The Case of Arbogast: Image and Identity in a Swiss Gothic Parish Church

Lyle Dechant

Gregory the Great’s belief that images in churches should serve as surrogate texts for the edification of illiterate viewers permeated late-medieval culture, and if art historians still invoke Gregory to explain wall paintings in parish churches, this is largely because medieval observers did too.1 Bishops and abbots used his famous dictum to justify their acts of patronage, while preachers and vernacular authors transmitted it to lay audiences, who in turn adopted its terminology to express their own reactions to pictures they saw in churches. So frequently do our sources echo this notion of images as ‘books for the illiterate’ that alternative explanations for medieval wall paintings rarely appeared before the twenty-first century, and remain atypical today.2

Images in parish churches, often far removed from the bustling urban and courtly centres of literacy, would seem to offer an ideal demonstration of Gregory’s dictum. Thus it comes as no surprise to learn that the extensive fourteenth-century murals inside the late-medieval church of St. Arbogast in Oberwinterthur, Switzerland, have been almost universally interpreted in Gregorian terms (Fig. 1).3 Johann Rudolf Rahn, the first to publish on the paintings after their rediscovery in 1877, argued that ‘their main purpose was to educate the faithful and to delight the eye with a pleasing interplay of forms and colors’.4 Hans-Friedrich Reske, applying language that could have come straight from the thirteenth century, labelled the paintings in 1972 a ‘Bilderpredigt’ (sermon in pictures) that offered an ‘independent form of proclamation alongside proclamation through the word’,5 and Albert Knoepfli’s precise and thorough 1981 study explicitly aligned the Oberwinterthur Bilderpredigt with ‘people who were unable to read’.6 Knoepfli’s account is cited with approval in the most recent study of the church.7

Church of St. Arbogast, Oberwinterthur, Canton Zürich, Switzerland.
Fig. 1 Church of St. Arbogast, Oberwinterthur, Canton Zürich, Switzerland. Roland zh (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Despite this apparent consensus, however, Gregory’s line of thinking leaves a great deal unexplained about these paintings. Why do they focus—uniquely in medieval art—on the obscure figure of St. Arbogast? Why are portions of the Arbogast cycle suffused with imagery drawn from secular media? Why does Arbogast himself not even appear in the most prominent scene? What is the relationship between the scenes that apparently derive from specific textual sources (the tenth-century Vita arbogasti and its fourteenth-century German adaptation) and the immediately adjacent pictures that do not appear in these texts? Ultimately, what messages would a medieval viewer have perceived beneath the surface of this alleged ‘sermon in paint’? Without wholly discounting claims of pastoral functions for parish church art, this essay argues instead that regional politics, internal power struggles, and the need to fashion a distinctive institutional identity all played a larger role than previously suspected in the patronage, design, and purpose of the St. Arbogast picture cycle.

The late-medieval town of Oberwinterthur, still bearing visible traces of its origins as a Roman outpost along the transalpine route into Gaul, lay on the eastern edge of a hill overlooking the Eulach river in rural northern Switzerland.It neighboured the city of Niederwinterthur (eventually known as Winterthur proper), a younger settlement that had, thanks to the patronage of the local nobility, gradually eclipsed Oberwinterthur in size and regional importance.9 The church at Niederwinterthur—originally an offshoot of the central parish church at Oberwinterthur—had expanded alongside the city, and jurisdiction disputes between the two led to a convocation of secular and ecclesiastical authorities in 1180, headed by the Bishop of Constance, that essentially granted the younger church autonomy within the parish.10 This contributed to a competitive spirit between the two institutions that would shape the appearance of both churches for generations. Beyond the bounds of its own parish, Oberwinterthur was situated almost precisely between two major regional hubs, each an afternoon’s journey away by horse: the free Imperial city of Zurich to the south-west, and Constance, seat of the diocese, to the north-east (Fig. 2).

