The Convent of Müstair, which stands in a valley in the Grisons, is a good example of Christian monastic renovation during the Carolingian period. It has Switzerland's greatest series of figurative murals, painted c. A.D. 800, along with Romanesque frescoes and stuccoes.
Benedictine Convent of St John at Müstair
© Editions Gelbart
The Benedictine Convent of St John at Müstair, in the upper valley of the Canton of Grisons, bears exceptional testimony to a Carolingian civilization and art which has disappeared. It is one of the most coherent examples of conventual architecture and painting of the Carolingian period and the early Middle Ages.
This convent was, most likely, founded around 780 by the Bishop of Chur at the behest of Charlemagne. It is noted from the beginning of the 9th century as being an establishment of Benedictines. It did not become a convent until 1163.
The most important construction of the monastic complex, including two cloisters, is the church, dedicated to St John the Baptist. Formed by a simple rectangular hall some 20 m long, it is closed at the east by three tall semi-circular apses, adorned on the exterior by blind arcades.
In the church, the removal of the Gothic ceiling (1908-9) and of the whitewash (1947-51) brought to light important vestiges of frescoes dating from the Romanesque period (approximately 1150-70) and, more important still, from the Carolingian period. This is, in fact, the most important cycle of painting which is currently known dating from around 800. These figurative paintings (scenes from the Old and New Testaments), of a fine aesthetic quality, painted in a limited range of ochres, reds and browns, postdate the frescoes of Castelseprio and San Salvatore in Brescia. They are particularly important in understanding the evolution of certain Christian iconographic themes, such as the Last Judgement. The panels are framed with painted strips of garlands and ribbons, and culminate at the top in a large cornice that reproduces an architectural feature. Sadly, the cycle has suffered considerable damage, both because of ill-conceived restorations and because of the repainting of the apses, which probably took place between 1165 and 1180, whereas the frescoes on the side walls, with the Stories of David, were removed and placed in the Landesmuseum in Zürich.
Other precious artworks preserved in the Benedictine complex date from successive centuries: dating from the Romanesque period are, in addition to the frescoes preserved in the church's apse area, the large statue in painted stucco depicting Charlemagne (1165), located in the choir, and on the left wall of the same room a fine Romanesque relief depicting the Baptism of Christ (1087).
Within the enclosure walls of the monastery are found other early elements, among them, in particular, in the north-west quarter, the residence of Bishop Norbert with its remarkable decor of frescoes and stucco-work in the two-storey chapel (11th and 12th centuries).
The other rooms in the abbey, which for the most part date back to the 18th century, are located around the main cloister and contain documents, models related to the religious complex, reliquaries, robes, and object of sacred art, dating from the 13th to the 18th centuries.
During the Gothic and Baroque periods, it was subjected to major modifications, like the rest of the complex: two rows of columns divided the interior into three aisles, a matroneum was installed, and the original wooden ceiling was replaced by a vaulted roof; on the exterior, in the 15th century, adjoining the right-hand side of the church, a stout tower with a square plan was built, a tower-house for the Abbess of the convent. Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC