High altar

To the vis­i­tor enter­ing the dim church from the vestibule, the “The­atrum sacrum” of the high altar beck­ons in the dis­tance, flood­ed by the light from the high, sun-like win­dow of the apse. This work was begun in 1721 by Egid Quirin Asam and paint­ed in 1724 by his sis­ter Maria Salome (mar­ried Born­schlögl), but the altar was not fin­ished until 1734. The altar rere­dos opens in a lofty cen­tral arch flanked by paired Solomon­ic (corkscrew) mar­ble columns. Through this tri­umphal arch­way rides the church’s patron, St. George. The red Tem­plar cross on his breast iden­ti­fies him as a Roman-Chris­t­ian hero (and explains its pres­ence in the Wel­tenburg arms), and his armour reflects the dom­i­nant back­light­ing. Raised on a mon­u­men­tal plinth, he flour­ish­es his flam­ing lance at a drag­on which rears up at him in anger, while to his left an equal­ly vivid Libyan princess hasti­ly flees her oppres­sor. In its pyra­mi­dal com­po­si­tion, this scene from the saint’s leg­end is high­ly dra­mat­ic in itself, but it is made even more so by the the­atri­cal light­ing effects. Plung­ing from the radi­ance of heav­en into the dim inte­ri­or of the church, St. George is staged as the arche­typ­al Chris­t­ian war­rior in the bat­tle of light with dark­ness. This motif is echoed in the fig­ure of Mary Immac­u­late crush­ing the ser­pent in the apse wall fres­co by Cos­mas and Franz Asam which forms a back­drop for the sculp­tur­al group. From the clouds high above this scene, God the Father extends a pro­tec­tive hand over his combatants.

From this dynam­ic scene, two fur­ther life-size plas­ter­work stat­ues form a tran­si­tion to the per­spec­tive of the audi­ence: on the left stands St. Mar­tin, the abbey church’s sec­ond patron, whose leg­endary goose hiss­es angri­ly at the drag­on, while a naked put­to wrapped in the folds of the bishop’s cloak does duty for the beg­gar of Amiens; on the right we find the abbot St. Mau­rus, the name­sake of the Abbot Mau­rus Bächl who ini­ti­at­ed the Baroque rebuild­ing of Wel­tenburg. For this rea­son the stat­ue of the saint has the facial fea­tures of the builder. The paint­work imi­tat­ing mar­ble con­nects the stat­ues with anoth­er group at the apex of the rere­dos, where, framed by the Archangels Gabriel and Michael, the Vir­gin Mary is assumed bod­i­ly into heav­en, await­ed by her Son (who is depict­ed in the ceil­ing fres­co above). The the­mat­ic coher­ence of this scene with the apse wall fres­co is evi­dence enough that the Asam broth­ers remod­elled the high altar group even before it was completed.

A fur­ther lev­el of mean­ing is pro­vid­ed by the mag­nif­i­cent full coat of arms of Prince-Elec­tor Max Emanuel (who vis­it­ed Wel­tenburg in 1721) at the top of the tri­umphal arch; he sought to rein­state the Wit­tels­bach Order of the Knights of St. George, a goal ulti­mate­ly achieved by his son, Karl Albrecht, in 1729. The good rela­tions between Wel­tenburg and the Bavar­i­an rul­ing house are again the­ma­tized in the sanc­tu­ary ceil­ing fres­co, which por­trays Duke Tas­si­lo III as the abbey’s founder.