A pilgrimage to see the Black Madonna at Altötting in Germany
During our visit to Bavaria to see the Oberammergau Passion Play we spent a couple of nights at the pilgrimage town of Altötting, an hour or so’s drive east of Munich. I’ve heard that the town is the German equivalent of Lourdes in its importance as a site of pilgrimage, and over the three days of Pentecost 30,000 people converge on the town for a candle-lit procession around the town square. Altötting was somewhat quieter during our stay and was a very pleasant, picturesque and relaxing place to stay for a couple of days.
After our flight into Munich we arrived by coach at our Hotel Zur Post, Altötting, right on the main square and had the rest of the day free to try some Bavarian specialities for lunch in the cafes around the square, followed by a wander round to get our bearings. We didn’t spend too much time that afternoon looking around the many churches as we knew that we would be having a guided walking tour of the town on the next morning.
The heart of the town is the small Chapel of Mercy at one end of the town square, housing the shrine to the Black Madonna, with a small black statue of the Madonna and baby Jesus, clothed in richly embroidered robes. The Black Madonna is believed to have granted many miracles, the legend apparently originating in the 15th century when a young child who had drowned nearby was brought before the altar by his desperate mother, whose prayers to the Madonna were answered and the child was revived.
There is an ambulatory or covered walkway around the exterior of the chapel where every inch of the walls and roof are covered by small pictures depicting the miracles experienced by those who have offered their prayers there, all with the phrase Maria Hat Geholfen (Maria has helped) You can even see a collection of crutches and leg braces that have been discarded by those who have been cured of their ailments. There are also wooden crosses available in the covered walkway of the chapel and the custom is for the faithful to carry a cross three times around the perimeter while praying to the Madonna for forgiveness from their sins.
The interior of the chapel is painted black, the colour once created from the soot of the many candles but the colour is now perpetuated in the painted walls. In front of the altar are a couple of large solid silver statues – the one on the right was commissioned by Emperor Karl Albrechy after his son recovered from a fatal illness, using 41 pounds of silver, the same weight as his son.
Opposite kneels the silver statue of Saint Conrad of Parzham who was the sexton of the St Anna’s Capuchin monastery and is buried in St Conrad’s church.Within the inner part of the shrine, the dark walls are covered by silver ornaments and from the ceiling hang silver caskets, containing the hearts of the Kings of Bavaria from the Wittlesbach dynasty, starting with Elector Maxmillian I, interred here after their death. For this reason and because of the geographical position and religious significance of the town, Altötting was called the ‘Heart of Bavaria’ by Pope Benedict XVI, who was born nearby in the town of Marktl and has a close connection to Altötting.
After starting our tour beside the shrine, we followed our guide around the many churches of the town that have been built over the centuries to house all the pilgrims coming there. I was reminded how worthwhile it can be to hire a local guide as we were regaled with little stories and anecdotes that brought the town to life for us. After the 30 years war ended in 1670 the townspeople decided to make the current large open square. We learned how there were originally plans to build a larger dome over the small chapel, with the foundations marked out by the hedges around the chapel, but the money ran out so the chapel was left unchanged and a larger church later built in 1876 alongside the chapel.
Our guide pointed out the metal cockerel on top of the steeple, placed there to remind of what Jesus had said to Peter that ‘before the cock crows you will have betrayed me three times’. If you wish to light a candle, you do so at the small kiosk near the front of the chapel as candles are not allowed inside for fear of fire.
We visited the church of St Phillip and Jacob where our guide pointed out that the ornate and brightly coloured statues of the saints were not made of plaster, but traditionally carved from wood and then coloured with a lacquered finish. At the back of the church was the much photographed Tod von Eding clock with the statue of the Grim Reaper on top, swinging slowly from side to side.
It was put there to remind everyone of the number of people who had died from plague and during the 30 year war (1618-1648) and as an altar boy, it was our guide’s responsibility to wind up the dropping movement that powered the clock before it was converted to electricity. In the basilica we paused in front of a group of small photos of men from the town who had been killed during the second world war, and our guide told us how he had six brothers, three of whom had been killed in the war – ‘Crazy War’ was all he said.
I particularly liked the interior of the church of St Conrad, part of the monastery where Saint Conrad of Parzham was a Capuchin friar. He died in 1894 and was beatified in 1934. In contrast to the other ornate churches this one was much more simple and in the base of the altar, the remains of the saint were interred in a life size metal statue, with his skull on display. We could see the small room where the Saint had slept as a doorkeeper at the church. Outside was a water fountain coming from a statue of the Saint and as we wondered at the steady stream of people coming to fill their water bottles, we were told that the water was considered holy, as it flowed over the fingerbone, in a casket, of the saint himself.
Just outside the church of St Conrad, our guide pointed out a small tree, now known as the Pope’s Linden tree, which was planted by Pope John Paul II on his visit to Altötting in 1980. Our guide told us how there was originally no time in the schedule for the Pope to stop outside the church and ‘throw a couple of shovels of mud’ over the tree, but how he had found someone who spoke Polish to have a quiet word with the Pope who had agreed to stop and plant the tree. As the guide showed us a photo of him meeting the pope and the rosary that he had been given by Pope John Paul II, a number of people instinctively reached out to touch the blessed rosary that had been touched by the Pope.
And so, with many other little interesting stories our tour passed around all the many churches of Altötting. At the end of our tour, we took an optional visit to the Jerusalem Panorama at Altötting. This panoramic painting on the curved walls of the large, dome shaped room, depicted the city of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’s death with different scenes from the Crucifixion around the walls. As you stood in the centre, as if looking from a viewpoint at the countryside around, the audio-guide told the story of the scenes being viewed. The Panorama art form became very popular in the 19th century but this example, painted by Professor Gebhard Fugel in 1903 is one of the few remaining in Europe, and made an interesting addition to our pilgrimage tour of the town.
There are a number of walking and cycling trails through the area surrounding Altötting, including the Benedict Route which takes cyclists 248 km around towns that are significant from the Pope Benedict XVI’s childhood and youth. The town would also be well worth visiting in the Advent and Christmas period with a Christmas market on the chapel square and many advent concerts in the churches.
Visitor Resources for Altötting
While in Altötting we stayed in Hotel Zur Post, a pleasant and traditional family run hotel right on the main square.
Looking for a hotel in Altotting? Compare prices and book at Hotels Combined
Visit the Altötting official tourism website
Visit the Jerusalem Panorama in Altötting website
Information on the walking and cycling tours around Altötting
Photo credits: All by Heather Cowper except photo of the interior of the Chapel of Mercy from the Altötting official tourism website
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