carved ornaments, the portal’s relief decoration shows all kinds of animals and beasts, biblical and mythological scenes, among them…

… a centaur, Adam and Eve being tempted by the snake, and King David rescuing a lamb from a lion (or, perhaps, Samson killing the lion?). Even though scholars have spent a lot of time and ink writing about these sculptures, it’s still not quite clear what all this is actually about. If I remember correctly, there seems to be a consensus, though, that one way or another they address the temptations man has to face and overcome during his earthly existence…

Once you enter the chapel, you suddenly find yourself in a wholly different world or, at least, in a different time:

While there are still some Romanesque carvings on the chancel arch, the overall impression is dominated by the chapel’s 14th century furnishings and decorations. Perhaps the most impressive feature is the enormous Crucifix, flanked by Mary and St. John, carved out of wood in ca. 1330/40. Around the same time, the chapel’s walls were painted with a series of murals, most of them showing the figures of saints:

With their bright, albeit faded, colours these wall paintings stand as witnesses of the life and times of a once splendid and vibrant court – which, ultimately, turned out to be rather short-lived: Merely three decades after the paintings were made, the Counts of Tyrol had died out in the male line, and both their country and their castle passed under Habsburg rule.

I know we promised you mountains, but this will have to wait until [m] finds the time to put together a blog post. You see, where I come from the landscape looks like this…

… so, frankly, I don’t feel competent to write about mountains. [m], on the other hand, is a regular Heidi – she grew up in the mountains of South Tyrol (or Alto Adige)* and that’s just where we went for our holiday last week. Mostly, we stayed in the area around Meran (Merano) which – as one Arnold von Harff put it – is “a fine small town situated in a beautiful valley“.

Meran and its surroundings seen from Tyrol Castle (the building in the foreground is the Brunnenburg, a neo-medieval fantasy built in 1904 on the ruins of a 13th century castle)

Arnold von Harff wrote this brief characterization of Meran way back in 1496. Even more interesting, though, is the account given by a travel companion of Count Johann Ludwig of Nassau-Saarbrücken who visited the town just one year before Arnold, in 1495:

“On Easter Saturday, His Lordship remained in Meran and, accompanied by his servants, he went to receive the Holy Sacrament in a reformed monastery of the Poor Clares order. Also, in Meran there is an exceedingly pretty church with six most beautiful altarpieces (…).

The late medieval / early modern tower of Meran's Parish Church

On Sunday, the 19th day of April, which was the holy day of Easter, His Lordship also remained in Meran and heard Mass in the parish church, and after he had eaten, our host, the local mayor, lead His Lordship to a chapel outside town dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen where there was great indulgence and mercy.

The village of Gratsch, outside of Meran, with the chapel of St. Mary Magdalen to the right

Not far from it lies Tyrol Castle (…) and it is a pretty castle to behold. Also it is said that the armour of Hildebrand, Roland and other heroes is kept in this castle.”

Tyrol Castle (see also second picture in our previous post)

Personally, I think it’s fascinating how most of the buildings mentioned in this late 15th century account are still intact, even if they have undergone slight alterations in later centuries. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about those buildings’ furnishings: Today, no late medieval altarpiece survives in Meran’s parish church, and nobody knows whatever happened to those pieces of armour in Tyrol Castle which were believed to have belonged to the great heroes of myth and legend. Today, if you want to find traces of those epic heroes, you have to go a bit further south, to Runkelstein Castle (Castel Roncolo) near Bozen (Bolzano), about half an hour’s drive from Meran. At Runkelstein, a whole gallery of heroes was painted in the castle’s courtyard around 1400/1410 [see also last picture in our previous post]:

The heroes Dietrich von Bern, Siegfried and Dietleib, and the giant Waltram. Wall painting in Runkelstein Castle, ca. 1400/1410

Granted, there is neither Roland, the famous paladin of France celebrated in the 11th century Chanson de Roland, nor is there Hildebrand, one of the key figures of Germanic legend and main protagonist of the 9th century Lay of Hildebrand. But there is Hildebrand’s boss lord, Dietrich von Bern, a mythical character based on Gothic king Theoderic the Great (see photo above), and there also is Roland’s boss lord, Charlemagne:

King Arthur and Charlemagne. Wall painting, Runkelstein Castle, ca. 1400/1410

As for Tyrol Castle, even without Hildebrand’s and Roland’s armour, there’s plenty to see and discover – but I’ll save that for another time…


* As you probably know, South Tyrol is a bilingual region where both German and Italian are spoken. Therefore, all place names in this post are given in German and in Italian (in brackets).