Detail from Jos Murer’s 1566 woodcut map of the region of Zurich (Kantonskarte Jos Murer). Zurich is the sprawling city at the bottom. Winterthur is the largest town appearing along the upper edge of this detail, while Oberwinterthur appears immediately to its north, with the spire of the erstwhile parish church of St. Arbogast visible among the small cluster of buildings.
Fig. 2 Detail from Jos Murer’s 1566 woodcut map of the region of Zurich (Kantonskarte Jos Murer). Zurich is the sprawling city at the bottom. Winterthur is the largest town appearing along the upper edge of this detail, while Oberwinterthur appears immediately to its north, with the spire of the erstwhile parish church of St. Arbogast visible among the small cluster of buildings. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Local tradition traced the foundation of the parish church at Oberwinterthur to the great seventh-century Merovingian king Dagobert, who, according to legend, had befriended a wise and holy hermit named Arbogast who resided in the Alsatian forest. Over the holy man’s protests, the king appointed Arbogast bishop of the diocese of Strasbourg. Sometime later, the king’s son Siegbert was hunting with companions in the woods, when his horse, startled by a boar, threw him from the saddle. Tangled in the reins, the boy was trampled to death. The desperate king implored Arbogast for supernatural aid. Arbogast spent a night praying over the boy’s lifeless body, and the following morning Siegbert rose from his bier, alive again. In gratitude for this miracle Dagobert offered material riches, which Arbogast of course rejected, so the king instead donated rich tracts of land to the Strasbourg bishopric and proceeded to found churches and monasteries in Arbogast’s name. By the late Middle Ages, the parish community at Oberwinterthur believed its own church to be among these foundations, tied to Dagobert’s munificence and his personal devotion to the bishop and miracle-worker Arbogast.11

Modern historians find the church’s origins less clear-cut. First, little information on the historical Arbogast exists; our knowledge of his life (including his relationship with Dagobert and the miraculous restoration of Dagobert’s son) rests mainly on a short vita composed by the tenth-century Strasbourg bishop Utho.12 Utho himself, as he freely admits, had little to work with, and his account of Arbogast aims more at legitimising Dagobert’s land grants to the Strasbourg bishopric than providing concrete details about the saint himself. The historical Arbogast was perhaps an Irish missionary, but probably a native Frank, working to convert the local Alsatian population to Christianity and safeguard Merovingian control of the region. Most likely he lived in the century preceding Dagobert’s time; nevertheless, some historians have tried to preserve Oberwinterthur’s royal ties by supposing Dagobert issued grants in the deceased saint’s memory, including the parish of Oberwinterthur.13 Others, however, consider the entire Dagobertian connection a pious fiction of the later Middle Ages.14

Archaeology sheds more substantial light on the early history of the Oberwinterthur church. Excavations beneath the present structure unearthed remnants of a wooden building of the seventh or eighth century, presumably the earliest phase of construction, which was rebuilt in stone sometime around the tenth century. Expansions followed gradually, including the addition of southern and northern annexes, a sacristy, and a bell tower in the late 1100s. Notably, each of these expansions seems to have been a reaction to a comparable renovation at the neighbouring church in Niederwinterthur, each seemingly striving to out-build the other.15

During the second half of the thirteenth century and the first decades of the fourteenth, the church at Oberwinterthur undertook a major reconstruction, practically a total rebuilding, which gave the church the basic structure and appearance it retains today. During this phase, the whole building was lengthened to the west, and the inner walls separating the church proper from its earlier annexes were broken open and converted into a pillared arcade, transforming the entire structure into a three-aisled, five-bayed basilica: an extraordinarily ambitious design for a rural parish church. The eastern end was expanded into a large, rectangular apse with a steep, vaulted choir, and the bell tower was enlarged and refurbished. Finally, the interior was fully repainted with the extensive narrative and decorative pictorial programme visible on the walls today. Fortuitously, we have two precise dates that bookend this period of building activity: dendrochronology provides a date of 1257–8 for the ceiling beams used in the nave reconstruction, and a bell cast for the refurbished bell tower, which survived into the modern era only to be melted down in 1910, bore a dedication to Arbogast along with a date of 1336.16

