On our recent trip to see the Passion Play at Oberammergau, we strolled around town admiring the painted houses or Luftlmalerei for which this small Bavarian town is renowned. The famous Oberammergau Passion Play only takes place every 10 years and in the years in between, the town is still a popular place to visit with picturesque, painted Alpine houses with carved balconies fringed with pink and red geraniums.
The town has also been known for centuries as a centre of skilled wood carving, as farmers needed to find ways to earn extra income through the long hard winters, when the village was under snow. Wood carvers from Oberammergau were renowned for their skill, some specialising in crucifixes, others in wooden painted religious figures and crib scenes, others in brightly coloured toys, using locally grown linden and alder wood. As the industry grew, street traders or Kraxentrager would travel all over Europe selling these carvings from wooden frames or Kraxe on their backs and in the 18th and 19th centuries residents left the village to set up successful retail businesses selling the wood carvings.
The house paintings originated from the 18th century and started when the houses were given painted window surrounds to embellish the simple facades, and later religious and fairy tale scenes became popular. The term for these painted houses or Luftlmalerei originated from one of the earliest local artists ‘Franz Seraph Zwinck’ who lived in the house called Zum Luftl. He also designed one of the local parish churches and painted the well known Pilatus house which is now used as a craft gallery with wood carving demonstrations and has an attractive small formal garden. In the 20th century the religious themes were extended to fairy tales and some of the houses are painted with scenes from Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel using the same traditional style.
If you’d like to learn more about the history of wood carving in Overammergau you can visit the small local history museum in the centre of town with displays of modern and traditional carvings and objects – the craft is very much alive today and you can see demonstrations in locations such as the Pilatus House. There are plenty of shops selling the carved, painted wooden figures and crucifix and others selling wooden toys and Christmas decorations. The town is well worth a visit in the summer with plenty of beautiful walks in the surrounding mountains and is a good base to see local cultural attractions such as the decorative Royal Palace and gardens at Linderhof and the Benedictine Abbey at Ettal.
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