Beautiful views are on the house!

The Werdenfelser Land region in Upper Bavaria is blessed with a marvellous alpine landscape. But that's not all – many house façades are adorned with colourful paintings. These fresco paintings transform the towns into veritable open-air galleries. This is a great idea for a day trip for art lovers and “sightseers”! A visit to Mittenwald, Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Oberammergau

Fresco Painting in Bavaria

To the east of Mittenwald, the peaks of the Karwendel mountain range stretch towards the sky, its rocky outcrops covered in snow. The Wetterstein mountain range looms majestically in the west. One-of-a-kind humpback meadows dot the valley floor with thousands of waves and hills.

Mittenwald, in the very south of Upper Bavaria, is renowned for its violin making and ornate house façades. This type of façade painting, known as fresco painting, is typical of Bavaria and Tyrol.

It boomed during the Baroque period and especially in the Rococo period, but is only practised by a few artists today. It is said that Goethe was even impressed by Mittenwald’s colourful “street art” ... He is said to have called the town “a real-life picture book” when he stopped here on his trip to Italy in 1786.

Hausfassade mit Lüftlmalerei in Mittenwald

Venice Sends its Regards

A mural on Bahnhofstrasse tells the story of how this book came about. The tour to see Mittenwald’s frescoes is led by tour guide Regine Ronge and artist Bernhard Rieger. Rieger – tall, with dark curls and a distinctive beard – is a fresco painter and artist himself, and is also known for his modern interpretation of culture and home through pop art, experimenting with bright colours on canvas. He has his studio in nearby Wallgau.

Regine Ronge stops in front of house no. 15. The alpine “mural” in front of us was created by Sebastian Pfeffer in 2006. The artist, born in 1936, has graced Mittenwald with many fresco paintings. A merchant ship can be seen at the top left against the backdrop of Venice, merchants with goods and packhorses in the centre foreground and the River Isar, on which a raft is floating, at the bottom right.

Lüftlmalerei in der Straße
Lüftlmalerei in Mittenwald

First Fresco, Then Secco

“There used to be a long-distance trade route from Venice to Augsburg via Mittenwald, Partenkirchen and Oberammergau,” explains Regine Ronge, “these Werdenfels towns were known as Rottstationen [similar to way stations], where horses were changed, goods were stored and merchants stayed overnight.”

From 1487 to 1679, the Venetians even moved the Bolzano market to Mittenwald for political reasons. Trade brought prosperity, and with it came new ideas and art trends such as façade painting across the Alps, practically in the luggage of the carriages. First to the cities, Augsburg for example, then also to the market towns and townhouses and farmhouses.

Houses were already painted in ancient Italy. Exterior paintings with figures and decorations were also popular in the Middle Ages, and in the Renaissance illusionistic, perspective architectural depictions were added.

Painting was applied al fresco to the still damp lime plaster. During drying, the mineral colour pigments bonded with the lime. The result was a hard layer: insoluble in water, with a glassy lustre and very long-lasting.

Later – as is still common today – painting was done al secco, meaning on dried plaster. This is less complex, but cannot hold a candle to the durability of such a historical technique.

Eine Kiste mit Pinseln, Farben und Farbpalette für Lüftlmalerei

Kick-off Thanks to the Church Tower

Further into the town, the eye is drawn to the tower of the Parish Church of St Peter and St Paul. “The tower is extraordinary, as it is the only baroque church tower with elaborate mock architecture that has survived,” enthuses Regine Ronge, “its south side shows the two church patrons, framed by illusionistically depicted columns.”

„It’s quite possible that this inspired citizens to have their houses painted as well“

The work of art was created by the great fresco painter Matthäus Günther and his assistants in 1746. “It’s quite possible that this inspired citizens to have their houses painted as well,” surmises the tour guide. There was no better way to show off your wealth than on the wall of your own house!

“I also reckon that many a boy in the town who saw how the artists arrived with their troop, set up their scaffolding and painted was totally fascinated,” says Bernhard Rieger.

“One or two people who had a talent for painting were certainly galvanised in such a way that they said to themselves, I want to do that too,” Rieger continues. “At least that’s roughly how it was for me,” laughs the artist, “even as a child at the age of four, I was fascinated by fresco paintings – I really wanted to create them myself later on!”

Turm der Pfarrkirche St. Peter und Paul in Mittenwald
Geigenbauer-Brunnen vor der Pfarrkirche St. Peter und Paul in Mittenwald

Important: A Holy and Divine Cast

It is conceivable that little Franz Karner felt the same way. Karner was born in Mittenwald in 1738 and was eight years old when the church tower was painted. Franz Karner was a craftsman, not an academic artist. The talented boy learnt from local painters. Karner was the most important fresco painter in Mittenwald in the 18th century.

So what makes a painting on the façade of a house into a fresco painting? An old house at Hochstrasse 7 provides us with clues. “A fresco painting absolutely needs people,” explains Regine Ronge, “ it should tell a story.” And in the past, of course, the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit as well as people from the Bible who embodied pious stories were depicted – in praise of the Catholic faith! Popular saints were also supposed to protect the house and its inhabitants: Sebastian, Leonhard, Isidore, Nepomuk, St Christopher and the like.

