2020 has been a peculiar year. Instead of going to foreign countries, I travelled to the past finding my classmates of primary school. Three of them I met in Altendorf, located on the southern side of the upper lake of Zurich, in the canton of Schwyz.
Let me tell you, what I have learnt about Altendorf and about its charming chapel Saint John.
Altendorf, so far unknown to me, is worth a detour for its chapel Saint John and its restaurant Johannisburg
So far, I have not heard of Altendorf. Yes, when driving to the mountains on the highway, I have sometimes noticed the small church on the hill, and now I learn, it is named after Saint John (Kapelle St. Johann).
With three of my class mates, I have an excellent lunch in the posh restaurant Johannisburg…
… with a gorgeous view of the lake of Zurich.
Well, I have to admit, today the view disappeared in the fog that sometimes lasts long around Zurich. I may have to come back on a sunny summer day to enjoy the sunset in the bar under the roof of the restaurant and then enjoy the excellent cooking of the restaurant.
Altendorf is the “old village” of the noblemen of Rapperswil – its history in a nutshell
In 972, Otto II confirms that Rhaprehteswilare belongs to the monastery of Einsiedeln. In the 11th century noblemen settle in the fortification, located on the hill above Rhaprehteswilare. The fortification is called Johannisburg, and they call now themselves “Rapperswil”.
In the 13th century the noblemen of Rapperswil decide to move to the northern side of the lake, more strategically located at the pilgrim’s path. They call the new settlement “Rapperswil”, while “old Rapperswil” becomes “Vetus Villa Rapperswile”. It keeps its fortification “Johannisburg” and now owns a church, St. Michael.
In 1350, the Habsburgians marry-in to the family of Rapperswil. They perform an attack in Zurich (Zürcher Mordnacht). As a revenge, the people from Zurich destroy both old and new Rapperswil. The fortification of old Rapperswil will not be reconstructed.
In 1405, the canton Appenzell conquers old Rapperswil. It is later transferred to the canton of Schwyz and today belongs to Schwyz.
In the 15th century the village “old Rapperswil” is known under the name of “to the old village” or “zu dem alten dorfe” which later becomes “Altendorf”.
The coat of arms, a rose, reminds of the noblemen of Rapperswil that once were based here.
The chapel St. Johann – the history
The chapel St. Johann was built at the location of the fortification that had been destroyed by Zürich. The choir forms 7/8th of a circle and stands on the foundation of a former tower. The hill hides more walls of the former fortification.
1370/1380: The round choir with the gothic window at the east wall is being built. The northern window has a rounded arch.
End 15th century: The nave (1476) and the tower (1483) are attached to the round choir (the years are marked at the doors to the chapel and to the tower). The floor of the nave slants by a meter due to the location on the hill. In 1476, the chapel is certified in official documents.
Gothic altars in the church – gems from the beginning of the 16th century
The altars in the church are gems from the early 16th century.
Behind the entrance to the round choir is the main altar. It is from the same workshop as the altar to the left, while the altar to the right is from a different workshop. Above the entrance to the choir are three portraits.
The themes of the main altar in the choir are Maria with Jesus (in the middle) and two saint Johns, Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist. Both might be the patrons of the chapel with the name “Saint John”. John the Baptist (with the Agnus Dei or Holy Lamb) flanks Maria to her left. The left panel shows his decapitation and his head is above Maria. John the Evangelist stands to the right of Maria, and the panel illustrates him writing the Apocalypse on the island of Patmos. Above are two neo-Gothic figures, Saint George (left) and Archangel Michael (right). Below, in the predella is Notburga von Bühl with her nine children, all born on one day.
In the nave, the left altar is dedicated to Saint Vitus (a martyr from Sicily who died around 300). However, Vitus only appears at the bottom in the predella, suffering his martyrium. In the middle are the virgin (Maria) with child and Saint Anne (the mother of Maria). They are surrounded by various saints: To their left is Bartholomew (with his knife) and to their right Verena (with a jar). On the left panel are Leonhard (with a chain, patron of the prisoners) and Nicholas (with the bishop’s crook). On the right panel are Oswald (with the cup and the raven) and Laurentius (with the grill). Above this congregation of saints stands Antonius Eremita of Egypt (around 300).
The right hand altar in the nave is dedicated to Saint Wolfgang. He stands in the middle of the altar. He was bishop of Regensburg (972-994), and I am astonished to see him here. But then I learn that, for some time, he lived nearby in the monastery of Einsiedeln, as a monk. Wolfgang is surrounded by various saints: Petrus (left, with key), Andreas (right, with cross), Catherine and a bishop (left panel, Catherine with the palm leaf), Margarita and Antonius Eremita (right panel). Below in the predella, Apollonia is suffering her martyrium. Above all is the crucifixion group with Maria, Magdalena and the apostle John.
The portraits above the entrance to the choir show Saint John the Baptist (with the Holy Lamb) to the left, Antonius Eremita in the middle and Quirin von Neuss to the right.
These three saints are asked for help during pandemic times, I read in Jöger’s brochure.
Saint John the Baptist is said to cure from bad luck and illness.
I have met Antonius Eremita at the impressive Isenheim Altarpiece of Colmar, where he resists the temptations by the demons, and these demons show signs of ergotism. The hospital brothers of Saint Anthony cured people suffering from ergotism. Ergotism was called the “Antonius fire” and it was deemed to be an epidemic.
Quirin von Neuss was decapitated in Rome in the 2nd century. After having converted to Christianism, he performed miracles and is invoked in case of various diseases, among them the pest. His relics are at Neuss in Germany.
The right persons are assembled here, as we encounter our pandemic of the 21st century. I intensely look at the portraits and hope – it was November then – that we will be able to cut the number of corona cases down by December. Now, in December, the numbers are still high. I look at these saints again – now on the photo – and wish that the upcoming vaccines will be handled efficiently such that we will start to come out of this pandemic by the middle of this year.
Albert Jöger, «Altendorf SZ, Pfarrkirche und Kapellen», Gesellschaft für Schweizerische Kunstgeschichte, Bern 1983