Our last stroll through Munich with artist Thomas Neumann was all about street art. This time, it was much more sacred. We were shown the most significant churches in terms of architecture and art history. Text: Florian Kinast, Photos: Thomas Linkel
Munich Churches: The Most Important and Beautiful Places of Worship
In the heart of the action, for just a few minutes, your sense of perspective changes on this day. At the top of the “Alter Peter” viewing platform, after 306 exhausting steps. A magnificent view over the city and beyond unfolds. It’s one of those days when you stand there and think to yourself: if God hadn’t put the Alps in the south, you’d have a view all the way to the Mediterranean!
Nearby, directly below us, you find the usual hustle and bustle at lunchtime, on Marienplatz, including next door on Viktualienmarkt. You quickly realise that it is one of the few moments that day when you find yourself looking down, chin on your chest.
Otherwise, you’ll find your head usually tilted toward the back of your neck, on this tour lasting many hours with glances upwards. On our blessed journey to Munich’s most beautiful and impressive churches.
Heilig Kreuz: Unsurpassed in Age
Our guide is the Munich graphic artist, painter and Bavaria insider Thomas Neumann. We meet him early in the morning in Fröttmaning, in a small hidden grove just a few metres east of the A9 motorway: at Heilig Kreuz.
This is where our journey begins – and the history of Munich’s places of worship. Munich’s oldest church was first mentioned in a deed of donation from 815, a good 340 years before the city was founded in 1158.
Thomas tells of the history of the church, which was the centre of the village of Fröttmaning for more than 1,100 years before the houses and farms were gradually demolished after 1945. Meaning that today, only the church remains as a silent witness to the old settlement.
A Replica within a former landfill site
“At the end of the 1960s, when they were building the A99 motorway, they also wanted to flatten Heilig Kreuz,” says Thomas. In the end, the church was only able to endure thanks to the resistance of the then church caretaker, Ludwig Maile, and a few comrades-in-arms.
The planned motorway junction was moved further north, the church was allowed to stay. Maile found his final resting place a few years ago with his wife Hildegard at the cemetery right next to it.
Before we start cycling towards the city centre, we head briefly to the neighbouring “Rubbish heap”, from which not only the original of “Heilig Kreuz” church can be seen, but also a copy built into the landfill site itself, which cannot be accessed.
“An installation by the artist Timm Ulrichs entitled ‘Sunken Village’,” Thomas knows, “in memory of the old Fröttmaning.” To the place that is now home to FC Bayern’s world-famous arena, opened in 2005, west of the motorway.
Ludwigskirche: Monumental Altar Fresco
The half-hour bike ride takes us through the Isar river meadows, which are still slightly misty this morning, and the English Garden, which is still largely deserted, to Ludwigskirche. This was commissioned by King Ludwig I during the construction of the eponymous "Ludwigstraße" boulevard.
This caused some trouble. The city council rejected a church on this site. When the king threatened to deprive Munich of its residence and university and relocate them to another Bavarian city, the town hall relented.
Which is why the church with its striking twin towers grew into the silhouette of the town. “St. Ludwig was the first monumental church to be built in the round-arch style,” Thomas knows, “the most important work of art at the very back is ‘the Last Judgement’ by Peter von Cornelius, the second largest altar fresco in the world.”
If St. Ludwig’s interior is otherwise perhaps sober and simple, our next stop five minutes’ cycle ride further south is all the more ornate: St. Kajetan on Odeonsplatz, better known to most as the “Theatinerkirche”.
Theatinerkirche aka St. Kajetan: All a façade?
“Consecrated in 1675, it was the first church in Old Bavaria to be built in the Italian High Baroque style,” Thomas explains. “Remarkably, it remained a shell for a long time on the outside because they couldn’t agree on the design of the front.”
It was not until 90 years later, in 1765, that François de Cuvillies designed the perhaps best-known and most beautiful of all Munich’s church façades in a rococo style, which always provides the magnificent backdrop for the Classical Music-Open-Air at the Feldherrnhalle (Field Marshalls’ Hall) in summer.
Alter Peter, Asamkirche and the Brezenreiter
En route, we now make our way ever more into Munich’s sacral epicentre, roaming and visiting many of the dozen or so churches in the middle of the old town. Climb the “Alter Peter” for a picture-book view over the roofs of the city and let ourselves be overwhelmed in the Asamkirche by the staggering impact of the late Baroque splendour with which the brothers Cosmas Damian and Egid Quirin Asam enriched the interior almost 300 years ago.
On “Prälat-Miller-Weg”, we fathom the secret of the ceiling fresco found at Heilig-Geist-Kirche, in which Cosmas Damian Asam immortalised a pretzel in 1727. “A homage to the famous Brezenreiter (pretzel rider),” explains Thomas.
Then he tells us the story of the generous merchant, Burkard Wadler, who in the 14th century began to send a rider out every year after Christmas on 27 December to distribute 3,000 pretzels from his horse to poor and sick Munich residents – a tradition that lasted until the 19th century.
Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady): The Landmark
In the “Dom zu Unserer Lieben Frau” – the city’s late Gothic Cathedral of Our Dear Lady (usually referred to simply as the Church of Our Lady), one of the city’s famous landmarks, we hear the legend of the “Teufelstritt” (devil’s footprint), which comes in several variations.
Thomas tells the version in which the Prince of Hell helped the architect Jörg von Halspach to build the church and, in return, was to collect his soul as a reward after completion.
Of course, after the building was completed, the clever master builder led the somewhat dimwitted devil to a place from which no windows could be seen, upon which he concluded:
There can be no soul for such a botched construction.
Enraged, Satan stampeded his feet and stormed out of the church, nothing has been seen of the devil himself since, but his imprint remained in the church floor as a well-known attraction that Munich parents have been showing their children for generations, telling the legend that the little ones marvel at in disbelief.
Thomas leads us to a completely new sight a few metres further on. Next to the church shop, a narrow spiral staircase leads first up 86 steps and then by lift 80 metres to the highest accessible point in Munich’s old town: the newly renovated and reopened south tower of the city’s “Frauenkirche”. A plain room with many windows and the best view of the twin tower opposite.
A good time for Thomas to dispel the old Munich myth that one tower, at 99 metres, is a metre lower than the other: At 98.45 and 98.57 metres, the difference is only twelve centimetres.
Herz-Jesu-Kirche: A Modern Record Holder
We leave the city centre and cycle towards the Neuhausen and Nymphenburg districts: for a detour to the Herz-Jesu-Kirche – a spectacular new building consecrated in November 2000 – built to replace the previous church destroyed in a fire in 1994.
This church is a bright, light-flooded glass cube with the world’s largest church doors – another of the city’s sacral architectural records – which open as a massive double door on special holidays. For Thomas, “a modern contrast and wonderfully successful contrast to the many historic church buildings that Munich has to offer”.
Rococo-Star: Klosterkirche St. Anna
Back towards the city centre, into Lehel, to the rather inconspicuous monastery church of St. Anna, built directly opposite the much larger parish church of the same name, which was only built at a later stage. The monastery church was built as Bavaria’s first rococo church between 1727 and 1733, when Lehel (unlike today!) was a poor area.
Inside, you once again find artefacts of the Asam brothers. In April 1944, the church was destroyed down to the outer walls in a bombing raid, and reconstruction continued until 1979.
Those who, like Thomas, still remember Helmut Dietl’s unforgettable TV series “Münchner Geschichten” or “Munich Stories” know the scene from the legendary “The Long Way to Sacramento”: when Zorro, Gringo and Zapata were given a plate of soup by the Padre at the gates of the church, the “Mission Santa Anna”.
We find ourselves a little on the hungy side as the afternoon slowly enters its late phase. However, there are still two stage destinations to be reached, both on the other side of the Isar. First of all, the Mariahilfkirche, the pride of the Au, built in the 1830s as the first neo-Gothic sacred building in the whole of Germany.
A church with a very special sound, not only because of the five large bells, which have the lowest pitch in the whole city after Alter Peter. The “Carillon” – installed ten years ago – is the largest in Bavaria with 65 bells and the third largest in the Republic. The Carillon makes the Au ring for at least ten minutes on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 11 am.
Pfarrkirche Heilig Kreuz: Giesing's Landmark
Zum Schluss erwartet uns noch die kräftezehrende Königsetappe mit den meisten Höhenmetern: der finale Anstieg auf den Giesinger Berg zur Pfarrkirche Heilig Kreuz.
Das Wahrzeichen des ganzen Viertels ist ebenfalls im neugotischen Stil errichtet und beherbergt ein schaurig anmutendes Relikt: die Überreste eines Kruzifixes, bei dem nur noch die verkohlten, an einem Balken angenagelten Füße von Jesus Christus zu sehen sind.
The history of this cross goes back a long way, as Thomas tells us. “In 1463, it was probably washed up from the Isarwinkel during a flood on the bank in Untergiesing,” he reports. “For many years, it hung as a shrine in a hostel in Krämerstraße, but it was badly damaged in an air raid in 1944. Now, the historic piece has found a dignified place here in the church.”
Final stage? Giesinger “Bräustüberl”
A thoughtful end to our impressive tour full of contemplation, which comes to a well-deserved close opposite in the “Bräustüberl” of the Giesinger Bräu brewery: with half a litre of Giesinger Erhellung, roast pork, “Bockbier-Pflanzerl” and a hearty “Wirtshausbrettl”.
The beer glass with the Giesing church in the coat of arms catches the eye. Over “Tegernseer Bergkas” cheese and “Münchner Obazd’n”, over “Radi” (radish), ham, bread and horseradish, in a quiet moment, we find ourselves reviewing today’s tour, which has now come full circle: from “Heilig Kreuz” in the morning in Fröttmaning, to “Heilig Kreuz” in the evening in Giesing.
Furthermore, we realised that, without intending to, we found our way from one of Munich’s lowest churches (in terms of sea level) to the church with the highest spire in the whole city. A day when we found oursleves inching ever closer to heaven.
More about Munich’s churches at muenchen.de