Rarely can such a small town (population around 5,500) have captured the world’s attention like Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps, where every ten years an extraordinary piece of religious pageantry draws visitors from around the globe.
Oberammergau (Ober = Upper, Ammer = water, Gau = district) is a pretty cluster of giftshop–lined streets which thrive from a unique blend of commercialised Chistianity and the centuries-old tradition of woodcarving.
From producing crucifixes and altars for local churches and abbeys, wood carvers now offers a huge range of objects, many of a religious nature, to remind visitors of their stay. You can buy everything from a finger-sized Mary to a full-sized Jesus. On the cross.
The background: In the first half of the 17th century a deadly plague, the “Black Death”, swept through central Europe, spread not least by several armies criss-crossing the continent during the Thirty Years War.
Deep in Bavaria near the border with Austria, the village of Oberammergau was initially untouched by disease due to a strict quarantine which prevented any living thing from entering or leaving. However, one night in 1632 a man who had been working in a nearby village evaded watchmen to visit his family. Within a few days disease took hold, resulting in over 80 deaths.
The bubonic plague, or “Black Death”, caused millions of deaths across Europe in the Middle Ages.
The inhabitants of Oberammergau vowed that, if the plague subsided, they would stage a passion play every ten years in praise of God. The epidemic did indeed pass and, believing in divine intervention, the villagers were true to their word and staged the first play in 1634. Today their descendants uphold their vow to ring church bells every Sunday at four in the afternoon as long as the plague stays away – and the visitors keep coming.
The Passion Play has become the world’s largest play. Anyone born in Oberammergau or who has lived there for at least 20 years is entitled to join the 2,300-strong cast, all amateurs, including four to five hundred children and technical crew, not to mention livestock such as sheep, goats and the donkey Jesus rides into Jerusalem, when some 600 people are on stage at the same time, while an orchestra plays live under it.
Jesus entering Jerusalem
It’s easy to spot the following year’s male cast members. They’re the hirsute ‘Herren’ walking around who not allowed to shave or cut their hair from Ash Wednesday (late February) of the previous year until the performances are over – or more than eighteen months.
From its beginnings on a makeshift stage in front of the local church, this enactment of the life and death of Jesus Christ has grown over the centuries, thanks to a huge communal effort, to fill the custom-built, the Passion Play Theatre over a hundred times. Built in 1900 to seat 4,600 (when the village had only 1,000 inhabitants), the structure is made of more metal than the Eiffel Tower. Half a million visitors flocked to its previous production in 2010.
Crowds disperse after a performance at the Passion Play Theatre.
Staged every ten years between May and October – 2020 will be the 42nd – each performance of the Passion Play comprises two parts of two and a half hours each – one in the afternoon and one in the evening – with a 90-minute interval for rest, recuperation and refreshment.
Director Christian Stückl will be overseeing his fourth production in 2020. Born in Oberammergau, the son of innkeepers, he apprenticed as a woodcarver before going into theatre. He is also General Manager of the Munich Volkstheater and directs ‘Everyman’, a mainstay of the Salzburg Festival. He takes the core cast of the Passion Play to Jerusalem for ten days to absorb the atmosphere.
The Passion Play was first reported in the UK in 1840, when it took three days to travel the sixty miles down from Munich. Over the years attendees have included royalty, motorcar pioneer Henry Ford, Hollywood director Billy Wilder (who complained that it was antisemitic) and Adolf Hitler, who in 1930, the year the Nazis co-opted the play and Goebbels supervised its promotion, sat in the same row as avowed Communists Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and expressed pleasure that Jews were portrayed in a poor light. (In a reflection of how the village’s demographic has changed, in 2020 Jesus will be played by a Muslim.)
A scene from ‘Die Pest’ (The Plague), a prologue to the Passion Play
Since 1932, a prologue or ‘back story’ to the Passion Play has been performed in the previous year in the form of ‘Die Pest’ (The Plague), which dramatises events leading up to the first staging of the Passion Play.
Oberammergau’s souvenir trade is driven by wood carving, which appeared in the Alpine region in the early 16th century as a means of subsidising farming in a rough climate, especially during the ‘dead’ days of winter.
This evolved into a tradition of sculpture, especially of church items, and eventually became a key industry. The growing crowds visiting the Passion Play provided a ready-made market for crucifixes, religious figures and other souvenirs. Today Oberammergau still has about 60 professional wood carvers.
The sign says ‘Wood carving’.
Favouring woods such as lime, pine, pear and maple, wood carvers turn out a bewildering array of figures and items, including – deep breath – nativity scenes, biblical characters, cherubs, saints, letter openers, salt and pepper pots, storage containers, farm livestock, wildlife, dolls, toys and soldiers – even whole armies.
Some of the finest pieces of wood carving can be seen in the Oberammergau Museum, where a huge array includes multi-piece displays such as a recreation of a hunt led by King Maximilian II Joseph of Bavaria, the silver wedding celebrations of King Ludwig I of Bavaria and wife Therese and ‘The Last Supper’, modelled after Leonardo da Vinci’s famous fresco.
A woodcarver’s elaborate rendering of ‘The Last Supper’ in the Oberammergau Museum
Another feature of the museum is its collection of reverse glass paintings. Admirers of this technique included members of the artists’ group The Blue Rider, who would visit from their painting retreat in nearby Murnau, collecting some of their own reverse glass paintings and using the technique to create their own works.
One of the group’s founders, Gabriele Münter, attended glass painting workshops, while fellow members Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky selected nine pictures from the Oberammergau Museum’s collection for inclusion in The Blue Rider Almanac, which influenced the development of modern art. Throughout the museum works by contemporary sculptors complement the traditional displays.
Found all over southern Germany and western Austria, especially Upper Bavaria and the Tirol, ‘Lüftlmalerei’ (‘sky painting’) is a folk-oriented version of trompe-l’oeil painting used to create elaborate house murals. Subjects include saints, biblical stories, fables, hunting and everyday rural life.
Using the traditional method, the paintings are applied to fresh lime plaster using a fresco technique which produces a chemical reaction to make the paintings durable. Today, other weatherproof painting materials are also used.
‘Lüftlmalerei’ decorates a village house in Oberammergau
One of the finest exponents of Lüftlmalerei was the Oberammergau facade artist Franz Seraph Zwinck(1748-1792), whose handiwork can be seen on the Pilatushaus (House of Pontius Pilate), where visitors can watch artists at work in a ‘live workshop’.