Near Zürich: Altendorf and its wonderful chapel St. Johann

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



On the road – a great Sunday trip from Basel to Zurich

Traveling abroad is out for me right now. However – from the point of view of Basel, we say that we go “abroad”, when we go to Zurich. This Sunday, Ursula invites me to come to Zurich and see the cartoons of Zen master Sengai.

Zen master Sengai in the museum Rietberg in Zurich

One of the finest museums of German speaking Switzerland is in Zurich. It is the Rietberg museum, founded in 1952 in an old villa located in a wonderful park and enlarged in 2007 by an underground building. I love to visit their special exhibitions of artworks from Asia or Africa. Right now, their special exhibition is about Sengai from Japan.

Sengai (1750-1837) was a monk and the abbot of a Zen momastery. After having retired, he produced modern looking ink sketchings full of humor and wisdom. One example: A small monk is reading the books, but does not understand what he is reading.  Sengai’s comment: “Holiness is without holiness and great wisdom is non-wisdom; he reads the sutras all day and does not understand their meaning.“ Another sketch shows a circle that can be the universe, and Sengai adds this comment: “Eat this and drink a cup of tea” poiniting to the fact that the circle could also be a cake that can be enjoyed with tea. His sketch of a frog is announcing the exhibition – the comment: If by sitting you become Buddha, then the frog would become Buddha as well. Another cartoon I very much liked was the old man pointing his finger to the moon; with a smile he hands over his wisdom to his young pupil.

Sengai Rietberg

“Dear moon, how old are you” is Sengai’s comment here. Source: Postcard bought in the Rietberg museum shop (there is a nice collection of post cards and also beautiful books and souvenirs in the shop).

On display there are more cartoons of grim looking teachers who use a whip or a stick to teach wisdom – a method not recommended by Sengai. A film shows the life of the Zen monks that get up at four in the morning to pray, sing and study. After having retired, Sengai taught his wisdom with the twinkling of an eye.

In the adjacent rooms the museum has arranged their treasures from China – bronze and pottery artwork from 3000 years ago – from the Shang and Shou dynasties and porcelain as well as sculptures from the Qin up to the Quing dynasties. I especially liked the the graciously dancing women (sleeves covering their hands) from the Tang period, the Buddhist sculptures from the 6th to the 9th century and the camel led by a Mongolian with his pointed hat.

A hearty welcome at Zurich

In the morning, I took the express train from Basel to Zurich. When arriving in Zurich after one hour, I found the train station packed with people. What attracted them was the underground renovations that had just been completed this weekend to transform the dead end Zurich train station into a through station for the major train and urban connections. The renovation was a great achievement: It had been completed on time and on budget.

While I walk through the town, a cyclist overtakes me and shouts in his broadest Zurich dialect: “Daas glaaub iich joo nüüd, by däre Hiz en Rukchsakch.” Sorry? To whom do you talk? Oh, he talks to me. He cannot believe (iich glaaub daas joo nüüd) that I carry a backbag (Rukchsakch) though it is very hot today. Hm. Yes, he is right I carry a tiny 10kg backbag instead of a handbag. I am tempted to answer, but then I refrain from that, because he would immediately understand that I am from Basel and would make more strange comments, as Basel and Zurich have a peculiar (but not seriously bad) relationship with one another ;-).

Ursula prepares a delicious light lunch with chicken wings, taboulet, and, as a dessert, baked peach slices with ham and rosemary needles. The baked peaches are a delicious surprise. I will remember them.

Yes, I had a hearty welcome in Zurich.

The river Limmat, the lake and the hiking trail

To get to the Rietberg museum, we take the Limmat boat at the railway station. The boat lies flat on the river to fit under the bridges crossing the Limmat. I stop to breathe to make sure we do not touch the bridge while sliding under it. Our boat enters the lake and drops us at Enge. Through the beautiful park we walk up to the Rietberg museum.

Coming back we take the hiking trail along the lake and the Schanzengraben that crosses the botanical garden. We are in the middle of busy Zurich, but completely off the traffic and amidst the Zurcher that enjoy their Sunday.

The best mezze in Switzerland

We complete our day in Le Cedre. This is a Libanese restaurant at Badener Strasse that serves the best mezze in Switzerland – they are as delicious as I remember them from Damaskus and Aleppo in Syria some ten years ago. The mezze are small plates with hummus (chickpea cream), smoked aubergine cream, falaffel, taboulet and secrets wrapped up in pastry. With the mezze we drink a mint tea made from fresh mint leaves. And we top it all with a libanese coffee.


Waaauuuu, this is the roaring sound that we hear while walking to the main railway station. It is shortly before eight on June 15th. Right – the world championship – Switzerland and Ecuador… now we know for sure that Switzerland has won this game. Later I understand, the Swiss team scored the decisive goal in the very last minutes. The game ended 2 – 1.

Back to Basel in the train

There is a joke in Basel: The best place in Zurich is their railway station, because from here  you can return to Basel. Well, I like to return home. But – I enjoyed this Sunday in Zurich. And I envy Zurich for the Rietberg museum, the river Limmat, the lake and the hiking trail through the city center.