There is something infectious about a person who displays a real passion for a subject. You find yourself getting drawn in, even if your own interest, up to that point, was only superficial. Such a person is Alex Hansen.
Near Zurich’s Fraumünster is a passageway, part modern and part utilising the former cloisters of the abbey church. Its walls are lined with frescoes by local artist Paul Bodmer. These were painted between 1924 and 1934 and tell stories from the history of the city.
I stopped here one morning while exploring the city with my friend Yvonne. We were intrigued by the paintings and started to discuss between us what each might depict. A man standing nearby overheard our conversation. He approached us and offered to tell us more about the pictures, an offer which we accepted; and when he said more, he meant more!
Alex Hansen has clearly made it his life’s work to study them in depth. He told us he has even written a thesis about them. And so for the next 45 minutes or so he described not only the stories told by the pictures but also many of his own theories about the artist’s use of symbolism within them.
What he told us of the stories recounted in these frescoes matches what I have since read online.
Felix and Regula
One set tells the story of the city’s patron saints, Felix and Regula. They were brother and sister, early Christians who fled to Zurich with their servant, Exuperantius, to escape persecution by the Romans. However, they found no sanctuary here and were executed by decapitation. Legend has it that this took place on the site of what is today the Wasserkirche, on the banks of the Limmat. But the martyrs picked up their heads and walked from there to a spot forty steps up the hill. There they prayed before finally collapsing in death. They were buried where they fell and the Grossmünster was built on their graves, to honour them, becoming a place of pilgrimage.
Incidentally, my friend Don has reminded me that there is a special name for a saint who is beheaded but then picks up his or her head and walks away with it – a cephalophore. Do check out his post about Saint Denis for more about the phenomenon!
Hildegard and Bertha
The other main set of frescoes tells of the founding of the convent, of which the Fraumünster was the abbey church, by two sisters, Hildegard and Bertha. They were the daughters of Louis the German, the first king of East Francia, and lived in nearby Baldern Castle. According to legend the two sisters, who were very pious, used to visit the city to worship before the relics of Saints Felix, Regula, and Exuperantius at Grossmünster Cathedral.
One morning they saw a white stag with glowing antlers in the middle of the dark forest. They followed the stag, which brought them to a spot on the banks of the Limmat River directly across from the Grossmünster. This happened each morning; and eventually the sisters understood that God had given them a sign that a convent should be built at this spot. Their father was reluctant to agree at first; but then a rope fell from heaven to mark exactly where the building should be sited, and he agreed. He and his daughters thus oversaw the construction of Fraumünster Church; and the two women became the first abbesses.
The remaining images, in the section nearest the river, relate tales of Charlemagne, but our new acquaintance had less to say about these. His thesis, if indeed he has ever written it, seems to be unpublished, and I’ve found no other references to any kind of symbolism here. I have forgotten most of his theories, which were somewhat convoluted, but not his infectious enthusiasm for his subject.
That’s why he’s just one person from around the world who has stuck in my memory.
I visited Zurich in 2017 as part of a Virtual Tourist Euromeet