Around Basel – the church Saint Nicholas of Lausen, another “hidden” gem

Cycling from Liestal to Lausen on the winding bike road, I discover the belfry of this small church.

 

“Oh, they seem to have a pretty church at Lausen”, I say to myself.

The door is open and invites me to enter. What a wonderful, solemn and cosy atmosphere inside. The choir has been decorated with frescoes…

… and under the gallery,…

… some sofas invite to sit down and…

… let the children play with toys and books in the corner.

  

To find out more about this gem, I read the small guide of the GSK or Gesellschaft für Schweizerische Kunstgeschichte written by Heyer in 1974. 

 

Beautiful frescoes from the 15th century

In the middle of the 15th century, the Romanesque church burnt down. It was reconstructed and in 1450, the choir was completely painted with frescoes. Two frescoes dominate, the Crucifixion scene and the legend of Saint Nicholas.

The crucifixion occurs in a building indicated by columns and arches. Mary and John are coated in cloths that are richly pleated. Christ has his eyes closed and the representation of his body is stylized.

it is unusual that the crucifixion occurs inside a building. Based on this, Heyer (p. 11) concludes that the master artist of Lausen might have been influenced by early Renaissance representations that also place the crucifixion inside buildings. Oh yes, I remember one such fresco from Santa Maria Novella at Florence. It is Masaccio’s Holy Trinity (1427/28).

The east window in the choir shows the Crucifixion scene as well. It is from 1430/1440, hence older than the frescoes in the choir, and Christ with Maria and John are more compact.

The crucifixion scene in the window is sided by the church fathers Ambrosius and…

… Augustinus.

Above are medaillons with angels indicating the names of the evangelists.

As the church is consecrated to Saint Nicholas, a legend of his appears in the choir as well. He is giving some gold coins to three poor girls in order to protect them from being sold to the brothel. Saint Nicholas stands to the right in the vestibule handing his gift over to the girls that have come together in the second hall. The father stands close to the left border and can hardly be seen. The protagonists are grouped skilfully, the fresco is full of energy.

Let us look back at the choir with the crucifixion and…

… with the legend of Saint Nicholas. 

The unostentatious communion table, I suspect, is from the 17th century, as mentioned by Heyer, p.6. In the background is the priest’s chair from 1707. 

The spandrels of the choir arch are decorated with the Annunciation scene. To the left, we see the red dress of archangel Gabriel and to the right, the building in which Mary is kneeling under the Holy Spirit represented as a pigeon. Unfortunately the entry to the pulpit has destroyed much of this fresco.

Another small detail: the turned stand next to the stairs leading to the pulpit is, I assume, the guéridon acquired in 1706 that Heyer mentions. Modestly, various treasures are decorating the choir.

Let us return to the fresco with the Annunciation. It is not the first time that I see the Annunciation scene appear in the spandrels above the access to the choir.

At about the same time as the church of Lausen, the chapel of Saint Servatius in Upper Bavaria was decorated with frescoes in 1440, and also here, the Annunciation scene is in the spandrels above the access to the choir: Archangel Gabriel is on the left hand side and tells Mary to the right that she will give birth to Jesus. 

Furthermore in the marvellous Saint Mary church at Pontresina, the Annunciation has been fitted into the spandrels above the entry to the choir. These frescoes are from 1495.

Heyer suggests that the side walls of the choir might have been decorated with the apostles; this is Jacob, just next to the Crucifixion scene. 

Church father Gregor appears in the northern window of the choir, wearing his pontifical dress and the tiara, and he holds a book in his hands.

This is the view from the gallery back into the church and the choir.

The frescoes on the choir wall show the Nativity of Christ to the left and – perhaps – the Adoration of the three Magi on the right. However, they are difficult to discern (Heyer, p.7).

The three combined chairs to the right are from the 17th century. The four oak columns in the nave have been worked using an axe and have been added in 1616. From the same year is the pulpit, made in early Renaissance style by a carpenter from Liestal. 

Next to the pulpit we find the fresco of Saint Barbara with a palm leaf and her attribute, the tower. 

Together with Jacobus in the window, the frescoes in the nave are younger than the ones in the choir, as Heyer presumes (p.8). The person kneeling below Barbara could be the donator of the frescoes in the nave.

Beautiful frescoes are hiding in unostentatious Lausen! As Heyer, p. 11, says, the frescoes have been painted by a grand craftsman and they are of high artistic value. I do agree with him.

 

Short summary of the construction history

The Saint Nicholas church is located far outside of the centre of Lausen. In Roman times there was an estate here and later a Frankish village, Bettenach. The people from Lausen call it “Urlausen“. 

  • 8/9th century: Foundations excavated indicate that a – smaller – early medieval church existed.
  • 11th century: A second church was built in Romanesque style.  From that time the norther entry door has been preserved as well as two small windows next to the gallery.

  • 15th century: The Romanesque church burnt down. It was reconstructed with higher walls and the rectangular choir as well as with a wooden ceiling. In 1450, the choir was decorated with the frescoes. 
  • 1564: After the Reformation, the frescoes were whitewashed. 
  • 17th century: In 1616/17, the church was renovated. The wooden ceiling was replaced, the four wooden columns were added. Furthermore, carpenter Peter Baschin from Lausen created the early Renaissance pulpit that can be accessed from the choir. In 1685, the gallery was renovated. Windows were added and removed again and again.

  • 1874: The frescoes were discovered and carefully restored. 
  • 1971/72: The monument conservator of Baselland, H.R. Heyer, guided the renovation. So far unknown frescoes were laid open. Shortly afterwards, in 1974, Heyer wrote the brochure for the Gesellschaft für Schweizerische Kunstgeschichte.

Based on Heyer’s brochure, I studied the Saint Nicholas Church. Note that I am not an art historian – I just love such works of art that have been preserved for centuries.  

 

Saying good-bye to the marvellous church of Saint Nicholas

So far, I had known the village Lausen as an exit from the near highway. Now, in April 2021, one of the vaccination centres is at Lausen. To check out beforehand, where this centre is, I went there by bike. And this is, how I accidentally discovered this gem of a church, the Saint Nicolas church of Lausen.

To round off my visit, I stroll through the cemetery. I will return to enjoy the solemn and cosy atmosphere of this country church again and show it to my friends.

Sources: H.R. Heyer, “Die Kirche von Lausen”, Schweizerischer Kunstführer, herausgegeben von der Gesellschaft für Schweizerische Kunstgeschichte, Basel 1974.