Creators of breathtaking Bavarian Baroque

The Asam brothers and their sacred chamber

The Asamkirche church is an undeniably striking building. Bedecked with pillars and figures, its colourful façade leaps out at you from the row of houses. Inside you won’t see a speck of white; instead, gold, silver and dramatic scenes of pathos meet you at every turn. The directors of this divine production were Egid Quirin Asam and Cosmas Damian Asam. These Munich brothers are widely remembered for their works of Baroque art and have also, more recently, been immortalised in the name of a very special dessert.

Piety, diligence, fantastic networks and a healthy self-confidence helped make these brothers two of the most important artists of Bavaria’s Italian-inspired Late Baroque movement at the start of the 18th century. Where did the Italian influence come from? The Asam brothers’ success story begins with a mid-17th century Italian princess. You might say that in marriage she was left with the consolation prize: rather than wedding King Louis XIV of France, Henriette Adelaide of Savoy was married off to Ferdinand Maria Elector of Bavaria in 1650, when they were both just 14 years old.

The Asam brothers’ success story begins with a mid-17th century Italian princess. You might say that in marriage she was left with the consolation prize.

The young bride only arrived in Munich two years after the wedding, just four years after the end of the Thirty Years’ War. Bavaria at that time was in ruins, with the arts utterly devastated – meanwhile in the land of the Sun King, literature, music and architecture were flourishing.

“Everything is pointing towards Baroque” – How pathos conquered Bavaria

The princess countered her homesickness by holding elaborate Italian-style parties and bringing poets, musicians and master builders from her home to the Munich court. She did not have much confidence in the Germans, dismissing them as “piu idioti nell’edificare” – too stupid to be capable of constructing any truly appealing buildings for the court. Henriette Adelaide’s calls were answered by architects and master builders Agostino Barelli, Enrico Zucchali and Antonio Viscardi, among others. It was these figures who are responsible for the Theatinerkirche church and Schloss Nymphenburg, the first examples of Italian High Baroque in Munich – and they would continue to set the architectural tone here for many years to come, meaning that anyone who wanted to make it as an artist had to be guided by the Italians.

Anyone who wanted to make it as an artist had to be guided by the Italians.

Brothers Cosmas Damian Asam and Egid Quirin Asam were born during this era of artistic changeover, in 1686 and 1692 respectively. The Asams had a strong family line, vocationally speaking: their grandfather had been a court painter for the Electors for many years, and their father Georg Asam was a painter too. His wife, also an accomplished relief painter and gilder, worked in the family business with Maria Salome, the Asam boys’ older sister. The artist family skilfully built up a network of clients that would help them secure important orders.

When the Benedictine monks came to rebuild the monasteries which had been destroyed during the Thirty Years’ War, they placed large commissions with the Asams. Georg Asam was employed to a team of skilled specialists working on buildings in Tegernsee, Benediktbeuern and Fürstenfeldbruck, under the supervision of famous Italian architects Zucchali and Viscardi. From their youngest days the brothers accompanied their father to these building sites, and so were able to closely watch Italian craftsmen and artists at work.

“All roads lead to Rome” – Hard work is the price of success

After their father died, the Benedictine abbot Quirin sent the older of the two brothers, Cosmas Damian, to Rome for his education. It was not long before the gifted scholar vindicated the generosity of the order, winning the first prize for painting in the Concorso Clementino art competition established by Pope Clemens XI in 1702. It is believed that Egid Quirin also spent some time in Rome. In any case, both brothers studied the art and architecture of Rome attentively, focusing in particular on buildings designed by Roman star architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The influence of Bernini’s work can be seen in the construction of the Asamkirche church of St. John of Nepomuk to a significant extent.

St. John of Nepomuk was the fashionable saint of the moment. He had to be included as a focus for anyone seeking to secure the goodwill – and new commissions – of the Catholic church and the Wittelsbach Electors.

Today, the Asamkirche (church) is one of the most important Late Baroque buildings in southern Germany. The way that architecture, painting and stuccowork are brought together to produce an opulent work of art is typical of the style. Demonstrating truly spectacular skill, the brothers used tricks of perspective and clever direction of the light to successfully make a relatively small interior appear to stretch right up into the heavens. The ceiling fresco by Cosmas Damian depicts the sufferings of St. John of Nepomuk, including scenes of his torture and his terrible death by drowning in Moldavia. The saint and the sanctity of the confessional are key themes that run through the entire design of the church.

