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.

Chapel of Mercy at Altötting in Germany

Chapel of Mercy at Altötting in Germany

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 Chapel of Mercy at Altötting,  Germany

The Chapel of Mercy at Altötting, Germany

The Chapel of Mercy at Altötting, Germany

The Chapel of Mercy at Altötting, Germany

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.

Black Madonna at Altötting in Bavaria

Black Madonna at Altötting in Bavaria

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.

Tod von Eding clock at Altötting, Germany

Tod von Eding clock at Altötting, Germany

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.

St Conrad's Water fountain Altötting

St Conrad's Water fountain Altötting

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.

St Conrad's church in Altötting, Germany

St Conrad's church in Altötting, Germany

The Panorama at Altötting, Germany

The Panorama at Altötting, Germany

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

Other places you’ll enjoy in Bavaria

A cycle and cool lake swim in the badesee- in Bavaria, Germany
A Comfortable Bavarian Gasthaus at Hotel Zur Post in Altötting
Tips for seeing the Oberammergau Passion Play



heatheronhertravels' Germany - Altötting in Bavaria photoset heatheronhertravels’ Germany – Altötting in Bavaria photoset

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  • Reply
    Donna Hull
    August 4, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Heather, you came away from visiting the Black Madonna with so many anecdotes, which made your article about it rich in details. I especially enjoyed the photo of the Chapel of Mercy. You’ve added to my list of sites to visit when I finally explore Germany.
    Donna Hull´s last blog post ..Hiking on Montana’s Stillwater Trail

  • Reply
    Mark H
    August 5, 2010 at 4:24 am

    I have always been fascinated by the pilgrimmage sites – their rich histories, the miracles and remarkable details of how they became such places of religious significance to so many people. Like Donna, I’m keen to add this place to my list of visits.
    Mark H´s last blog post ..La Residencia in Deia Mallorca- Spain

  • Reply
    Oberammergau Passion Play and Altötting in Bavaria - Podcast | Heather on her travels
    August 8, 2010 at 10:30 am

    […] A pilgrimage to see the Black Madonna at Altötting in Germany Tips for seeing the Oberammergau Passion Play Painted houses and wood carving at Oberammergau – in Bavaria, Germany […]

  • Reply
    September 18, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    Great article, Heather. I grew up near Altötting but have actually learned something here. Love your blog and podcasts!
    Marie´s last blog post ..Vineyard hotels in Europe

  • Reply
    George Schoenstetter
    October 7, 2010 at 4:26 am

    Hello Heather; I would like to second Marie’s comments. Likewise, I grew up in Altoetting and with your skillful
    detailed description it is all there. Thanks for promoting
    Our Lady of Altoetting.
    I am a custodian of a Replica statue of the original image of
    the Madonna of Altoetting and presently till October 16th,2010
    the shrine of the replica statue is in the Cathedral of Our
    Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles

  • Reply
    Heather Cowper
    October 7, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    @ George & Marie
    So pleased that you enjoyed the article – Altotting deserves to be better known as we found it to be a delightful small town with much to see of interest.

  • Reply
    October 17, 2010 at 10:55 pm

    Thanks for your post.

    I love the idea of a pilgrimage site slowly developing its facilities for people to visit, to live there for a while and to leave their mark – little churches, walls of votive offerings, town squares, guest houses, fountains, murals, presumably coffee shops.
    Hels´s last blog post ..Rocky Mountaineer train- Vancouver to Calgary

  • Reply
    October 23, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    Thank you for sharing your experience in this holy place.My husband and I were there last Sept.on a pilgrimage after coming from the Passion play.We regret for not having enough time to fully appreciate the place,or purchase religious articles, but we felt the presence of God inside the shrine of our Blessed Mother.We definitely would like to visit that place,and some of the religious places in Po
    land and Germany.

  • Reply
    Heather Cowper
    October 24, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    @ Bernadette – so pleased you enjoyed your visit to Altotting as we did. It really is a destination worth a special visit in itself and I’m surprised isn’t as widely known as some other pilgrimage sites. If you get back there I do recommend a guided tour – our guide had so many little stories that brought the place alive for us.

  • Reply
    Where Heather travelled in 2010 | Heather on her travels
    January 1, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    […] backdrop of stunning Alpine scenery. We also stayed for a couple of days in the pilgrimage town of Altötting, where we saw the small shrine of the Black Madonna in the town square, as well as the many other […]

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    Rosary Beads
    August 13, 2011 at 5:03 am

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  • Reply
    George Schoenstetter
    February 3, 2013 at 1:26 am

    Dear Heather, thank you for visiting the Black Madonna of Altoetting in 2010, following your tour to the Oberammergauer Festspiele. With your description of Altoetting you have provided
    a great promotion to this little town of 12,000 faithful
    in Altoetting. Over 1,2 Million pilgrims visit the Holy Chapel
    every year.
    If interested please access via google also and you will see 500 German faithful attending a Mass to the Madonna of Altoetting in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in LOs Angeles.

  • Reply
    Heather Cowper
    February 9, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    @George Thanks for providing a bit more information on Altoetting, we really enjoyed our visit

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