The Convent of St John in Müstair, tucked in a far-off corner of the eastern canton of Graubünden, provides a unique insight into the medieval era.
But it is also a thriving institution, in which cultural work, archaeological research and the Benedictine rigour of the nuns still living within its walls happily coexist.
There is a slight pungency to the air and a weak light pervades the nave, giving the church a surreal atmosphere. Every corner of the convent oozes history – a history which began 1,200 years ago and which resulted in the world’s largest surviving cycle of early-medieval frescos.
The church, its belltower and the Planta Tower – said to be the oldest secular building standing in the Alps - give the convent and the whole village of Müstair an unmistakable skyline.
The monastic complex has been restructured at least eight times since its beginnings. Every period has left its mark, with stucco work, vaulting and wood-panelled apartments blending into a harmonious whole.
“The idea of applying for Unesco recognition was mooted almost by chance and was taken up by Alfred Schmid, a professor and then president of the Federal Commission of Historic Monuments,” explained Elke Larcher, public relations manager for the Pro St John’s Convent Foundation, which looks after the site’s needs.
“In those days, the procedure was undoubtedly a lot simpler, partly because the World Heritage Site label was not very well known.”
The Müstair valley is situated at the eastern end of the Swiss Alps, behind the Stelvio glaciers, and is within easy reach of Italy’s South Tyrol region.
Its economy was for centuries based on agriculture and transport over the Alpine passes.
Nowadays, however, the 1,700 inhabitants depend mainly on tourism, aware that the region’s natural and cultural assets – and Romansh, an ancient Latin-based minority language – are a vital resource.
“It is difficult to say to what extent Unesco recognition has increased the influx of tourists, but it has certainly given the convent greater visibility, especially abroad,” said Larcher.
Eco-sustainable development could bring further prosperity if the Müstair valley and the neighbouring Swiss National Park are successful in their application to become a Unesco biosphere reserve.
Myth or history?
The convent’s origins are still unclear. According to legend, Charlemagne, returning via Müstair from his coronation as King of the Lombards in 774, survived a snowstorm and, founded the convent as a mark of gratitude. Müstair then occupied a strategic position, as Charlemagne had ambitions to expand eastwards into Bavaria.
Like many legends, this one also seems to have some basis of truth - the original wooden beams of the church do indeed date from the time when Charlemagne journeyed up the Valtellina and crossed the Umbrail Pass after securing the Lombard kingdom.
Since then Charlemagne has been venerated here almost like a saint. His statue stands proudly alongside the crucifix, protecting the church.
From the very beginning, the convent was decorated with mural paintings and stained glass, signs of prosperity at a time of cultural revival. “You have to imagine the church as a simple building, with smooth walls and a flat ceiling, but painted throughout,” explained Larcher. The columns, vault and gallery were not added until 1492.
The Carolingian frescos, from the eighth and ninth centuries, completely covered the church walls and illustrated the story of man’s redemption.
In around 1200 the eastern wall was completely redecorated with a new layer of frescos, more dynamic and imaginative than the earlier ones, but using a similar subject matter.
Guardians of the convent
The wall paintings were rediscovered between 1947 and 1951, despite the fact that the existence of the Carolingian fresco cycles had been documented since the beginning of the century.
In 1969 the Pro St John’s Convent Foundation funded the restoration of the monastic buildings, as well as some archaeological excavations. Work on the Planta Tower was completed in 2003, when the new convent museum was opened.
“Apart from its unique artistic heritage, the convent successfully marries culture, in the form of history, science and restoration, with a living religious dimension,” said Larcher.
“The presence of the nuns has been essential to the convent’s survival and is also of fundamental importance for the village."
It is active nunnery where the strict rule of St. Benedict regulates the age-old pattern of work and prayer.
Müstair was established to consolidate the Christian way of life and propagate the monastic model. Today, it is not only a tourist attraction, but also a place of pilgrimage.
It offers itself as a sanctuary from the chaos of modern life, for those seeking the silence of a bygone era. Among the medieval paintings and Benedictine chants, only the sundial records the flow of time at the Convent of St John in Müstair.
Stefania Summermatter in Müstair, swissinfo.ch
The Convent of Müstair, which stands in a valley in Graubünden, 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.