Friday, July 17, 2015

The Scourged Savior and the Divine Dolphin

Figure of the 'Scourged Savior' in Chains
Cherub riding a dolphin (pulpit)
We traveled south and west yesterday, away from the Starnberger See and into the low hills of the Alps.  In a lush, green meadow (or 'wies'), we were introduced to the "Wieskirche"--created in the rococo style of the 19th century by the brothers Dominikus and Johann Baptist Zimmermann.  Full of light, graced by artistry, the "Wieskirche" owes its history to the old practice of pilgrimage and was (in its earliest years) situated on the long route to Santiago de Campostela in Spain.

In 1730, priests in the Premonstratensian monastery of Steingaden assembled a figure of a 'Scourged Savior' for a Good Friday procession.  Resourcefully, they collected and used parts of other wooden figures, and covered the figure's joints with pieces of linen.  In the end they painted it.  Oddly, the figure with its wounds and blood so upset the congregation in Steingaden that it was soon set aside and retired to an innkeeper's attic.

On March 4, 1738, the innkeeper's godmother (Maria Lory) moved the 'Scourged Savior' to her farm, the Wieshof, where it became an important object of veneration.  During evening prayers on June 14, 1738, Maria noticed something like teardrops on the Savior's face.  And this triggered a pilgrimage movement to the Wies.

Everything I leave behind me
Jesus of the Wies to see.
Now hath come the time to wander
And with joy do I behold Thee.
Lovely Jesus of the Wies,
Thou art full of grace and bliss.

The Wies Song
From v. Diefort, 
Frankische Volkslieder

A tiny field chapel was built for the 'Scourged Savior' in 1740, but it was soon too small to accommodate the many pilgrims.  In 1746, the cornerstone was laid for a new church in the rococo style.  In 1749, the choir was completed and the miraculous figure of the Savior transferred to the church.  On September 1, 1754, the nave was completed and consecrated by the Suffragan Bishop of Augsburg.

Our host and many others cherish the play of architecture, art and theology in the Wieskirche.  And the heart of it all is the 'Scourged Savior'--the Christ who sacrifices his life and bears scorn and chain for the liberation of all humankind.  It's a unsettling vision at first: this Jesus in chains, leaning off center, out of balance, dark and bound together by old linen cloths.  But through the centuries, hundreds of thousands pass through, seeing something in his pain that extends compassion to their own.  And in his face, in his courage, they find the deepest mercy, the One whose love will not let them go.     

The Divine Dolphin, with the Cherub riding free!
Of the many cherubs inside the Wieskirche, one of the most interesting is found beneath the pulpit, riding some kind of fish or dolphin.  It reminds Bavarian believers of an ancient myth in which a boy makes a dear friend of a dolphin.  Every day the dolphin carries the boy out to sea on its back.  One day, however, the child hurts himself somehow, even on the dolphin's fin, and dies.  The dolphin searches and searches for its little friend and, finding his grave, lies down there to die.

The scene beneath the pulpit reminds the church of this old story.  Like the boy, it believes, we also are children of the Kingdom of God, bonded to Christ through the holy waters of baptism.  The divine dolphin, then, represents Christ and the great freedom and happiness granted to believers by God.  In a little guide, translated into English, I discovered this interpretation, offered by the caretakers of the Wieskirche itself:

"[Christ] loves us with absolute faithfulness until the time of our death.  And He is with us at the hour of our death.  He brings to us the waters of life, which also pour down on Mother Earth, most likely represented by the figure carrying the pulpit..."

Having read this guide at lunch, I returned to the church for a second look.  What a strange and provocative thing to imagine Christ as the dolphin!  And even more, to see Christ as the dolphin in the story who searches for us and stays with us in the hour of our greatest need and suffering!  I wonder if this isn't Grace itself: the great freedom we find in trusting the Dolphin Christ, the great mercy that showers us in water and love, and with us ALL LIFE AND MOTHER EARTH!

The Resurrected Christ enthroned on the rainbow!
Country roads in Bavaria, leading away from the Wieskirche.
Figure of the Scourged Savior.