Miraculously preserved in the beautiful setting of an Alpine valley, the Church of Wies (1745–54), the work of architect Dominikus Zimmermann, is a masterpiece of Bavarian Rococo – exuberant, colourful and joyful.
The sanctuary of Wies, a pilgrimage church miraculously preserved in the beautiful setting of an Alpine valley, is a perfect masterpiece of Rococo art and a masterpiece of creative genius, as well as an exceptional testimony to a civilization that has disappeared.
The hamlet of Wies, near Steingaden in Bavaria, was the setting of a miracle in 1738: a simple wooden image of Christ mounted on a column, which was no longer venerated by the Premonstratensians, appeared to some of the faithful to be in tears. A wooden chapel constructed in the fields housed the miraculous statue for some time. However, pilgrims from Germany, Austria, Bohemia, and even Italy became so numerous that the Abbot of the Premonstratensians of Steingaden decided to construct a splendid sanctuary. Accordingly, work began in 1745 under the direction of the celebrated architect, Dominikus Zimmermann, who was to construct in this pastoral setting in the foothills of the Alps one of the most polished creations of Bavarian Rococo. The choir was consecrated in 1749 and the remainder of the church finished by 1754. That year Dominikus Zimmermann left the city of Landsberg where he lived to settle in Wies near his masterpiece, in a new house where he died in 1766.
The church, which is oval in plan, is preceded to the west by a semi-circular narthex. Inside, twin columns placed in front of the walls support the capriciously cut-out cornice and the wooden vaulting with its flattened profile; this defines a second interior volume where the light from the windows and the oculi is cleverly diffused both directly and indirectly. To the east, a long deep choir is surrounded by an upper and a lower gallery.
The prodigious stucco decoration is the work of Dominikus Zimmermann, assisted by his brother Johann Baptist, who was the painter of the Elector of Bavaria, Max-Emmanuel, from 1720. The lively colours of the paintings bring out the sculpted detail and, in the upper zones, the frescoes and stuccowork interpenetrate to produce a light and living decor of an unprecedented richness and refinement. The abundance of motifs and of figures, the fluidity of the lines, the skilful opening of surfaces, and the 'lights' continually offer the observer fresh surprises. The ceilings, painted as trompe-l'œil, appear to open on an iridescent sky, across which angels fly; these, too, contribute to the lightness of the whole.
Moreover, the preservation is perfect: the colours have retained all their freshness and nothing is lacking in the Rococo whole that is Wies - the splendid asymmetrical ironwork of the choir, the pews of sculpted wood for the faithful, the pulpit, and the elegant and amply modelled saints that inhabit the architecture.