Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a regular dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is having in-person encounters with great art and architecture — which I’ve collected in a book called Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces. Here’s one of my favorites:.
The Wieskirche is Germany’s greatest Rococo-style church, and this “Church in the Meadow” looks as brilliant now as the day it floated down from heaven. It’s a divine droplet, a curly curlicue, as overripe with decoration as this sentence, and — bright and bursting with beauty — it’s also an exquisite example of the final flowering of the Baroque movement.
The church was constructed around a crude wooden statue of Christ being whipped. No sooner was the statue made (1738) than it miraculously began to shed tears. Amazed pilgrims came from all around. They, too, wept and were miraculously healed. The statue became a celebrity, pilgrims donated lots of money, and two of Bavaria’s top Rococo architects (the Zimmermann brothers) were hired to give the statue a proper home.
As the church’s name suggests, the Wieskirche stands literally in a meadow in the middle of the Bavarian countryside. You approach up a pathway, walking through fertile fields where cows graze peacefully and the scent of cut hay, fresh cow pies, and an alpine breeze saturates the air the way the Holy Spirit permeates the created world.
Stepping inside the small church, you’re greeted with curvaceous decor that looks like it came out of a heavenly spray can. The walls are whitewashed, and clear windows flood the church with light. Surrounded by a riot of colorful columns, golden pulpits, an over-the-top altarpiece, and a frescoed ceiling that seems to open up to the sky, your eyes hardly know where to rest.
The Wieskirche’s ornate style, called Rococo, is like Baroque that got shrunk in the wash — lighter, frillier, and more delicate, with whitewash and pastel colors. Where Baroque uses oval shapes, Rococo twists it even further into curvy cartouches.
The altar is a theological sermon that’s all about Christ’s sacrifice. It starts with his birth, moves on to his arrest and torture, and finishes with a symbol of his gruesome death: a golden sacrificial lamb.
But that’s not the end of the story. The visual sermon concludes with the massive ceiling painting. There, overseeing it all, is Jesus Christ — now resurrected — riding on a rainbow, with a smile on his face. It’s the most positive Last Judgment around. Jesus comes in like a friend, giving any sinner the feeling that there’s still time to repent, with plenty of mercy on hand.
At the Wieskirche, all of the decoration — statues, paintings, columns, gold, colorful marble, light through the windows, and the dreamy pastoral setting — come together. Having entered the church through a meadow (representing the glories of creation), you stand inside a slice of artistic paradise. Above, the ceiling painting seems to blow open the roof, allowing you a glimpse of the celestial world beyond. For the pilgrim, the Wieskirche becomes a spiritual axis connecting both heaven and earth.