Our women’s service club has a friendship link with a sister club in northern Switzerland. Once per year the two clubs meet for a day’s outing, taking turns which club plans and organizes our day together. Since we have been doing this for five decades, more and more ingenuity is needed to find new interesting destinations within easy reach, but so far both sides have always succeeded.
This year it was the Swiss ladies’ turn. They suggested Mariastein abbey. Mariastein is Switzerland’s second largest catholic pilgrimage centre (after Einsiedeln). The abbey is located southwest of Basel in the Jura hills, close to the French border, in a beautiful gentle valley. Or so it looks from the right side. The landscape is not as gentle as it seems, though. Right behind the abbey buildings there is a steep dropoff with almost vertical limestone cliffs.
And that’s what caused the existence of this place of pilgrimage. In the middle ages, a little boy and his mother came to this place to pasture their cattle. While the mother sought refuge from the midday sun and rested in a shady cave, the child ventured out by himself and fell off the cliff. This would have been his certain death, but he was miraculously saved. His terrified mother found him alive and well on the valley ground, happily picking flowers. The boy told her that the Madonna had saved him and told him she wanted to be venerated in this very spot. The ceiling frescoes in the church show the legendary salvation.
The cave was then turned into a chapel. More and more pilgrims came to visit the place and pray. A priest was installed, a church was built. The Reformation set a temporary end to the pilgrimage, but after a second miracle occurred – a young local nobleman fell off the cliff and was saved just like the little boy had been – it started all over again. In the mid 17th century a convent of Benedictine monks settled in Mariastein and built their monastery above the pilgrimage chapel. Mariastein is still a working convent with 20 monks who live here permanently.
Our friends picked us up at the station in Basel and took us to Mariastein by car. It must be easily doable to get there by public transport, too, judging from the number of post buses that passed through the main square during the day. The location is rural. A small settlement has grown round the abbey, but this can hardly be called a village.
After a quick morning coffee we had a tour of the abbey, guided by one of the monks. It started with a multimedia presentation that explained the history of the place as well as the daily life of the monks in the convent and the pilgrimage today.
Then we were taken to the convent buildings and the church. However, a hurried guide, and the things a human being has to do every now and then, got me into deep trouble. After the presentation I quickly went into the toilet, even told someone, and I surely didn’t linger – but when I left, everyone was gone and I found myself locked in.
No door would open, no phone or bell was there, and those of my dear friends whose numbers I had in my mobile had theirs turned off or left them at home.
Luckily the toilet window could be opened. It was too high for an unsporty fatty like me to climb out, but at least I was able to communicate with the world outside. I addressed three young people who were just passing, and they offered to help. The girl said, “We won’t go away until we got you out of here” – so sweet. They rang some bells until they got hold of an employee of the guesthouse who had the keys. Phew! May the Lord and the Madonna of Mariastein bless them!
Since I had no idea how to find my group but knew that the tour would take them into the church in the end, that’s where I went. This turned out a lucky decision in two respects: First, there was hardly anyone inside, so I caught some good photos of the church without people in them. Second, the group had finally noticed that I was missing and sent out a search party, who found me in the church. Phew again…
So I had missed the beginning of the tour but I got to see the cloister and a bit of the convent buildings. The corridors have beautiful baroque stucco ornaments on the ceiling and antique pieces of furniture.
Of course they do not take visitors into the residential quarters of the monks. But our guide showed us the board with the names of all monks where the weekly duties are marked, who holds mass, and who works in the kitchen or serves at the table. All of them take turns in these necessary household jobs.
The convent buildings and the cloister are partly baroque, partly 19th and 20th century. The open courtyard in the middle of the cloister is occupied by a baroque garden with boxwood hedges and a fountain in the centre. The basin is inhabited by goldfish and two water turtles – the convent’s pets?
The sundial in the cloister is meant as a memento mori, a reminder that life is not endless. The inscription says, “All (hours) wound, the last kills.”
The church’s interior has the appearance of a late baroque church, ornated with frescoes and stucco ornaments in white and gold. However, a lot of it is not as old as it looks. Between 1900 and 1934 the interior was refurbished in neobaroque style. This church interior is living proof that in catholic art, the baroque era lasted until the 20th century, if not beyond. The frescoes in the vaulted ceilings date from the 1930s! The choir is originally late gothic, as the vaults and the pointed arches in the windows show. The pulpit is an original baroque piece from the 18th century.
A splendid, elaborate wrought-iron gate divides the monks’ choir from the nave. The design uses tricks of perspective to make it appear three-dimensional. In fact it is entirely flat, as a view from the side shows. The congruent lines that seem to run towards a distant vanishing point and the rhythm of the lines pretend a third dimension which in reality isn’t there.
Only the middle part is really baroque, created in 1695. The side arches are more recent additions. A closer look reveals the date 1929 inserted into the craftwork.
In the church we got a special treat: Pater organist played us some pieces on the magnificent instrument on the western gallery. They also have a second, much smaller organ in the choir which is used for the monks’ canonical hours.
It was shortly before 12, and we stayed in the church to listen to the monks’ noon prayer. Five times a day they assemble in the choir to sing the hours according to the rules of the Benedictine order. The wrought-iron gate creates a transparent but impenetrable separation between the members of the convent and lay people in the nave.
Afterwards we went down to the actual pilgrims’ chapel. The sanctuary is located in the cave above the cliffs where mother and child are said to have rested. One has to walk down flights of stairs and through a long subterranean passage underneath the abbey church to reach it. The walls of the passage are covered in thousands of memorial plaques where people express their thanks for the Madonna’s help in all languages. The sacred image of the Madonna on the altar is the destination of the pilgrimage. We saw people praying fervently in front of it. (I never take photos of people praying, so all I have is a snapshot of the altar and the sacred image discreetly taken from my seat.)
Afterwards we had some time to play with. Our hosts suggested a walk along the Way of the Cross, which leads up the hillside to the small chapel of St Anna.
It was a wonderful spring day. The meadows were in bloom, all trees and bushes sported light green young leaves. On the higher mountaintops, though, there was still snow left from a recent dropdown in temperature that had also hit the blooming orchards round the abbey.
But now the sun was back and we enjoyed our walk. The hillside already offered a wide view over the valley.
When we reached the top of the ridge, it also opened up to the other side. The opposite slope was much steeper, as it is typical for the Jura hills. The view north and west extended over Basel to the snow-covered summits of Black Forest and Vosges. Landeskron castle occupies the neighbouring ridge. The walk was supposed to take half an hour but it took us more than one hour because we took so many photos.
A glimpse through the trees in northern direction...
... and zooming in the middle of the previous image: Basel and the snow-capped Black Forest in the background. The steeple of Münster church and Elisabethenkirche are visible. The huge Roche skyscraper is Basel's new landmark.
Back down at the abbey, there was a wedding taking place at the church. The wedding party were posing all together in front of the church for the official wedding photo and video. A quadcopter was buzzing in the air to shoot a video from above.
It was an Indian wedding. Most of the ladies appeared in either saris or dresses made from the most colourful oriental fabrics. The bride wore a white bridal gown in European style, but bride and groom were wearing long flower wreaths according to Asian traditions (methinks). It was a colourful picture and I took the chance to catch some snapshots…
However, it was already time to return to Basel and catch our train back home. We are looking forward to next year’s meeting with our Swiss friends – let’s see what ideas we will come up with.