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New Delhi, India
August 10, 2009
But art and history in Fribourg, it seems, are inextricably tied up with religion. The museum, which is housed in a large stone building known as the Hôtel Ratzé, is full of very emphatically Christian art. We didn’t get an inkling of this as we strolled past a low mossy wall with tiny blue wildflowers sprouting from a cranny. We didn’t realise it even after we’d gone through the unusual triple-arched entrance and into the reception area, where a helpful staffer checked our Swiss Pass, confirmed that it was valid, and handed us a printout of the museum’s plan in English.
Even at this point, after a quick glance at the printout, we weren’t especially worried: the ground floor was devoted to sculpture and painting in Fribourg from the 12th to the 16th centuries; the first floor, though it had a stained glass gallery and an area bewilderingly marked ‘enlightenment and comfort’, appeared to largely consist of sculpture and painting from the 16th century. The second floor had a section named ‘baroque piety’ and another stained glass gallery, but it also had weaponry and a gallery pertaining to guilds and corporations. The rooms on the third floor, according to the sheet, was about urban representation in a rural canton; a ‘century of progress’, and `The Christian Republic’.
All of that seemed doable for us, so we set off gleefully on our march through the sections on sculpture and painting in Fribourg—and immediately found ourselves in the midst of unrelievedly religious art. As we trudged along corridors, up and down stairs and through gallery after gallery, we saw countless depictions of the Madonna and Child, the Passion of Christ, the Crucifixion, the Ascension, and Biblical tales by the dozen. By the end of it, we were convinced of one thing: Fribourg’s local talent, at least in the 12th-16th centuries, was way better at sculpture than it was at painting. A very few of the paintings are worthy of note; most fall into the ‘I could do better’ category. For instance, one of the medieval paintings depicted the saints standing in a row, facing the viewer. Nearly all of them had heavy jowls; some had horrific squints and terribly lopsided faces that made them look more like highway robbers than saints! The earlier paintings, from the 12th and 13th centuries, are almost exclusively religious; later, secular art—such as portraits of the local aristocracy—started putting in an appearance, but these looked to us only marginally more accomplished than the religious art.
The sculpture, on the other hand, was definitely more to our liking. Nearly all of it was in wood, and again mainly on religious subjects. Our favourite was a superb early 16th century carving attributed to Martin Gramp. This is a beautifully carved bust of Christ; his right hand is held up in benediction, and in his left hand he holds a round loaf of bread. The serenity—and sorrow—of the face, the folds of the cloak that form the base of the statue, and the hair falling to his shoulders, are all simple but excellent.
Applied art in Fribourg was equally fine. The gallery on guilds and corporations had some stunning examples of work, as did the other non-art galleries. On our tour, we saw well-polished armour and weapons; painted porcelain (including a lovely ceramic stove); large tapestries featuring noblemen and not-so-noble country lasses; and even a pair of giant candlesticks, each taller than us, intricately carved and painted. Among the quaintest displays was a showcase of items related to confectionary: prettily carved flower-shaped moulds and what looked like cookie cutters, arranged with dried flowers, mortar and pestle, confectionary boxes and so on.
The other section that we liked was the stained glass galleries. A two-storeyed covered stone `bridge’ links the main building of the Hôtel Ratzé to what was once the abattoir. The two storeys of the `bridge’ have arched windows all along the sides, which have been put to good use by making them showcases for Fribourg’s stained glass work. With the sunlight streaming in, the colourful glass (both religious and secular—the latter mainly heraldic devices) looks awesome.
But if I were to pinpoint the one exhibit that I found absolutely unforgettable, it would have to be the exhibit labelled St Prosper—a reliquary, I think, though since its description was only in German and French beyond my limited capabilities, I couldn’t be sure. Tarun had gone on ahead of me into a small room, and I heard him call out excitedly, "You’ve got to see this!" St Prosper turned out to be a skeleton lying on its left side in a glass case. His left arm’s bent at the elbow and his skull, grinning hideously, rests on his left hand. That, by itself, would’ve been enough to shake me up; what made St Prosper even more macabre was the fact that he was fully dressed—in a manner of speaking. Chains and necklaces, heavy gilded buttons, gold and silver laces and whatnot encased most of the corpse, as if he’d been a terribly overdressed fop of the 1700’s, whose clothes had disintegrated but all the decoration had remained intact. He even had glittery slippers on his metatarsals!
But St Prosper and the overdose of so-so religious art aside, this is a good museum and definitely worth a visit if you’re in Fribourg. It’s open 11 AM to 6 PM, Tuesdays to Saturdays, and till 8 PM on Thursdays. Entrance fees, if you don’t have a Swiss Pass, are CHF8 per person.
From journal Fribourg: The Best of Both Worlds
June 15, 2003
Three distinct sections make up a beautiful architectural grouping – the Ratze Mansion , the old slaughter house and the building designed for temporary exhibitions. The Ratze Mansion houses the biggest Swiss collection of sculptures from the first half of the 16th C. In the former slaughterhouse, you'll find work by Delacroix, Courbet, Marcello, Hodler, Crotti, and Tinguely.
Admission: Adults CHF 6.
Open Tues–Wed, Fri–Sun 11am–6pm, Thurs 11am–8pm.
From journal Fribourg - a hidden treasure
February 12, 2002
The first gallery that we entered was filled with religous art. Early 15th and 16th century statues and panels. They covered the usual topics, the Last Judgement and the Life of the Virgin. Unfortunately, none of the write-ups were in English so I had to translate for my husband. Luckily Fribourg is in the French speaking part of Switzerland.
The second gallery had some even earlier religous art, 14th-century sculptures, very early stained glass. Following this there were five or six more similar rooms. Now as you can imagine I was getting a little bored by all this but then we enter the room with the relic. And what a relic it is, it is St. Felix and its the whole skeleton in a case covered with jewels. It was so weird it was facinating. And yes of course I took a picture. It certainly was the biggest reliquary I've ever seen.
There are a few rooms of period furniture but nothing to compare with St Felix. He was worth every penny of the 85 Sfrs.
There is a small gift shop that had a nice little book about Fribourg which I found interesting in my search for my illusive ancestor Pierre Miville.
From journal Visiting Switzerland