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Convent reveals life and times of Charlemagne

Organist Andrea Kuratle (right) and archaeologist Jürg Goll in the convent's church


A remote valley in eastern Switzerland is the last place one would expect to find a treasure chest of clues to the early Middle Ages. But this period of history comes alive in the Val Müstair where the Benedictine Convent of St John stands as a witness.

The convent was built during Charlemagne's rule, whose brief hegemony over large swathes of Europe represented a brief flowering in the arts during the early Middle Ages.

It was added to Unesco's list of world heritage sites nearly 20 years ago because of a series of figurative murals lining the walls of the abbey church. They are the only comprehensive cycle of frescoes preserved from the early Middle Ages.

The Carolingian and Romanesque paintings, considered prime examples of Italo-Byzantine art, depict scenes from the old and new testaments in warm and earthy tones.

But archaeological work at the convent in the village of Müstair (which means monastery in Romansh) is also revealing a wealth of detail about what life was like in the Carolingian period.

There is little hint of the excavations and restorations from the outside, but once beyond the church and its frescoes, many of the other convent buildings resemble a large construction site.

Jürg Goll from Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology leads the work. As he inspects a wall where an archaeologist on scaffolding is going over the surface with a fine toothcomb, he explains what she is doing.

"She's documenting the Carolingian north wall," Goll says. "We knew that there was an old entrance here but we wanted to look at it more closely because it's the only Carolingian door in the convent that's still intact. We wanted to know how doors were built in the Carolingian period. Now we know exactly how it was done."

There's more scaffolding in the courtyards. A photographer takes pictures of grotesques and griffins painted on a window frame believed to date from the Renaissance.

Near the chapel, an archaeologist is kneeling, scraping away a layer of earth near an indentation in the ground, which may represent the presence of a grave.

Goll walks down a dark corridor and enters the imposing Planta Tower. Inside its cellar, he explains that recent investigations prove it predates the Abbess Angelina von Planta, who was thought to have had it built when she headed the convent in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

"The tower is considerably older. It goes back to the tenth century. The oldest wooden beams date back to 958 and 959."

There is more evidence from the 10th century: "We looked into the wall below this window and found that a gap had been left for a lavatory drain when it was being constructed. It has to date back to that period."

"If we look closely at the wall we can see an impression of a bench from the toilet. That's the doorframe and here's the arched entrance. It's a toilet as they built them in the tenth century."

The scale of the archaeological investigations is particularly impressive considering that the convent is still inhabited. Built as a monastery, nuns took over in the 12th century and it has been a functioning convent ever since.

About a dozen nuns live in it today, and have taken advantage of the scientists' work to gain a few creature comforts.

"The nuns got a new kitchen and new cells with running water," Goll explained. "Everything is in excellent shape. And now we're working in areas which aren't in use anymore; cellars, storage rooms, the old Planta Tower."

Prioress Pia Willi is a witness to the more recent past, having entered the convent 40 years ago. "We really depended on farming to survive when I first came here," she says, "but today it would only put us in debt, we can't do it."

The sisters earn their keep by running a small museum, as well as a kindergarten attended by children from the village of Müstair. They also tend gardens and embroider traditional Swiss costumes, which they sell for up to SFr2,000 a piece.

The Prioress says the nuns have to provide for themselves or the very existence of the convent would be in danger.

It's a different story for Goll. No funding comes with the Unesco label, but it makes it easier for the scientist to find money for his work, with grants coming from various government bodies at the federal and cantonal level.

Goll takes a break from his job as historical detective and slips into the abbey church for some peace and quiet. Even though the building and its invaluable frescoes are the main reason for the convent's fame, he doesn't find himself there very often.

There's been little demand for the expertise of an archaeologist since the frescoes and the church interior were restored about 50 years ago.

On this day, Goll is joined by dozens of visitors who are getting their first glimpse of the impressive murals. He hopes they will admire the artwork, which has survived more than a millennium. The Prioress hopes the biblical depictions will provide spiritual inspiration.

by Dale Bechtel

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