Stepping out of the forest after a few hours of hiking, we see the church on a low hill across an expanse of grassland. The immensely famous Pilgrimage church of Wies is not particularly large – the nave just 30 m long – but standing rather isolated. Around it there is only a cluster of houses and beer gardens and the huge parking space about 100 m away.
About a dozen people are walking up the well-maintained path to the UNESCO-protected Pilgrimage church of Wies. Another 30 or 40 visitors are inside, looking up at the frescoes and putti and taking photos. That’s more visitors than most churches in Bavaria see during Sunday mass. But of course, the Pilgrimage church, the Wieskirche, can take in a few hundred. There would have been more people, we guess, on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday. These are the days when there is an official Pilgrims’ Mass dedicated to the holy image enshrined here.
When the peasant woman Maria Lori in 1738 noticed tears coming out of a very life-like image of the flagellated Christ in her room, the miracle attracted crowds to see the sculpture. The statue had been discarded a few years earlier. It was church authorities themselves who threw it out because they deemed the image too gruesome for the general population! Soon a chapel was built on the hill to accommodate the miraculous statue and its visitors. After all, this was a time when pilgrimages were en vogue. And soon enough, the prior of the nearby monastery decided to invest in a larger church in 1745.
The new structure, designed by architect Dominikus Zimmermann of the famous Wessobrunner School of stucco workers, was purpose-built as a pilgrimage church. It has a lofty oval nave, a high frescoed ceiling and slim pillars positioned close to the walls. That way, all attention is directed towards the high altar with its image of the Flagellation of Christ.
Today, quite likely, the majority of visitors are not pilgrims in a strict religious sense. They come to see the famous Rokoko building and its overbearing stucco decoration and frescoes, its pale pink and gold.
A stucco star
The famous stucco worker Dominikus Zimmermann himself painted the ceilings with scenes of the Redemption and the Coming of Christ. The architect’s brother, famous stucco plasterer Johann Baptist Zimmermann, contributed the thousands of smaller stucco details. These include, for instance, putti, leaves, flowers, and palmettes. And other local masters got orders for yet more stucco figures, for the altars, the paintings, the carvings, the pulpit.
So, okay, the costs for the project multiplied in the next ten years until its completion: from 30,000 gulden as planned to 180,000 gulden in the final bill. But then it’s also comforting in a way – since we live in Berlin, where the costs of the planned (and not yet completed) airport have only tripled in ten years …
After we have taken our fill of putti, frescoes, saints and martyrs (and photos), we stroll out to the inns and beer gardens near the parking lot. The deep-fried Kiachl (a kind of greasy doughnut) that someone had recommend are only sold on weekends. So we end up with coffee and cake at a beer table opposite an elderly, somewhat gloomy couple eating Bavarian veal sausages (Weißwurst).
And after that we continue our hike on the King Ludwig long distance path. It’s a five day hike through the Bavarian Alpine upland.
Is it worth visiting the Pilgrimage Church of Wies?
Oh, yes, it is – if you can bear a maximum of Baroque stucco decoration, that is. The Wieskirche is truly a prime example of Bavarian Baroque.
In addition, we find that (walking) pilgrimages are often a very gratifying mode of moving, especially in foreign coutries or unknown areas. Walking slows you down, there’s a purpose to it, and you are following in a line of previous pilgrims. For instance, we have made the Buddhist Pilgrimage of the 88 Temples in Japan. There is also a UNESCO-listed Shinto pilgrimage nearby, the Kumano Kodo. But smaller pilgrimages like the boat pilgrimage to the Miyajima Floating Torii in Japan can also be rewarding.
How to get to the Pilgrimage Church of Wies
From Munich, the best way is to take a local train to Weilheim, which takes about 45 min. From there you go by bus 9651 to “Wieskirche, Steingaden” (about 1 hour). The “Bayern-Ticket” covers all local trains in Bavaria for up to 5 people. This is a good discount option if you are travelling with more people. More demanding and time-consuming, but also rewarding, is the approach on foot on the König Ludwig hiking trail.
NB: We had no sponsoring for our travel to the pilgrimage church of Wies. We paid all expenses ourselves. In fact, we walked there.
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