St. Johann Monastery in Müstair (World Heritage)

The St. Johann Benedictine Monastery is over 1000 years old. It was founded by Charlemagne as a male monastery and was once located at the intersection of important trade and military routes between Italy and northern Europe. It contains an important art treasure: the largest early medieval fresco cycles from the 9th century.

St. Johann monastery in Müstair: facts

Official title: Benedictine monastery St. Johann in Müstair
Cultural monument: Mostly medieval monastery buildings, laid out around two inner courtyards, with the monastery church St. Johann, Carolingian wall paintings with scenes from the life and the Passion of Christ, Romanesque vault decoration in the double chapel St. Ulrich and St. Nicholas
Continent: Europe
Country: Switzerland, Canton of Graubünden
Location: Müstair, southern exit of the Ofenpass
Appointment: 1983
Meaning: most extensive Carolingian wall paintings in Switzerland

St. Johann monastery in Müstair: history

around 780-90 Founding of a men’s monastery
around 800 Wall paintings with a biblical cycle from the south via the west to the north wall of the monastery church
811 Transfer of the monastery to the Bishop of Chur
1079 Reconstruction after fire
1163 New allocation and conversion into a Benedictine convent
1499 Conversion of the monastery church into a three-aisled hall church
1502 Consecration of the monastery church
1947-52 Restoration of the Carolingian and Romanesque frescoes

A resting place for the mind and stomach

Somewhat off the lively Roman Via Claudia Augusta, a monastery was founded in the middle of the Alps at the time of Charlemagne – at least that’s what is suspected. This monastery, Monasterium Tuberis, was the nucleus for a village called Müstair around 824.

During the Frankish period, all trade from Verona via Bozen to Augsburg was carried out on an “Alpine road” not far from where the pious brothers sat down. In addition, a trade route ran from west to east over the Umbrail pass through the valley of Müstair. The monastery was not only used for devotion and service to God, but also as a rest stop on the arduous journeys through central Europe. Under the Benedictine order, 45 monks came together whose main task, besides prayer and physical labor, was to provide accommodation and meals for tired travelers. Kings, bishops, sutlers, legionaries, wandering monks and pilgrims stayed with the friars.

The male monastery dissolved at the beginning of the 10th century and was soon converted into a nunnery. After the Reformation, the Chur bishops lost their influence in Graubünden, and the monastery, which only tried to preserve the Catholic tradition in the valley, became impoverished. The decay at that time established its current value. According to topb2bwebsites, unlike most of the monasteries in Switzerland, St. Johann was hardly changed and survived almost completely in the shape that the nuns gave the monastery in the 15th and 16th centuries.

A medieval defensive wall with the eye-catching Planta tower, an escape tower with a sloping roof, protected the huge monastery complex with church, residential and farm buildings. The farm yard took up by far the largest part of the monastery, as it should be for a “resting place for the mind and stomach”. With a large kitchen, storage cellar, refectory, its own cheese dairy and bakery, large livestock, servants’ chambers, horse stables, tool sheds and coach garages, it fulfilled all the qualities that one expects from a well-run country inn today. Through two opposing, crenellated gate towers, the nuns reached the fields outside the monastery walls, where they grew their vegetables.

The three-storey central wing separates the service courtyard from the convent rooms. In the abbess apartments and nuns’ cells, the pine beams, some of which are decorated with precious Gothic carvings, bow to the weight of time. In the 11th century, the Chur bishop Norbert had a tower-like, paneled and richly decorated suite with a two-storey chapel built into the convent. The monastery church is one of the few unadulterated Carolingian churches, even if the formerly pillarless church interior was given a rib vault on mighty round pillars in 1492. Behind the quarry stone walls plastered with lime mortar, St. Johann preserves its real treasure, the Carolingian wall paintings. Mid 20th In the 19th century, restorers uncovered the largest surviving fresco cycle of the early Middle Ages in the small church of the Alpine monastery, which had gone out of fashion and been covered over in the Romanesque period. The paintings, for which reddish and grayish earth colors were once mixed, still shimmer in matt, warm tones. The artists did not put any ornamental fresco decorations on the lime, but almost exclusively scenic representations. They visualize the “suffering of Jesus Christ” because the Müstair church is consecrated to him; John the Baptist watches over the monastery as the patron saint. While the abundance of images is initially confusing, a closer look reveals a cleverly thought-out, harmonious overall structure.

St. Johann Monastery in Müstair (World Heritage)