The Benedictine Convent of St John in Müstair lies at an altitude of 1,250 m, on the edge of the village of Müstair, in the canton of Graubünden. The village and the whole valley get their name from the Latin word ‘monasterium’.
In the Middle Bronze Age, i.e. around 1500 BC, there was already a small settlement on the site of the convent, and traces have also been found from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. According to legend, the foundation of the monastery dates back to the time of Charlemagne (8th century); dendrochronological examination of the various timber in the ceilings has confirmed this dating (trees felled between 785 and 788).
Müstair, Western Cloister
© Stiftung Pro Kloster St. Johann in Müstair
The present configuration reflects both the history of the monastery’s construction and political and socio-economic relations in this region and the rest of Europe over more than 1,200 years. All that remains today of that original Carolingian monastery founded around 800 AD IS the monastery church and the Holy Cross Chapel, built on two floors. The imposing La Planta Tower was built to the north of the church around 1000 AD (today it houses the convent museum). To the east, the monastery buildings, the pre-Romanesque bishop’s residence with its stately chapel, and a 19th century school form the two cloisters, with the late 8th century Holy Cross Chapel located outside. Adjoining these two cloisters is the third part of the monastery complex, the service courtyard, with buildings dating in part from the Romanesque period, but whose present appearance dates from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The monastery church houses the most important cycle of wall-paintings from the Carolingian period conserved in situ. It has been possible to date the creation of these wall-paintings to between 785 and 795. Everything indicates that the church – the vast majority of which is preserved in its Carolingian style – had been designed from the outset as a space intended to be decorated with paintings. Originally, the space had no projecting supports, with three apses on the east side and a flat, wooden ceiling. It was decorated all around with depictions of the story of Christ on the apses and the walls. The scenes were arranged according to a decorative plan that created a thematic and spatial correspondence between the elements.
In the late 12th century, the Carolingian paintings were partially renovated. Towards the late 15th century, the monastery church was converted into a Late Gothic style hall-church, with its present dimensions. The flat wooden ceiling was replaced by a stone vault supported on round pillars, and the women’s gallery was installed there. The windows too were altered, and the Late Romanesque style decorations, which had lost their coherence in the construction of the vaulting, were covered over in this same period. Part of the Carolingian paintings – in particular, the ‘David’ cycle located above the vaulting – had already been rediscovered in the 19th century. From 1947–1951, the great cycle of Carolingian wall-paintings was uncovered. It no longer exists in its entirety: the decoration of the convent church is made up of a thousand years of different testimonies side by side and on top of one another. Essentially, the side walls and the vaults of the apses are decorated with the original Carolingian paintings in tones of ochre and red; the bright, vivid colours of the parts renovated in the Romanesque period adorn the lower parts of the apses, along with four more recent pictures (1597) in the central apse. But there are also some bare parts, as for example the south wall, where the decoration has not been preserved. Through the religious scenes they depict, these decorations contain a wealth of iconographic interpretations of the Creation. If we interpret this as a reflection of religious representations and relations with the world, it enables us to draw the most interesting conclusions about the evolution of Christian painting and its motifs.
St John’s Benedictine Convent in Müstair has been a convent for women since the 12th century. The life of the nuns within the monastic community, devoted to prayer, work and meditation, along with scientific and financial support from public and private bodies (the Pro Kloster Müstair Foundation), have made it possible to preserve the historical substance of Müstair convent, and maintain the continuity of its function.
Source: "Hans Rutishauser, Hans Rudolf Sennhauser, and Marèse Sennhauser-Girard: Das Benediktinerinnenkloster St. Johann in Müstair, in the series: Schweizerische Kunstführer, Gesellschaft für schweizerische Kunstführer, Berne 2003."