The church’s interior decoration, easily among the grandest and most lavish cycles surviving from Gothic Switzerland, comprises a sprawling, interlocking network of devotional figures, cinematic narratives, and lively ornamentation, all rendered in bold, clear outlines and bright colours to promote legibility from the nave below.17 Undoubtedly the murals would have been completed near the end of the church’s decades-long renovation, an assumption that fits well with the general style of the paintings and specific details of clothing depicted therein, which all point to the 1320s or 1330s.18 Whitewashed during the Swiss Reformation, the murals were first discovered as part of a renovation in 1835, but they generated little interest, suffered damage during construction, and were ultimately re-covered. They were exposed again in 1877 to the more welcoming eyes of the Historisch-antiquarische Verein Winterthur (Winterthur Historical and Antiquarian Society) and the art historian Johann Rudolf Rahn, who made watercolour copies of the paintings and initiated preservation efforts. A faulty restoration attempt in 1932 caused further damage, obliterating the paintings adorning the choir and west wall. A more scientific and careful restoration of 1976–81 stabilised the paintings, removed earlier retouchings, and exposed to view the surviving medieval surface, now mostly shorn of its upper layers of colour and detail.19

The centrepiece of the original programme would have been the monumental Christ in Majesty in the apse overlooking the main altar, now lost. Opposite this on the interior of the west wall are fragmentary traces of several devotional scenes and saints, including the popular saints George and Christopher. In the Middle Ages as today, however, the nave walls were surely the main attraction (Fig. 3). Each wall is divided horizontally by long, continuous floral borders into three unequal registers. In the uppermost and widest zone, pairs of standing, life-size saints (men on the north wall, women on the south) fill the spaces between the narrow rounded windows of the clerestory.20 Willowy specimens of the elegant, spatially-flat courtly style seeping into the German lands from Paris, each gesticulating duo hovers under a fictive Gothic architectural frame against a background of alternating red and blue. On both walls, the central figures in this register are visually set apart: an enthroned, frontally-facing Arbogast presides over the north wall, clad in a flowing red mantle and bearing the episcopal signs of mitre and crozier, while opposite him at the centre of the south wall, a scene of Christ’s Coronation of Mary breaks up the otherwise orderly sequence of standing female saints.

Interior looking east, St. Arbogast, Oberwinterthur, Canton Zürich, Switzerland.
Fig 3. Interior looking east, St. Arbogast, Oberwinterthur, Canton Zürich, Switzerland. Roland zh (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Below this upper zone with its looming, static, heavenly entities, stretches a narrower middle register filled with smaller-scale, earthly narratives: Christ’s life and Passion on the south wall, and on the north, unprecedented in medieval art, a cycle dedicated to the church’s patron, St. Arbogast. The Christ cycle occupies fifteen roughly-uniform scenes, from the Annunciation to the Three Marys at the Tomb (the cycle would have culminated with now-destroyed Ascension and Pentecost scenes on the west wall, and of course the Christ in Majesty in the apse). On the opposite wall, Arbogast’s adventures comprise only six unequal scenes (Fig. 4). Degradation of the first two Arbogast scenes makes identification difficult, but they probably represent his establishment of a hermitage at Surburg and his consecration as bishop of Strasbourg.21 The next four episodes are Siegbert’s hunting accident, Arbogast’s miraculous resuscitation of Siegbert, Dagobert’s granting of the city of Rufenach to the Strasbourg bishopric, and finally, Arbogast’s burial, all of which feature prominently in Utho’s vita.

