When I stepped in to the Klosterkirche (Monastery Chapel) in Weltenburg, it took my breath away. The chapel contains a masterclass in Baroque Architecture. Every surface decorated with carvings and paintings…gilding and statuary… all from the minds of the Asam Brothers. Now, while planning my trip to Germany in 2019, I stumbled across a suggestion to visit an Asam Church. I wrote it down. Then I saw more references to Asam Churches, and got curious. WHAT IS an Asam Church? In Germany, amazing Cathedral architecture and fabulous artworks are everywhere. What makes the name Asam so special?
Once you see their work, you will know why.
Who are the Asam Brothers
The Asam brothers, Cosmas Damian and Egrid Quirin, were born into an artistic Bavarian family. Grandfather and their father George were both respected painters for the Electors, and their mother worked as a relief painter and guider. When the Thirty Years war ended in 1648, many of the Monasteries and churches in Bavaria were destroyed, and naturally, the Asam family picked up many of the commissions. George Asam took his sons along as apprentices while working on the Benediktbeuern Abbey southwest of Munich. There the boys watched and learned from their father along with Italian architects and craftsmen.
When their father died, Cosmas was sent to Rome by the Benedictine Abbot of Tegernsee, where he studied art under Bernini (yes, that Bernini… the one who left artworks all over Rome and Vatican City that are central to Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons. But that’s anohter story). Later Egrid followed. Then the brothers specialized.
Cosmas Damian became a master of Fresco (note- a fresco is a painting done on wet plaster… as the plaster dries, the paint gets absorbed in to it, and becomes part of the wall). To call a Fresco a simple painting on a wall is understating. A Fresco Master plays tricks with perception… remember, you are looking at the fresco from below, or at an angle. If if were a flat painting, it would look odd. In Cosmas Damian Asam’s works, humans appeared lifelike… flat walls look curved.
Egrid, worked magic with stone and plaster. Solid pieces of marble appeared fluid and alive under his hands. And figures seem to be alive…. just caught in a moment. His powerful Altarpiece for Kloster Weltenburg gives the sense that you see Saint George in the very moment before he plunges his spear into the Dragon. And yet, that same stone seems ethereal when you see Mary floating to heaven on angel’s wings in his Assumption of the Virgin at Kloster Rohr.
What is the Baroque Period?
To understand the Asam style, it’s helpful to understand a little bit about the Baroque period. In the early 1700s, Baroque architecture burst onto the European scene with color and curves, gilding and FLOURISH! Baroque took the ornamentation of the Renaissance, and layered it with movement, color and detail. (Imagine an 8 year old given free reign at the toppings and sprinkles bar in an Ice Cream parlor… Rococo, which came next, is like giving a 3 year old glitter). And the most talented Baroque artist, Cosmas’s Italian mentor? Bernini. The Asam brothers returned home to Munich with a skill set never before seen in Germany. And for Germany, still clearing out the rubble from the Thirty Years War, the style was irresistible. (It must have been like Dorothy arriving in Technicolor Oz.) The Asam brothers created unrestrained beauty, smoothed with artistic talent.
The right time, right place and right training all come together, to rocket the Asam brothers to success.
What is an Asam Church?
St George and the Dragon, Kloster Weltenburg
After their training, it was logical that the brothers return to the family business in Germany. They used their connections, and started working in Bavaria. So many churches still needed to be repaired or built. But it was their work at the Klosterkirche Weltenburg that made them famous. Today, most people go to Weltenburg for the beer… which is quite good… but inside the church you find one of the most important works of Baroque art in Europe. Breathtaking, overwhelming, amazing! Between 1716 and 1739, the Asam brothers built and decorated the church in their recognizable style. The altarpiece, with its backlit St. George, dominates the room. But stop and look up. The ceiling is covered in a beautiful fresco (and yes, that’s a sculpture of Cosmas waving at you from above the altar…). This oval masterpiece gives you to feeling of being in paradise.
