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Medieval Bern reveals its secrets

Little was spared during the Reformation.

(Bern Historical Museum)

A unique exhibition on the reformation at the Bern Historical Museum has shed new light on Bern's medieval past. Anna Nelson takes a trip back in time to discover what the city might look like today, if the Reformation hadn't taken place.

Stepping out onto the streets of the Old Town, on a frosty winter morning, it's easy to imagine oneself in medieval Bern - the same crooked, cobblestone streets filled with horse-drawn carts and bustling market stalls - where sophisticated shops and sports cars now stand.

Medieval archaeologist, Armand Bäriswil, says the layout of Bern's old town has changed very little over the past 500 years, including its narrow passages and long stretches of sandstone shopping arcades.

But appearances can be deceiving. In fact, many of Bern's buildings underwent radical reform after 1528, when the town's council decided to adopt the Reformation.

"Most of the convents were turned into hospitals," says Bäriswil, "which made a social and political impact because healthcare was suddenly placed in the hands of the state rather than the church".

Similarly, a seminary that once stood on the outskirts of medieval Bern was turned into a prison in 1528. Today, it is the seat of Switzerland's parliament.

At the same time, many of Bern's churches were turned into storage areas, including the Nydegg church, which sits at the easternmost point of the city's peninsula.

From 1529-1566, the building was used to store wine and wood, but today is again a place of worship.

Thus, the Reformation not only made a weighty religious impact on Bern but also resulted in a number of social, political and economic changes to the city.

"Ironically," says Bäriswil, "the acceptance of the iconoclastic movement was largely triggered by social, political and economic issues".

Nowhere is this better illustrated than at the towering, late-gothic Minster, which sits perched high above the river Aare. It was here, in the early 16th century, that the reformation in Bern truly took hold.

During two tumultuous days, in January 1528, the poor people of Bern stormed the church and ripped down its ornate, brightly coloured statues, tapestries and altars.

Fed up with worshipping in a church that didn't even have a roof, the poor people of Bern seized upon the acceptance of the reformation as a chance to protest against their economic plight.

In defiance of the rich, who often had their own private chapels, the town's people threw the sculptures from the Minster into a large ditch on the south side of the building, where they were covered up and used as landfill for an expansion of the Minster cemetery.

The spot is known today as the "Münsterplattform", a spacious promenade scattered with benches and a grove of lime and chestnut trees. With its picturesque view and tranquil setting, it seems an unlikely hiding place for a treasure trove of mysterious secrets.

But that's what workers found in 1986 when they dug a tunnel, over 20 metres deep, near two of the terrace's connecting walls - in order to keep the ground below from shifting too much.

There, buried under four cubic metres of rubble, they discovered 500 fragments of the dismembered statues, which are now on display at the history museum.

In the chill dampness of the narrow shaft, Bäriswil explains that the sculptures were a valuable discovery, offering a precious glimpse at well-preserved medieval art.

"From an art history point of view, it's very important to have proof of what the statues really looked like," he says. "Normally we think of medieval statues in cathedrals as grey stone but really, they were painted in shocking colours - orange, red and yellow."

He adds, with a slight air of mystery, that countless other statues, as well as the remains of about 1,000 dead bodies, still remain entombed - just beyond the tunnel walls.

Standing in the Minster's lofty nave, as dust filters through the fading light of the stained glass windows, one can't help but imagine medieval ghosts, waltzing to the organ music that disturbs the silence.

Looking at the church today, the 473-year-old scars, left over from the Reformation, are still clearly visible. The faded crests of bygone nobles still mark the walls where family members used to pray for their loved ones' souls to ascend from purgatory.

Just up the road from the Minster, sits the "French church".

In the shadow of one of its rare frescoes, Bäriswil explains that for three centuries the church formed part of a Dominican monastery. "During the reformation," he says, "the monks were silenced and the back of the church was turned into a storage area for grain."

When the city ran out of space to store grain in the old monastery, a larger "Kornhaus" (or granary) was built next door. Today, the Kornhaus is home to a number of offices, an exhibition centre and a chic restaurant and bar.

Stepping inside the brightly lit Kornhaus café, it's wonderful to be back in modern-day Bern, where a hot cappuccino is all one needs to chase the winter chill away.

by Anna Nelson


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