785: Chapel of the Holy Cross: oldest load-bearing beamed ceiling in Europe

Carolingian Chapel of the Holy Cross: a jewel

For a long time the Chapel of the Holy Cross was considered to be a Romanesque building. Arechaeological and dendrochronological examinations, however, have supplied evidence of a construction period between 785 – 788. Hence, the chapel emerged at the time of the foundation of the monastery. The eastern half of the beamed ceiling between the lower and upper floor is still preserved in its original state. Till now it is the oldest beamed ceiling that has been dated in Europe. Lying on the ceiling is the original Carolingian mortar flooring of the upper storey. The chapel was most certainly a beautiful building; marble chancel screens, stucco and painted murals decorated the upper floor. But this did not only apply to the inside of the building, it seems that the exterior was decorated too.

Sensational find on the outer facade

The outer façade of the chapel was originally elaborately painted. On the eastern gable a figural painting from the Carolingian period has come to light – a sensation, for paintings of people on an outer façade, dating from the Carolingian period, had till now never been known in the history of art. As the painting was very fragmented and not visible from the road an international panel of experts decided that it should once again be covered over, so that it would be protected from weathering. The fresco fragment was documented, described, analysed and photographed. Furthermore, archaeologists and restorers as well as specialized personnel have researched and documented the entire external façade


Still a lot of work to be done in the upper floor of the Chapel of the Holy Cross

As many as ten layers of paint and limewash cover the walls of the upper floor. The chapel was once richly decorated with stucco and marble. Up till now investigations have concentrated on structural research and the conservation of the various frescoes. The interior of the building has been thoroughly documented, from various aspects: archaeological, restoration and scientific.

 As the most recent damaging layers of limewash are removed, those involved and experts will have a clearer picture of what the upper floor of the Chapel of the Holy Cross could look like in future. First of all though, conservation measures must be completed.

Upper floor will once again be a chapel

With its opulent decor, the upper floor may have been reserved as a private chapel for the abbot or other dignitaries. It was painted over several times, last of all in 1889 when the room was refurbished as a Lourdes grotto. In future, the upper floor will definitely once again serve as a chapel.

Burial place and charnel house in basement

The basement presumably served as a burial vault; from 1520 onwards as a chapel with a burial site and later as a charnel house. The walls were embellished with contemporary murals that picked up the theme of death and the resurrection. The paintings have been cleaned and desalted and a new, plain wooden floor has been laid. In future this room will house an exhibition of the colourful structural history of the Chapel of the Holy Cross.

Nine Men's Morris on Carolingian beams

On close examination of the original wooden beam ceiling from 788 a drawing of a nine men’s morris board can be seen. This raises the question whether the carpenters of the day spent their lunch break playing on the timber that was lying around. It is interesting to note that on Charlemagne’s marble throne in the Palatine Chapel in Aachen there can also be seen fine, carved lines that probably served as a board for nine men’s morris.

Restoration work continues

The restoration of the Chapel of the Holy Cross is not yet finished. Frequent new discoveries reveal this Carolingian chapel to be a real jewel in the domain of art and building history.

In order to finance the restoration work, further financial support is necessary. Through his project “Basel hilft Müstair”, Peter Andreas Zahn, member of the board of trustees, is endeavouring to raise funds so that the work on this jewel can be carried on without interruption.