Zurich : the Grossmünster
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With its distinctive twin sugar-loafed towers, and a venerable history at the heart of the Swiss-German Reformation, the Grossmünster – or Great Minster – dominates Zürich’s skyline. In a tight-packed city of generally modest, small-scale architecture, it is dauntingly gigantic; and yet, caught half a millennium ago in the eye of a tight-lipped theological hurricane, it has been denuded of virtually all its interior decorative grandeur. Today it’s as bare as a cellar inside, but its beauty – as the Reformers would have wanted – is all in its lofty austerity, and its associations. In twelve years preaching from the Grossmünster’s pulpit in the sixteenth century, Huldrych Zwingli, a contemporary of Luther’s and the initiator of the Reformation in Switzerland (see box opposite), transformed Zürich from a sparsely populated hinterland town into a renowned religious centre attracting students and theologians from around Europe. Quite aside from the architecture, the sense of history in the church is compelling.

After its foundation by Charlemagne in the ninth century on a site of long-established religious significance (recent excavations below the church suggest the existence of a Roman cemetery), the church was constructed in its present form between 1100 and 1230. At that time, the north tower was higher than its twin, since it held, and still holds, the bells. In the late fifteenth century, the south tower was brought up to the same height and adorned on its south side with a grotesque statue of a seated Charlemagne. After a disastrous fire in 1763, the spires and upper sections of the towers were demolished, and reconstruction shortly after produced the Gothic belfries, watchrooms and octagonal cupolae which survive today. The fire also gave impetus to much Baroque alteration to the church interior, and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw a continuous programme of restoration of its original Romanesque character.

The building is skewed from the river bank, its broad front facing northwest. The most impressive approach is across paved Zwingliplatz, with the main North Portal featuring capitals adorned with animals, birds and, on the extreme left, a fiddle player. To the right, at the base of the North Tower, is a modern statue of Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor. Inside (March–Oct Mon–Sat 9am–6pm; Nov–Feb Mon–Sat 10am–4pm; free), the overriding impression is of the loftiness of the galleried space and its austerity; aside from some capitals decorated with battle scenes – and, on the third pillar on the north side, Charlemagne’s discovery of the graves of Felix and Regula – almost no decoration survives. The altar paintings were removed in 1524 at Zwingli’s behest, as were the church treasures. Most decorative elements which survive today are replacements, including the pulpit (1851) and the organ (1960). The windows of gorgeously colourful stained glass were made in 1933 by Augusto Giacometti and stand alone for their artistic accomplishment. It’s worth ducking into the crypt, a long triple-aisled hall, the largest of its kind in Switzerland, dominated by the fifteenth-century statue of Charlemagne taken from the South Tower (the one up there now is a replica) and also featuring some well-preserved brush wall drawings dating from 1500. You can climb the South Tower for a spectacular view over the city, but normally only by appointment (01/252 59 49).

To the right as you leave the Grossmünster onto Zwingliplatz is a door set into the wall of what was once the chapterhouse, now the university’s Theological Institute. This gives into the atmospheric cloister, originally built in 1170–80, partly demolished in 1848 and renovated in the 1960s. Aside from enjoying the tranquillity of strolling through the vaulted bays around a central garden, it’s worth visiting to see the twelfth-century capitals and spandrels of the arched windows, decorated with grotesque faces, monkeys, dragons, centaurs and other fabulous creatures.

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