Karner decorated a bay window of the house with three scenes. They show sacred themes of the time, which were also known from engravings and devotional pictures: Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus on their flight to Egypt (possibly an allusion here to the many journeys of the merchants, according to Ronge), the scourged Saviour (the famous Pilgrimage Church of Wies nearby was also dedicated to him) and the holy pilgrimage, i.e. the holy family on a journey, with Mary and Joseph taking Jesus by the hand.

“In my opinion, the lovely, cheerful faces of the people depicted are typical of Karner,” says Rieger, “judging by the way he painted and the affectionate design of the faces in Karner’s façades, I think he was an extremely cheerful and very likeable person,” says the artist, delighted with the paintings.

Fresco paintings in the Garmisch pedestrian zone

Enthroned Above Everything: The Virgin Mary

Another must-have scene can be found under the protruding roof: the Virgin Mary. She ascends into the sky on clouds, which are also indispensable in the visual language of frescoes. On a walk through Mittenwald, you will encounter the Virgin Mary in her various forms of representation on almost every painted house wall! Other popular stylistic elements include cherubs, winged heads, archangels, flower garlands, inscriptions and sayings, decorated house names, window edgings, shells and more.

“Here in Mittenwald alone, we have a wonderful open-air gallery with well over a hundred works from the last three hundred years, allowing you to experience art history up close,” emphasises Bernhard Rieger, “you can take a leisurely stroll from picture to picture in the fresh air or sit down in front of a café and look at a façade in peace and quiet.” Like at Cafe Obermarkt, which is opposite the 12 Apostles’ House, with its wonderful paintings created around 1750 by the pupils of Matthäus Günther.

Künstler Bernhard Rieger arbeitet an einer Lüftlmalerei in Garmisch-Partenkirchen

Contemporary Fresco Painting: Alpine Street-Art by Bernhard Rieger

Secular depictions, on the other hand, have only made it onto the walls of houses since the 20th century. Bernhard Rieger is one of the few artists keeping fresco painting alive and giving it a modern touch. He has developed it himself. “As an ‘Alpine street art artist’, I want to make fresco painting a part of contemporary art,” is his credo.

Also using mineral colours, he is able to reproduce the historical tones, so that his paintings integrate well into the region’s extensive picture book in terms of design and colour. “The pictures shouldn't be extraneous pieces, but should fit into the townscape and also harmonise with the house and its residents,” explains Rieger, “so I take a lot of time to find ideas and communicate with the clients.”

One fine example of a mural in a traditional style and Rieger’s subtle use of colour can be found in Garmisch-Partenkirchen on a house on Olympiastrasse. The Wetterstein mountains in the morning light and a historical mountaineering scene are artistically depicted. The painting was created to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the first ascent of the Zugspitze.

The colour scheme on the “Rheinischer Hof” hotel at Zugspitzstrasse 26 is in turn vibrantly modern. Against a deep red background, the artist depicts the passing of the house to the next generation on more than eighty square metres, mostly in black and white.

A young mountaineer climbs into the rock face painted on the projecting façade of the house, with one leg literally dangling in the air and sculpturally modelled. He is secured by an older mountaineer in a historical outfit, his father, further up in the “rock”. The rope disappears under the roof towards the sky, where the grandparents reside... In the background, a mountain massif is depicted in digital-looking pixel technology.

Künstler Bernhard Rieger bemalt das Hotel „Rheinischer Hof“ in der Zugspitzstraße 26 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen

The Masterpiece of Oberammergau

Oberammergau is another hotspot for Bavarian fresco painting. There, the undisputed star is Franz Seraph Zwinck (1748 to 1792), a trained painter who also helped to decorate churches as a barrel painter.

His masterpiece is the Pilatushaus, which is close to the town centre. Using all the rules of trompe-l’oeil, Zwinck conjures up the illusion of a palace with columns, balconies, cornices and more on the façade. It provides the Baroque stage for the story of Christ and Pilate. The work was commissioned by a wealthy member of the public who played Pilate in the Passion Plays.

Many other first-class murals stretch along Dorfstrasse and the neighbouring Ettaler Strasse, including works by Franz Seraph Zwinck. Two remarkable houses are hidden a little further away: the “Judas House” on Judasgasse, which was painted by one of Zwinck’s great-grandsons and looks very romantic with a lot of patina, and the house at Kleppergasse 5, on which – unusually and more recently – many animals frolic, including ducks, deer, cows, sheep and more, all blessed by the Father on his cloud. It was created by the animal carver and painter Guido Postinger in 1970.

Lüftlmalerei am Pilatushaus in Oberammergau

Fairytale Scenes

Lastly, don't miss House 41 on Ettaler Strasse, a former orphanage that was painted with scenes from the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” by the Munich painter Max Strauss in the 1920s. On the façades across the street, Little Red Riding Hood has her adventure and the Town Musicians of Bremen sing.

In German, this kind of fresco painting is referred to as “Lüftlmalerei”, but where does that term come from? Some say it’s because of the airy (in German, luftig) way the painters worked on their scaffolding, with others referring to the house name “zum Lüftl”, where the famous Zwinck came from. One other explanation is that the many saints depicted “in the air” and floating on clouds gave rise to the name. However, the answer to this will most likely forever remain... up in the air.

