Bavaria is renowned for many things, not least among them Munich, picturesque castles, bucolic landscapes, extra-large beer steins and generous inhabitants — whose number once included, of course, young Joseph Ratzinger.
It was here in Germany’s southernmost (and geographically largest) state that the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI embraced, and learned to love, the Catholic faith.
And it may be that nowhere is Bavarian Catholicity better represented than at the Pilgrimage Church of the Scourged Savior in the village of Steingaden. This historic landmark is better known locally by its nickname, Wieskirche (Church on the Meadow) — Wies Church to Anglophiles.
There’s no better time to visit than autumn, when Bavaria shows off the chromatic foliage that has inspired artists for ages — not to mention Oktoberfest, the civic celebration that begins in mid-September and runs until the first Sunday in October.
Rising from the broad pasture, Wies Church’s exterior appears commanding for its size yet humble and unassuming in its relatively plain visage.
It isn’t until you step inside and see the extravagant frescoes bursting with light and color that you realize the church is anything but ordinary.
While Wies Church is known by art historians as a leading example of the Rococo style — it’s recognized as a world heritage site by the United Nations — the faithful know it as the site of a popular miracle.
In fact, the church was built to honor the miracle that’s said to have occurred here in the 18th century.
In 1730, craftsmen created a statue of a scourged and bloodied Jesus from wooden parts of other statues. It was used for several years on Good Friday processions. In 1735, parishioners asked that the statue be put away into storage. They found the image of the scourged Jesus so realistic as to be upsetting.
For three years the statue was kept in the attic of the monastery’s innkeeper. The innkeeper’s godmother, Maria Lory, visited one day and found it. Falling to her knees in veneration, she begged to take the statue home rather than keep it hidden.
The statue was moved to a tiny wooden shrine next to Maria’s farmhouse in the nearby village of Wies. It was at this small shrine that the miracle took place. On June 14, 1738, Maria and her husband looked at the statue and saw tears falling from Jesus’ eyes.
Word spread quickly and, soon, crowds from the local area began streaming in to watch and pray. Within two years, a small chapel was constructed that can still be seen today near the current church’s parking lot.
The chapel and the miraculous statue rapidly gained fame throughout the whole of Europe. There are reports of pilgrims arriving from as far away as Russia, Sweden, Norway, France and Spain — a major trek from any of those starting points in the centuries before motorized travel.
The crowd of pilgrims grew too large for the small chapel, so the Steingaden monastery decided to build a larger church on the pilgrimage site. Sparing no expense on construction, the abbot hired one of the finest architects in Bavaria, Dominikus Zimmermann.
The theme for the new church was repentance, as represented by the statue of the Scourged Savior. But rather than offering a dark, Gothic, sorrowful interpretation of repentance, the church exuded brightness, elegance, good cheer and curvaceous daintiness almost to the point of whimsy. The execution was pure Rococo, the idea being to show the result of true repentance: unrestrained joy.
Wieskirche was built and decorated almost exclusively by Bavarian artists. The centerpiece of the oval church is the miraculous statue of the Scourged Savior. To honor it, the artists built an ornate main altar surrounded by pillars of multi-hued marble. The many windows allow lots of sunlight inside, augmenting the interior’s celebration of serenity.
Dominikus Zimmermann’s brother, Johann Baptist, was a talented painter and stuccoist. He painted the marvelous ceiling fresco that fools the eye into believing it is three dimensional. The ceiling fresco shows the resurrected Christ atop a rainbow, a sign of God’s forgiveness, with angels and the apostles. Although it portrays the Last Judgment, the Throne of Judgment is unoccupied and the door to eternity is not yet open.
Construction took nine years and was completed in 1754. Half a century later, the church was nearly erased when the government was looking to secularize the culture. Throughout Bavaria, the state seized church properties. The Wies Church was scheduled to be auctioned off and demolished.
In what some saw as yet another Scourged Savior miracle, the local community of poor farmers petitioned the state and pooled their meager resources together to save the church.
After Unesco named the church a world heritage site in 1983, the building was refurbished to ensure that the original décor remained intact. This project ended in 1991, after six years and millions of dollars of work. Today the church draws more than a million visitors each year.
When you visit Wieskirche, remember that the simple statue of the Scourged Savior, a reminder of Christ’s suffering on our behalf, was once hidden away. Let the glorious beauty of the anything-but-hidden surroundings remind you that “by his stripes, we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5) — and that, because of his sacrifice, the joy of our eternal reward for following him will be infinitely more joyful than even the Wies Church can convey.
writes from Philadelphia.
Pfarramt Wieskirche (Pilgrimage Church of our Scourged Savior)
Wies 12, D-86989
PLANNING YOUR VISIT
Wieskirche is just off of Germany’s “Romantic Road.” The town of Steingaden is approximately 13 miles from Füssen, the nearest city. From April through October, the church is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. From November through March, the church closes at 5 p.m. For a schedule of Masses and festivals, visit wieskirche.de.