- The Wieskirche: Movement, Perception, and Salvation in the Bavarian Rococo
Despite the recent widespread scholarly reassessment of eighteenth-century rococo art, Bavarian rococo churches remain architectural ugly stepsisters. Widely known and unfailingly referenced in every art-historical survey text, rococo religious architecture nonetheless remains virtually unstudied within current Anglo-American scholarship, a situation that persists despite significant advancements in methodological and interpretive schemas helpful for confronting secular rococo design. Perhaps modern viewers continue to perceive these churches’ abundantly ornamented interiors as little more than hysterical adaptations of an originally refined, visually seductive decorative mode characterized by the French elite hôtel. Raising its head as well is the possibility, implicit in some statements about the Bavarian rococo I have encountered, that to many observers these buildings confirm German bad taste, that they reveal a Teutonic obsessiveness with detail and a tiresome fascination with irrelevant complexity, qualities that obliterate the restrained gracefulness of their Gallic counterparts.
It was not always this way. The 1960s in particular saw a sustained scholarly interest in eighteenth-century German religious architecture among Anglo-American scholars, and during that time a number of [End Page 1] prominent architectural historians directed serious scholarly attention to these buildings. The most surprising among them is Henry-Russell Hitchcock, well known as the documenter of the International Style and a high priest of architectural modernism. Mostly forgotten today is that Hitchcock published two substantial books on eighteenth-century Bavarian churches, one a collection of miscellaneous essays and the other a monographic treatment of the Zimmermann brothers.1 Hitchcock’s legacy in this area has not been great, however, and few modern studies of the rococo even mention his work, let alone build on it. Casting a long shadow over English-language understanding about the religious rococo is Karsten Harries’s 1983 study, The Bavarian Rococo Church: Between Faith and Aestheticism.2 Written by a prominent philosopher of art and architecture, Harries’s book is a multivalent thematic analysis, with chapters devoted to individual spiritual and aesthetic qualities typical of the German rococo as a whole. Harries concerns himself less with the outfitting of any single church than with establishing the Bavarian rococo church typologically. It is an important and rich contribution to the scholarly literature, one filled with insights into the interrelationship between meaning, ornament, and space. That said, Harries’s book shows its age as well as its philosophical genealogy. It relies on stylistic categories that today feel dated and its integration of aesthetic and historical observations seems insufficient in light of current knowledge about eighteenth-century culture. Nonetheless, Harries’s book remains the best-developed investigation of this material in English and my debt to it in this essay shall soon become clear. In German-language scholarship, one finds a multitude of local and regional studies and several classic surveys, but few serious attempts to rethink or recategorize these buildings in new ways, and to my knowledge no scholarship that tries to revisit these churches in light of the many scholarly insights on French rococo art and architecture that have appeared recently.3
Whatever the underlying reasons for this neglect, its consequences are clear: there is no other corner of eighteenth-century European art in which so much important material remains unknown or understudied. I offer this essay as a preliminary contribution to a reengagement with rococo religious architecture, one that seeks to demonstrate its potential for enriching our broadening picture of eighteenth-century art. I shall do so by directing my analysis through perhaps the best known of these buildings, the Wieskirche or “Church in the Meadow.” (fig. 1) Located in a rural area of southern Bavaria, the Wieskirche was erected as a pilgrimage church between 1745 and 1754; it owes its strikingly beautiful design to the combined efforts of the architect Dominikus Zimmermann (1685–1766) and his elder brother, the painter and stucco carver Johann Baptist Zimmermann [End Page 2]
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(1680–1758).4 Scholarly writing about the Wieskirche has emphasized its sophisticated treatment of interior space, in particular the way its masses...