At first, it almost feels like too much. There are so many details (so much gilding!)! But if you stop and sit… look around slowly… focus on one aspect at a time, the stories becomes clear. Put yourself into a the head of a monk in the 1700s. You’ve devoted your entire existence to God. You live an austere life (and you brew some very fine beer). No TV, no internet, not much in the way of entertainment, just hard work. Then you step into this Chapel… and a vision of Heaven is revealed. Suddenly, who you are, and what your place is in the world, makes more sense.
Cosmas Asam at Weltenburg
A year later, Egrid got to work on the Assumption of the Virgin scupture at the Klosterkirche in Rohr. The Virgin seems to float, as if weightless. It seems impossible that such a thing could be done in stone.
By Piflaser, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4791441
Asam Brothers find Fame
Suddenly, everyone wanted an Asam Church. The Asam brothers were the rock stars of the Church building world from Bavaria to Austria, and even as far away as Silesia and Prague.
But it’s their St. Johann Nepomuk that everyone knows best. What? You’ve never heard of it? Maybe it’s more familiar to you as “the Asam Church” (how big a deal were they? The church they built for the most famous saint at the time, is usually called by their name, which stresses their importance.)
(Quick aside- Wondering who St Johann Nepomuk is and how he managed to get a church dedicated to him a mere 4 years after his canonization? In 1393 John of Nepomuk stood up to King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia… not the Wenceslaus in the song, one of his descendants. When John opposed allowing King Wenceslaus to upgrade an Abbey church, and install his own guy as Bishop. So, King Wenceslaus subjected John to all types of torture, and finally had him thrown off a bridge into the River Vlatva where he drowned. Five stars appeared in the heavens above the river showing people how to find John’s body, which was completely shriveled, except for his tongue, making him eligible for sainthood. WHY did the Bavarians love Johann of Nepomuk so much? In life he was the chief confessor to Queen Sophie, Wenceslaus’s wife, and a member of the Wittelsbach family. King Wenceslaus IV tortured John for, among other things, not divulging who Sophie was having an alleged affair with. The Wittelsbach dynasty, who ruled Bavaria from 1110 to 1918, appreciated discretion. Today, Johann of Nepomuk is the patron saint of secrets and bridges… and you will find his statue on bridges all over Germany)
On Sendlingerstraße in Munich, a busy pedestrian shopping district, (across the street from a STARBUCKS no less) you’ll find the entrance to the Asamkirche. The church is not set apart, it’s just part of the row of buildings, making it blend in a bit.
But when you step in the doors…It’s much more than a neighborhood church.
Like the Tardis, it’s bigger on the inside. Not because of its size, the whole church fit into an 8 m x 22 m space, but because of the design. There are no exposed white walls or undecorated space in the whole church, everything is gold, silver, marble or painted. Using tricks of light and perspective, the space feels large, like it goes up to the heavens. There are three levels. the congregation section on the ground floor appears darkest, especially on a gloomy day. The second level, which is taller, lets in more light, and is fit for an emperor. It’s obvious that the bright third level was designed for God. Cosmas frescoes cover the ceiling with colorful images depicting the suffering and drowning of St Johann Nepomuk.
Visitors may not wander through the church, instead viewing happens from the entry. But since the church is so small, you won’t miss anything. Don’t forget to look UP in the entry. Even on the rainiest days, the sun shines down on you.
What many people don’t know is that the Asam brothers bought both neighboring buildings of the Asam Church. Egrid made one his permanent home. Egrid’s house is to the left in the exterior photo (south on the map). He made sure to “fancy up” his home a bit. You can even see the Altar from a high window in his home. (so I guess he could skip church and just watch the proceedings in his bathrobe). The church’s priest lived in the other house.
