The Grossmünster is on the west bank of the Limmat
River, several blocks inland from the Bürkliplatz and the Zürichsee. It's almost
directly across the river from another historic church, the Fraumünster, which is just a
few steps away from the Bahnhofstrasse in the
main shopping and banking district.
Instead of describing the church at length, we'll quote
from a delightful book titled The Stories of Basel, Berne, and Zürich, by M.D.
Hottinger, which was published by J.M. Dent & Son of London in 1933. The book is no
longer in print, unfortunately, although you may be able to find it in a bookstore or--as
I did--in a university library.
"As far back as human history goes, some kind of cult has
been practiced on the moraine hill on which the Grossmünster stands. Tradition [says] that
the first minster was the work of Charlemagne himself, who has always enjoyed great
popularity in Zürich, and to whom every good work has been attributed for which no
historical author existed. The light of history first breaks in upon the story when the
old wooden minster was burnt down in 1078, and a new one in stone at once begun. By 1107
building was so far advanced that Mass could be sung in the crypt. Then comes a lull.
There is no more talk of building on the minster until between 1170 and 1230, when the
church we know was substantially built. Then it received the impressive rectangular choir
with the three high windows such as we see again in more modest form in the Fraumünster,
while such decoration as the minster still shows was made. That decoration is
characteristically high Romanesque.
"It was Lombard masons who built the minster, and their hand is visible in the
fine even courses of the masonry and in the capitals of the columns, some of which are of
great beauty, although others are quite rough work. Two of these capitals, in the flat
relief of the church, are especially interesting. On the third column on the north side of
the nave, we see [the Zürich martyrs] Felix and Regula with a mounted Emperor, presumably
Charlemagne; on the corresponding south side, a curious scene in which two warriors are
fighting; the hand of one is held by a man behind his back while he is stabbed by his
opponent. Two other men dance for joy at the treachery. No meaning has been discovered for
this strange scene. Presumably some story was current at the time, and the mason carved it
for his own pleasure.
as a whole is a grave and noble product of its time. To realize to the full what it was
when first built, however, we must imagine it as built by a community of some eight
thousand souls. This was no bishop's church like Basel. Rising above the cramped wooden
houses, it must have been an inspiring testimony to the will of the people.
"Even now it dominates the old town in quite a peculiar way. Its orientation is
strange. It stands neither parallel to the Limmat nor in the axes of the compass. It rises
like a rock in the sea.
which Victor Hugo called "d'ignobles poivrières" deserve special mention. For
long they were unequal, low, and insignificant, simply roofed in with wood. In 1474
Charlemagne came to roost in his niche on the south tower. Who the horseman is on the
north tower, nobody knows. Then Waldmann, who had seen the graceful spires of France,
moved the council to erect similar ones on the minster, shingled in white and blue, the
colours of Zürich. The spires were certainly out of keeping with the grave forms of the
minster, but they gave a gay and characteristic note to the town picture, as we can see
from old views of Zürich.
"Then, in the eighteenth century, one of them was struck by lightning, and there
was much discussion of what to do. Many were for removal of the whole building, as being
to barbaric and primitive for the Athens on the Limmat. An "airy temple" in
strict Classical style was suggested. From this horror Zürich was saved by Breitinger,
who not only pointed out the architectural beauty of the minster, but argued that it could
not be unhealthy, as its parishioners lived as long as any other church in Zürich. The
telling argument won the day, and the minster was saved.
"But the problem of the towers was still unsolved. G.M. Pisoni proposed for the
purpose a marvellous mixture of Catholic baroque and eighteenth-century Gothic. However,
even these were rejected, and after much discussion, the present towers were built.
call these towers beautiful, yet they quite admirably fulfil a difficult function. They
emphasize the great upward movement of the west front, which would have been checked by
anything in the nature of Pisoni's invention. Nondescript as they are, they have
lived themselves into the picture of Zürich."
The Stories of Basel, Berne, and Zürich
by M.D. Hottinger
Medieval Towns Series
London, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd.
Hardcover, 338 pages, 1933