The Fraumünster is one of the “must see” sights in the old town of Zurich. It boasts some spectacular modern stained glass, including five windows by Marc Chagall and a rose window by Augusto Giacometti. However for me the highlight was the separate cloister with its frescoes illustrating the foundation of the church, including the legend of the Deer With the Lighted Horns.
The Founding of the Zurich Fraumünster
The Fraumünster (women’s minster) was founded in 853 by King Ludwig of Germany. According to legend his two daughters, Hildegard and Bertha, lived in a fortress high in the mountains above Zurich. Each evening a deer with lighted horns would lead them through the dark forest and down the hill to the edge of the River Limmat. Here they would stop and pray, before the deer led them safely home. The sisters saw this as a sign from God that a religious establishment should be built at this spot. Their father agreed to the founding of a monastery, and Hildegard became its first abbess.
Another legend, also involving a deer, concerns King Ludwig’s grandfather, the Emperor Charlemagne. It is said that a stag led him to the graves of the Saints Felix and Regula, a brother and sister who were beheaded by the Romans, but who then proceeded to walk uphill carrying their severed heads! Now buried in the crypt beneath the Fraumünster, they are the patron saints of Zurich.
Either way, it is clear that deer are important to the history of Zurich and of the Fraumünster. You can see the deer with the lighted horns yourself if you visit Uto Kulm, at the top of the Uetliberg mountain where Hildegard and Bertha had their home. The path to the summit is lined with statues of deer with lamps in their horns, the creation of sculptor Bruno Weber.
The Frescoes of the Fraumünster Cloister
The current Fraumünster church was built over the remains of the monastery around 1250. The separate cloister dates from the end of the 12th century, and was moved to its present location in the 19th century. Between 1924 and 1934 the artist Paul Bodmer was commissioned to paint a series of frescoes illustrating the foundation of the church.
Today the cloister is a peaceful place; there were few people there when I visited. I walked around and looked at pictures of beatific nuns and of the princesses Hildegard and Bertha. But in the shadows of the far end of the cloister were other, darker, pictures, with snakes, toads and the martyrdom of Saints Felix and Regula. They were a bit of a challenge to the serenity of the place: I decided I preferred the story of the Deer With the Golden Horns!