Their Final Collaboration
I visited the Ursulinenkirche (St Ursuline church) in Straubing in December 2019. Tucked away from the busy shopping and pedestrian zone, the chapel is marked simply with a marker on the wall. Inside, it’s all Asam. Spiral columns flank the Altar, and cherubs fly up to the frescoed ceiling. Cosmos died in 1739 before the job was done, so Egrid finished their work alone. Egrid Quirin Asam died 11 years later in 1750. Today, like most Asam churches, the Ursulinenkirche is still in use. (I wandered in during a pre-Christmas choir practice!)
Where to find the Asam Churches
In 2019 I started “collecting” the Asam churches. It started slowly, almost by accident, but then it became a focused quest. I’ve even tossed around the idea of creating a passport to get “stamps” of each church visited, like an architectural pilgrimage. (hmmm… watch this space…)
What is an Asam church? It’s taking Baroque art and architecture to a new level… To see their work, even if you aren’t religious or excited by touring yet another church or cathedral, is to see the work of master craftsmen. The Asam legacy doesn’t hang on the wall of a museum, the things they created are still in use by the church today. From the grandest Cathedrals and Basilicas, to the out of the way chapel used by nuns.
I hope I get the chance to see them all….
List of Asam Churches and Projects
Frescoing of the dome of the former Abteikirche Ensdorf, 1714
Dome fresco in the Dreifaltigkeitskirche München , 1714/1715
Frescoing of the facade of the Claudi Cleer House in Kaufingerstrasse in Munich, 1715
Frescoes in the Klosterkirche Metten , 1715
Side altar painting of the Schutzengelkirche (formerly Franciscan Church) in Straubing , around 1710
Frescoes in Bamberg , 1714
Klosterkirche Weltenburg , 1716/18, 1721, 1734/36
Klosterkirche in Rohr in Lower Bavaria , 1717/23
Wallfahrtskirche Maria Hilf in Amberg, 1717
Kloster Michelfeld, from 1717
Basilica of St. Martin of Weingarten Abbey , 1719
St. Korbinian Chapel on Weihenstephaner Berg in Freising , 1720, demolished in 1803
Kloster Aldersbach, 1720
Schloss Schleissheim, 1721
Frescoes in the St. Anna Chapel in Kißlegg
Cathedral of St. Jakob in Innsbruck , 1722/23
Dom St. Maria und St. Korbinian in Freising , 1723/24
Klosterkirche Einsiedeln , 1724–1726
Heilig-Geist-Kirche in Munich , 1727
Břevnov Abbey (Breunau) near Prague, 1727
Bruchsal Castle Church , 1728 (destroyed in 1945)
Draft for the grace altar of the pilgrimage church of the Assumption in Dorfen , 1728 (executed 1740/49, demolished in 1868, reconstruction in 1971)
St. Anna im Lehel monastery church in Munich, 1729
St. Anna Gotteszell Monastery Church , 1729
Jesuitenkirche (Mannheim) , 1729–1731
Schloss Alteglofsheim (today the Bavarian Music Academy), 1730
St. Emmeram Monastery in Regensburg , 1731–1733
Altenmarkt-Osterhofen Monastery Church , 1732
Ettlingen Palace Chapel , 1732
Monastery church in Legnickie Pole (Wahlstatt) in Lower Silesia , 1733
Asamhaus , Sendlinger Strasse 34 in Munich, 1734
St. Johann Nepomuk (“Asamkirche”) in Munich, 1734
Augustinerkirche in Regensburg , 1734
Castle chapel St. Anna in Maxhütte-Haidhof – Pirkensee, 1734
Altes Landhaus, Innsbruck, 1734
Damenstiftskirche St. Anna in Munich, 1735
Altars of the Sandizell Castle Church near Schrobenhausen, 1735
Ursuline Church for the Immaculate Conception of Mary in Straubing, 1736–1739 (last joint work of the brothers)
Maria de Victoria in Ingolstadt , 1736
Johanni Chapel in Freising Cathedral , 1737/38
Fürstenfeld Monastery , 1741
Bischöfliches Palais Eichstätt , painting The Last Supper, 1st half of the 18th century
Catholic Church of St. Martin in Meßkirch / Baden, Nepomuk Chapel