Life of St. Arbogast. South wall, Church of St. Arbogast, Oberwinterthur, Canton Zürich, Switzerland.
Fig 4. Life of St. Arbogast. South wall, Church of St. Arbogast, Oberwinterthur, Canton Zürich, Switzerland. Photo: Author

Even with the noticeable horizontal expansion of three of its scenes, the Arbogast cycle occupies only three-fourths of the north wall’s length. Two seemingly-unrelated images fill the remaining space, the Schutzmantelmadonna—the Madonna of Mercy who faces the viewer with her cloak held open, providing shelter to the figures huddled within—and the Adoration of the Magi, displaced from the Christ cycle on the opposite wall. While occasionally decried as illogical add-ons, these two scenes in fact resonate narratively and thematically with the preceding Arbogast cycle.22 Utho’s vita specifically reports that Arbogast ‘committed himself to the protection of the blessed Mary’ in his efforts to revive Siegbert, so the image of Mary as protectress gives visual form to this prayer while affirming its efficacy.23 Furthermore, as a devotional image, it also provides the viewer an opportunity to emulate Arbogast by appealing to the same supernatural power invoked so fruitfully by him, thereby forging a bond across the centuries between the church’s revered patron and later medieval parishioners standing in the nave (it is surely no coincidence that the patron’s arms cluster around this figure of Mary). As we shall see below, the Adoration scene, too, is thematically and visually linked to the Arbogast cycle.

Finally, below these middle registers, the lowest zone on the north and south walls consists of a series of holy figures and saints adorning the spandrels between the arches of the arcade pillars. While these generally have no immediate bearing on the narratives above, Albert Knoepfli has convincingly argued that the first two pictures in the lower zone of the north wall, both badly damaged and impossible to identify securely, constitute a kind of preface to the Arbogast cycle directly above. The first may depict the young Arbogast’s rejection of his family home to pursue his higher calling, and the second, his leavetaking from an early companion before venturing into the woods alone.24 Bolstering Knoepfli’s speculation is the fact that these scenes, though not present in Utho’s Latin vita, occur in an early-fourteenth-century German adaptation of Arbogast’s life produced in a nearby Dominican convent (likely Töss, just three miles away) around the same time as the Oberwinterthur paintings.25 This text, part of a compilation of saint’s lives known today as the Solothurn Legendary, remains unedited and, despite its historical and geographical proximity to the church at Oberwinterthur, has been ignored in the published literature on the Arbogast cycle.

The Arbogast paintings at Oberwinterthur are the first and only known medieval narrative cycle dedicated to this little-known saint. Isolated earlier images of Arbogast, such as a stained-glass window of the 1260s in the north clerestory of Strasbourg Cathedral, portray him as a generic bishop; the inscription alone ensures identification (Fig. 5).26 By contrast, the designer of the Oberwinterthur sequence—likely a cleric who would have relayed instructions orally to the painters—faced the challenge of adapting, for presumably the first time, Arbogast’s short and largely uneventful recorded life into a large-scale, public narrative cycle. This provides a remarkable opportunity to witness medieval creativity in action.

Saint Arbogast (left). Stained glass window from Strasbourg Cathedral, 1260s.
Fig. 5. Saint Arbogast (left). Stained glass window from Strasbourg Cathedral, 1260s. Photo: Denis Krieger

Unlike the well-rehearsed iconography of the Christological cycle on the south wall (similar examples of which appear in nearby churches at Landschlacht, Oberstammheim, and elsewhere), the Arbogast cycle betrays signs of ad hoc invention both in the individual compositions and overall design.27 Where the scenes from the Christ cycle are uniform in size, evenly spaced, and confine themselves with a practiced deftness to the essential actors in each episode, the Arbogast panels vary wildly in size, show little visual relationship to each other, and are stylistically much looser and freer in conception. There is also a greater build-up of inessential background elements like trees, buildings, and secondary figures depicted at a smaller scale. Lacking pictorial precedents, the episodes adhere closely to the textual accounts found in Utho’s vita or the Solothurn Legendary, though oral versions of these stories could have played a role in their conception as well. Ultimately, of course, as we will explore, the artist’s visual storytelling in many ways transcends any received source material to generate new meanings for a new audience in this unique context.