Guided Fresco Painting Tours

In Mittenwald, Regine Ronge takes guests on guided tours of the town on a variety of topics, with a special focus on “fresco painting” every Thursday at 10 a.m. during the season. In Oberammergau, you can book guided fresco painting tours through the Oberammergau Museum. Guided tours of the town are also organised for individual guests every Saturday at 2 p.m. This tour pays tribute to the Pilatus House (but it is not a tour specifically focussed on fresco painting).
alpenwelt-karwendel.de | oberammergaumuseum.de (only in German)

Fresco Painting in Mittenwald and Oberammergau

Traditionsgasthof Alpenrose Mittenwald

1. Gasthof Alpenrose (Restaurant)

Mittenwald, Obermarkt 1
Above the windows on the first floor, Franz Seraph Zwinck (1748 to 1792) depicts sensory impressions such as hearing, tasting and smelling. Underneath, he has depicted the personifications of strength and charity. Under the gable you can see the coronation of Mary, surrounded by angels playing various string instruments. It is quite possible that they refer to the heyday of Mittenwald instrument making in the second half of the 18th century. At that time, string instruments were generally referred to as violins. The frescoes were painted in 1780.
hotel-alpenrose-mittenwald.de (only in German)

Lüftlmalerei am Posthotel in Mittenwald

2. Gasthof Post (Restaurant)

Mittenwald, Obermarkt 9
The house is a former Thurn- und Taxis post office. The painting was created by Sebastian Pfeffer (born 1936). Like on a grand stage, groups of people narrate the beginnings of tourism, when guests arrived by carriage, causing a stir and excitement in the village. Under the gable, the Virgin Mary is enthroned on clouds.
posthotel-mittenwald.de

Lüftlmalerei in der Straße

3. House at Im Gries 28/30

Mittenwald, Im Gries 28/30
In a medallion, Franz Karner (1738 to 1817) painted two figures with a splinter and a beam in their eyes. The image is based on the Sermon on the Mount and deals with false judgement. Presumably an allusion to a large fire on the street Im Gries: Were the people who commissioned the fresco wrongly accused of causing it? As per the saying: “First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.”

 

Schilder am Eingang des Geigenbaumuseum Mittenwald

4. Geigenbaumuseum (Violin Making Museum)

Mittenwald, Ballenhausgasse 3
Depicted is the pilgrimage image “Mary of Good Counsel”: According to legend, the icon was miraculously transported on clouds from Albania, which had been conquered by the Turks, to Genazzano in Italy. Pilgrimages to Genazzano have been documented since 1467 ( where the original late medieval miraculous image of the “Mother of Good Counsel” is located). Franz Karner painted the house wall.
alpenwelt-karwendel.de (only in German)

 

Lüftlmalerei am Hornsteinerhaus in Mittenwald

5. The Hornsteiner House

Mittenwald, Prof.-Schreyögg-Platz 8
It is here where Franz Seraph Zwinck painted a masterpiece of late Baroque façade painting. The picture in the gable tells the story of Judith and Holofernes: The heroic Judith goes unarmed into the army camp of the Assyrian general Holofernes and cuts off the drunken man’s head with his own sword. In doing so, she saves the people of Israel.

6. The Lang House / Birthplace of Ludwig Thoma

Oberammergau, Dorfstraße 20
The famous writer was born in this house on 21 January 1867. The façade painting is from 1969. It shows a cheerful party celebrating and making music – with the white and blue Bavarian flag towering above. It was painted by the renowned Garmisch fresco painter Gerhard Ester (1939 to 2018).

7. The Gerold House

Oberammergau, Dorfstraße 24
Alongside portraits of the Virgin Mary, Franz Seraph Zwinck painted a scene from the Old Testament, specifically the “Expulsion of Hagar”: At the "command" of his wife Sarah, Abraham dismisses the Egyptian maid Hagar because her son Ishmael was “frolicking”.

 

8. Zum Kirchenbauer (Bed and Breakfast)

Oberammergau, Schnitzlergasse 16
Johann Joseph Zwinck, a son of Franz Seraph Zwinck, adorned the wall of the house with especially beautiful frescoes. The gable features the rare scene of the Holy Family and St John the Baptist as a child, with the Resurrection of Jesus to the left of the gable and the Adoration of the Shepherds to the right.
zum-kirchenbauer.de

 

9. The Kölbl House/The Dedler House

Oberammergau, Ettaler Straße 10
The two adjoining houses represent another fine example of Franz Seraph Zwinck’s art. The Kölbl House depicts “St Anne the Third, the Father with the Man of Sorrows and busts of saints”, while the Dedler House shows “Jesus, John and the white lamb” in the gable.

10. Forsthaus (The Forestry House)

Oberammergau, Ettaler Straße 3
The former residential and monastery judge’s house and currently the forestry office. Franz Seraph Zwinck designed the two sides with biblical scenes in 1785. The gable side of the building was first painted around 1900 and features hunting scenes.

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