November 26, 2007
It is a quiet, country road going uphill. I had a beer for breakfast in the train station at the foot of the hill. I’m on the road to Vierzehnheiligen. The professor of European literature from England wanted me to stay on the train with him and go to Coburg, the hometown of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. The night before at our hotel in Bamberg, he had suggested that I forget about the train entirely, and just start walking. Hike from Bamberg to the Benedictine abbey church of Banz, then cross the river Main to the Cistercian monastery of Langheim, and then finally on to the pilgrimage church of Vierzehnheiligen, a Baroque/Rococo extravaganza.
He felt it could be done in one day. His 1954 Baedeker contained a foot-path diagram of the area. A wonderful idea which I declined. The agenda sounded too ambitious. I wanted to concentrate on just one site a day. On the train, which I almost missed the next morning, the professor informed me that he was an expert on Wolfram von Eschenbach. His research had led him to the conclusion that those astonishing rhymed couplets of Parzival brought five hundred years of European history into focus. The professor was operating on a level far beyond me. Like the poem itself which I had read in college.
The Basilica of Vierzehnheiligen is a golden mirage, more so at certain times of the day, depending upon the location of the clouds and the refraction of sunlight through the atmosphere. Two dramatic towers on a hill, overlooking a broad expanse of land, where ten-ton Mercedes trucks race with the freight trains to Stuttgart and Saarbrucken. The countryside hereabouts reminds one of France, the France of poplars, troubadour poets and peasants. What precisely is a peasant? Is it someone who lives in the countryside, smoking crooked cigars, drinking beer and white wine? If so, then there are plenty of them left hereabouts, where ornately carved, wooden crucifixes keep you company.
Ready to faint in front of one of these crucifixes on the road to Vierzehnheiligen, and roll back down the hill to the train station, walking-stick in hand. Where in this wide world is that wind coming from, and what became of Frey, Grendel, Odin and Thiassi in these northern latitudes? Nothing has changed in this landscape but the architecture. The sky is ice blue and infinite, there are no clouds, and not a soul in sight. Just the carved, enigmatic figure from the days of Rome, now under a Germanic roof, at the side of the road. At all times protected from the sun and the elements.
Those tall trees across that field have not been cut, I bet, in centuries. They are obstructing my view of Vierzehnheiligen. Around a bend in the road, where the trees are, it hits you head on. A curtain of limestone, huge and undulating. And those magnificent towers above the curtain, most all of it gold and bright, like the Pantheon after the first few hundred years. There is a connection to the Pantheon, which was a temple to all the gods of antiquity. Verzehnheiligen is a temple dedicated to fourteen demigods from post antiquity, and the Pantheon was an inspiration for all the architects of the Renaissance, of which Vierzehnheiligen is a byproduct.
I’m eating wiener schnitzel and pommes frites and finishing off another bottle of beer across the square from Vierzehnheiligen. A gaggle of Bavarian schoolboys on a field trip has taken over the place. Amid the noise, I’m able to glance out the front door of the tavern into the sunlight at the facade of Vierzehnheiligen. As before, it seems ready to move. It is unclear what is holding the roof up. Even Borromini would wonder about that ceiling. I have made a rather careful examination the interior, but it is impossible to describe, so I will not try. Too many elements and no rules.
There is a saint inside by the name of Dionysius, one of the fourteen, who has literally lost his head. Judging by his vestments and head gear, he must be a bishop. It is near the pulpit—a very realistic, life-sized marble statue of a man who is holding his own head, detached from his body, in front of him about waist high. Like Parzival, this saint was on a mission. Both from afar and close up, Vierzehnheiligen remains a mystery, a question-mark in league with the pyramids.