White chapels, black chalets: Walk on the conchard chessboard
From Ernen to Münster, Baroque chapels dot the bucolic pastures of Upper Valais.
Published by Le Temps June 19, 1999
The June sun leans over the birthplace of the Rhône. Here and there in the valley of Conches, the inhabitants heal the wounds of winter: thousands of trunks mown by avalanches are gathered in a large pyre. The snow still lingers close by and the rushing torrents swell the barely born river. But there is a hint of something bucolic and Swiss, lurking in the cold, ready to bloom. The trilogy of valley colors announces the arrival of a new summer: the tender green of the pastures, the dark charcoal color of the Alpine chalets, and the virginal white of the chapels. They are the ones we come to visit.
There are many places of worship in Goms. The white chapels surrounded by black chalets, queens of the Conchard chessboard, follow each other as if on a pilgrimage to the foot of the passes, Grimsel, Furka and Nufenen. Their exterior appearance is quite sober. A high nave with a single aisle, a two-sided roof, a straight or polygonal apse, a simple porch as in Ernen, larger in Münster. The church is flanked by a campanile to the northeast, generally crowned with a straight spire, except in Reckingen where the luscious forms of the bulb decorate the bell tower and the entrance porch.
All over the Goms valley, Baroque architecture imposes its rules. Of the three main churches, Ernen, which, like a fortified castle, overhangs the road which winds up from Brig, is the oldest: it dates from 1538. The nave of Münster, upstream, was erected in 1664. It became a model for regional constructions from the end of the 17th century. Reckingen, halfway, still in rivalry with Münster since the split of the parish at the end of the 17th century, built its church around 1745. On either side of the main axis up to the mountain passes, myriads of small chapels propagate the same style, echoing the parish churches. This is a good time to visit: the main churches have been restored and concerts are being organized this summer in Ernen and Münster.
The contrast between the exterior of the Conchard churches with their simple shapes and the rich and sumptuous interior of these mountain places of worship is striking. Enter Reckingen, the church with the most delirious decor: the choir and the nave bathed in natural light illuminate three scintillating altarpieces which combine all the technical tricks of Rococo: twisted colonnades, stucco, gilding and faux marble. The triumphalism of the Virgin, to which the church is dedicated, is heightened by a tribute to the martyrs, heroes of the Baroque. As in other churches in the valley, Saint Catherine, patron saint of Valais, exhibits her cut-off breasts on a platter, Saint Barbe and Saint Marguerite testify to their own pain.
The altarpiece placed to the left of the choir is a model of feminine expressions, testifying once again to the fact that theatrical baroque art is at the service of emotion. On the right, an altarpiece dedicated to Saint Joseph installs the figure of the carpenter between two kings and a cloud of putti, other indispensable figures in the carnival of baroque forms. The furniture is completed by the organ with sixteen registers from 1746 and a pulpit of the same style (1766), placed on the right side of the nave, a remarkable rostrum to the glory of the word of God, placing the Good Shepherd at the top of the pulpit supported by the symbol of the four evangelists.
The interior of the Church of Reckingen has a unique vault which harmonizes perfectly with the altars. If the church in Münster is distinguished by a coffered ceiling of painted wood, the vault in Reckingen is decorated in stone with stucco and wall paintings. A cycle of medallions with rare iconography, always dedicated to the Virgin, adorns the top of the vault, from the organ to the choir. On the sides, medallions dedicated to the apostles.
In Reckingen, but especially in Ernen, the interior sculptures (18th century) are more recent than the construction of the body of the church. In Ernen, the church dedicated to Saint George, in addition to the Baroque altars, a fragment of a small older altarpiece is preserved on the left of the choir, dating from the last quarter of the 15th century. It displays twelve statuettes of local saints and saviors in a Gothic-decorated box.
According to Walter Ruppen, author of the inventory of the architectural heritage of Haut-Valais, this small altar is one of the most graceful works of Valais. It is to be compared with the main altar of the church of Münster, one of the most remarkable late Gothic altarpieces in Switzerland, still according to Ruppen. The melancholy expression of its characters (a Virgin and Child, surrounded by Saint Anne, Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Barbara and Saint Sebastian) contrasts with the dramatic gestures of the Baroque side altars.
Today, the riches of the Conches valley strike a unique chord in this remote and rugged countryside. The artistic treasures from the late 15th to 18th century bear witness to the opulence that bathed the valley at that time. Not only thanks to the mountain passes the valley serves, but also thanks to the great families who generated distinguished religious and lay leaders, such as the De Riedmatten, Supersaxo and Schiner. Each of these families provided the region with artistic works which still display their coat of arms prominently today.
The Conchard Baroque is both international and specific to the valley: architects and sculptors came from Austria, Lucerne or northern Italy to create the Conchard churches and their treasures. But they were seconded, then replaced, by local workshops, notably that of the sculptor Johann Ritz. For the altarpieces in the Conches valley, the marble typically found in cities was imitated by regional pine wood painted in perfect trompe-l'oeil by local artisans.
Here the Baroque art puts the aesthetic rules of the international style at the service of local imagery: the saints and martyrs of the altarpieces evoke both the practice of faith in Valais and the cult of the mountains. The marvelous little chapel above the village of Ritzingen, isolated in the greenery, has on its altarpiece all the saints and patrons essential to the prayer of those who attempted to cross the pass without hindrance.