The lengthiest and most arresting scene both in the textual versions and in the painted cycle at Oberwinterthur is Siegbert’s hunting accident (Fig. 6). Over four metres long on the wall, it bursts with drama and formal dynamism. In every other scene of the cycle, figures pose, kneel, and converse with a quiet, elegant composure, subtly reflecting the graceful composure of the saints above, but here, everything is movement and noise: a tempest of leaping horses, fluttering birds, swaying trees, blowing horns, barking dogs, and of course, Siegbert’s sprawling, doomed body, flailing helplessly as his horse’s hooves strike his head and chest. Big, looping outlines render this violence starkly against a vibrant reddish-orange background, and the viewer, absorbed in this cinematic spectacle, forgets for a moment how odd it is that the most lavish and memorable scene from the life of St. Arbogast does not even feature Arbogast.

Siegbert’s Hunting Accident. South wall, Church of St. Arbogast, Oberwinterthur, Canton Zürich, Switzerland.
Fig. 6 Siegbert’s Hunting Accident. South wall, Church of St. Arbogast, Oberwinterthur, Canton Zürich, Switzerland. Photo: Author

In this, though, the designer has merely followed Utho, who devotes eight of his ten short chapters to this hunting expedition and its aftermath. Utho describes the moment of Siegbert’s fall in trenchant, novelistic detail:At the sight [of the boar] the horse he rode took fright, changing its course and twisting around to flee. The boy tried to hold it back by its harness, pulling the reins more tightly to the other side, but—alas!—he leaned over too far and slipped off the saddle. But since he had become entangled in the reins he held, he was dragged to the ground, and trampled piteously by the horse’s hooves.28

The anonymous German paraphraser dampens the emotionality but hews closely to Utho’s account: ‘Thus it happened that the horse became frightened and wild, and the boy, unable to hold on, fell from the saddle and was tangled in the horse’s reins, such that the horse battered and trampled [him]’.29

To depict this episode on the church wall, the Oberwinterthur artist went beyond both texts, deploying established visual rhetoric to conjure an adventure worthy of Tristan or Iwein. Siegbert and his two companions enter a fantasy forest of swaying trees whose stylised, club-shaped canopies house a lively entourage of birds, squirrels, and even a monkey. Though degradation has left little besides their silhouettes, Siegbert’s two mounted companions, entering from the left, convey the main narrative through precise gestures. The first rider immediately establishes the scene’s context by blowing a hunting horn, signalling to the dogs that race ahead, while the second rider initiates the drama by turning his head back to his partner and gesturing to the right, drawing his and the viewer’s eye toward the unfolding tragedy. Farther to the right comes the harrowing climax. Siegbert has just tumbled from his saddle, his arms and legs jumbling together with the onrushing hooves of his panicked horse, while the massive boar lunges at the horse from the right, oblivious to the two hunting dogs already snapping at its flanks.

Fantastical forests like this were a staple of popular romances and secular art generally in the Gothic period.30 The famous Carmina Burana songbook from southern Germany contains among its miniatures a forest similarly awash with life and vegetation, and parallels also appear in contemporary romance-inspired tapestries and manuscripts (Fig. 7). The particular motif of horsemen riding to the hunt also immediately evokes widespread secular iconography. Boar hunts were a particular favourite: they could appear as a ‘labour of the month’ for December in lay prayer books but also as standalone compositions, such as the (more successful) boar hunt appearing in the Manesse songbook, painted in nearby Zürich at around this same time (Fig. 8).31 Imagery like this would have particularly resonated with the elite patrons whose heraldic crests adorn the north wall, but it would also have bestowed a sense of familiarity and topical relevance upon observers of more moderate standing.