 

“All is vanity” – The Asams blended genuine piety with posturing

Although the religious devotion of the Asams cannot be denied, it is also true that the construction of the church served effectively as a calling card for their artistry. St. John of Nepomuk was the fashionable saint of the moment. He had to be included as a focus for anyone seeking to secure the goodwill – and new commissions – of the Catholic church and the Wittelsbach Electors.

This was partly because only four years had passed since the pope canonised the martyr; furthermore, he had been put to death for protecting the secrets of the confessional for one of the ladies of the Wittelsbach family.

It is worth noting that the church was never widely referred to by its full name, despite the saint’s cult following; the “St. Johannes Nepomuk Kirche” has instead always been referred to as the Asamkirche – which really underlines the hallowed status of the brothers.

The Asams confidently presented themselves as extraordinary and they were treated accordingly. That said, they were also extremely hard-working and travelled far and wide for their work, from Switzerland to Bohemia. A modern view would be that they did some very smart marketing. In line with the motto “do good and talk about it”, they asked for nothing but their divine reward in return for many jobs they completed in monasteries and churches.

The approach was fruitful: the brothers were personally given permission to build their own church by Prince Bishop of Freising and Elector Karl Albrecht (later Emperor Karl VII). A relief of the bishop can be seen on the capital of the column to the right of the entrance. The cornerstone for the church was laid on 6 May 1733, with the accompanying ceremony attended by six-year-old Prince-Elector Maximilian III Joseph.

“Only the very best” – The Asam family residences in Munich

Many details in the design of the church make reference to the Asams’ aspirations to nobility. A two-storey chapel with two altars, one above the other; a view of the altar via a viewing slit from the neighbouring private residence; and last but not least, a dedicated tomb in the crypt – it all went far beyond what any common citizen could expect.

Indeed there were other, no-less-prominent artists in the neighbourhood, who lived much more modestly, such as sculptors Johann Baptist Straub and Ignaz Günther. The residence of lifelong bachelor Egid Quirin, located right next door to the Asamkirche, is the most significant 18th-century artist’s house in Munich. Its façade reads like a picture book of art and faith.

Indeed there were other, no-less-prominent artists in the neighbourhood, who lived much more modestly, such as sculptors Johann Baptist Straub and Ignaz Günther. 

Rather than decorating his home with the fresco paintings that were customary at the time, Egid Quirin instead took the opportunity to show off his mastery of stucco: the building is festooned with figures, garlands, gods, fauns, satyrs and the Blessed Virgin, all looking as though they were lightly tossed onto its frontage. Just above the entrance – the sculpted wooden doors of which are now on display in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum – there are three delightful cherubs depicted, at work for Munich’s city goddess. These figures represent painting, sculpting and architecture, and as such the skills of the Asam brothers themselves.

Buildings designed by the brothers that can still be viewed in Munich today also include the family home of the older brother, Cosmas Damian. He originally owned a small estate that had its own chapel, on a site in Thalkirchen. Only the house remains today though, and it had to be reconstructed after it was destroyed during the Second World War. The façade is adorned with replicas of the original artwork by Cosmas Damian, and the building is known as the Asam-Schlössl. In mid-September 2020 it became home to a new restaurant, opened by passionate chef Shane McMahon with his wife.

An Irishman by birth and a Munich resident by choice, McMahon has taken over this Baroque gem, having previously worked under Hans Haas at the Tantris and also running Shane’s Restaurant in Glockenbachviertel for many years. The couple are now dedicating their efforts to producing Bavarian fare and specialities from the grill in the Asam-Schlössl. One of the restaurant’s specialities is its Asam Torte: a dream of Bavarian cream and oranges created by Lilli Hauser, German Master Confectioner and runner-up in the World Championship of Confectioners. It’s a temptation that even the pious Asams wouldn’t have resisted.

 

Tip: Other works by the Asams in Munich can be seen in the Damenstiftkirche, Dreifaltigkeitskirche, Pfarrkirche St Peter, Heilig-Geist-Kirche and in Neues Schloss Schleißheim (Schleißheim Palace). The Asams also left artistic traces in Freising and in the Fürstenfeldbruck monastery.

During the city tour "Baroque Splendour", official guides of the City of Munich will show you not only the Asamkirche but also other wonderful churches and luxurious palaces in the city centre.

 

 

Text: Karoline Graf; Photos: Frank Stolle

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