Zürich - a brief history of Grossmünster

By Mark Sukhija

The Romanesque Grossmunster with it's distinctive twin towers is the principal parish church of Zurich and the starting point of the Reformation in Zurich under the guidance of Zwingli and Bullinger. Construction of Grossmunster commenced in 1100 and was completed around 100 years later.

Architecture of Grossmünster

The twin towers of the Grossmunster are probably the most recognized landmark in Zurich The church was constructed in the Romanesque style. Medieval columns with grotesques adorning the capitals withing a carved portal are typical of the Romanesque style of architecture and on display at the Grossmunster The crypt dates to the 11th and 13th centuries. The wooden steeples of the two towers (erected 1487 to 1492) were destroyed by fire in 1781 and replaced by the present neo-Gothic tops. Otto Munch added the bronze doors in the north and south portals in 1935 and 1950.

The stained glass windows in the choir are by Augusto Giacometti and date from 1933. The images depict a Christmas scene. Unusually for a reformed church, Mary is the dominate figure in the images with the infant Jesus significantly smaller. The pulpit dates from 1853. The Christening font dates from 1598 and also serves as the communion table.

Founding of Grossmünster

Felix and Regula are said to have been members of the Thebaic Legion which had been massacred in Canton Valais at the end of the 3rd Century as a result of it's Christian beliefs. Felix and Regula fled to Zurich where they were subsequently executed. According to the legend, they picked up their decapitated heads and walked 40 paces to the place where they wished to be buried. Later, Charlemagne, on a hunting expedition, pursued a stag from Aachen (in Germany) to Zurich At the graves of Regula and Felix, Charlemagne''s horse stumbled and so Charlemagne decided to found a church which would later become Grossmunster at this site.

The crypt of Grossmunster is the oldest part of the Church. The poorly preserved wall paintings date from around 1500 and relate to the suffering of the Thebaic Legion and Felix and Regula. The monumental figure of Charlemagne was originally placed high up on the southern tower of Grossmunster but was brought into the crypt to protect him from the weather and replaced with a copy outside. The original dates from the 15th Century.

Grossmünster and the Reformation

Statue of the reformer Zwingli and the rear of the Wasserkirche in ZürichThe sobriety of the Grossmunster interior is a consequence of Zwinglis' reforms of 1519. Anything worldly or which was not sanctioned by the Bible was removed and destroyed. Pictures, alters, sculptures and even the organ were removed. The present organ in Grossmunster dates from 1960 - the original having been destroyed in 1524. The reforms of Zwingli were to usher in a period during which intensive study of scripture was to be the focus of the religious community. Intensive study of the Scripture and reform were necessary if one was to live according to the Gospels.

During the first disputation in 1523, Zwingli established that it was the duty of the government to control public worship and religous observances and that only preaching compatible with the Bible was to be tolerated. During the Reformation period, Grossmunster remained at the centre of events in Switzerland. Decorations from the church were destroyed in an Iconoclasm and the church is, without a doubt, "physically" poorer for this "reform."

After Zwinglis death, Heinrich Bullinger was elected pastor of Grossmunster In contrast to the impulsive Zwingli, Bullinger was more prudent. Like Zwingli, Bullinger believed that the Church was not a hierachical orgnaisation but a meeting place for equals to worship God. In 1555, under Bullingers influence, persecuted Reformed Christians from Ticino were allowed into Zurich