Frontispiece for spring songs with inhabited forest, from the Carmina Burana (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4660), fol. 64v. Southern Germany, c. 1230.
Fig. 7. Frontispiece for spring songs with inhabited forest, from the Carmina Burana (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4660), fol. 64v. Southern Germany, c. 1230. Photo: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
Frontispiece to the poems of Herr Heinrich Hetzbold von Weißensee, from the Codex Manesse (Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848), fol. 228r. Zurich, c. 1330.
Fig. 8. Frontispiece to the poems of Herr Heinrich Hetzbold von Weißensee, from the Codex Manesse (Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848), fol. 228r. Zürich, c. 1330. Photo: Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg

The artist has also ‘modernised’ the story by updating particular details of hunting paraphernalia: for example, while both the Latin and German accounts speak of Siegbert getting tangled in the horse’s reins (Latin ‘habenae’, Middle High German ‘Zöme’), the artist has depicted him instead with his foot trapped in the stirrups, an invention unknown in Arbogast’s time but indispensable to later medieval knights. Likewise, Siegbert wears modern, circular rowel spurs, which had only replaced traditional prick spurs during the later thirteenth century.32 The single-handed arming sword strapped to his side and his coiffed, à la mode haircut also mark Siegbert as a recognisably-modern knight. By drawing from a familiar visual lexicon, the artist casts a legendary (perhaps initially unfamiliar) story into a popular, contemporary idiom, thereby encouraging parishioners to see its relevance to their own daily lives and forge a personal relationship to the church’s patron saint. Here personal identity begins to mingle with institutional or corporate identity.

However tailored the images might be for lay tastes, though, parishioners would also discover a more subversive aspect to this composition. After all, it was Siegbert’s hunting excursion—that favourite pursuit of the secular nobility and iconic motif of secular visual culture—that caused his injury and death. At least, that is, until the church stepped in to offer salvation, in the form of Arbogast. The artist presents a world of sensual delight and aristocratic leisure, but, as Siegbert learns, its pleasures are untrustworthy and impermanent, and lead to death. Like a modern Christian metal band, the Oberwinterthur designer has bent a secular mode of discourse into a vessel for religious messages. This theme is subtly reinforced by another element drawn from popular visual culture, the monkey in the tree above Siegbert’s horse. A characteristic bit of Gothic parody, monkeys exposed the folly and sin of humankind by emulating (‘aping’) their behaviour and gestures from the margins.33 With its bent legs and extended arms, the monkey’s body closely mimics the position of Siegbert’s own flailing limbs, as if mocking his plight. The message is clear: pursuit of worldly pleasures is foolish and brings doom, but salvation is at hand through the church, and specifically through this church, through Arbogast. Secular iconography is here redirected toward religious, institutional ends.

The theme of ecclesiastical precedence over secular authority runs like a thread through Arbogast’s vita, and the Oberwinterthur cycle highlights and expands upon these moments. After all, for all his worldly power, Dagobert was helpless to save his son. Only the church could answer his prayers and bring Siegbert back to life, as we see in the following scene (Fig. 9). Clad in full episcopal regalia, Arbogast extends a hand over the boy’s body, and he rises from his funeral bier to meet the saint’s gaze. Departing again from Utho’s text, the artist includes the boy’s parents in the scene, the queen standing behind Arbogast and the king at the opposite end. Between these two contrary poles of authority, the boy gazes rapturously at Arbogast, not his royal father. And, of course, the resolution of the story involves Dagobert ceding a wealthy piece of land to the church, as depicted in the next scene, though here too the artist has added the extra-textual detail of Dagobert dropping to one knee, like a vassal before a lord.

Arbogast’s Miraculous Resurrection of Siegbert. South wall, Church of St. Arbogast, Oberwinterthur, Canton Zürich, Switzerland.
Fig. 9 Arbogast’s Miraculous Resurrection of Siegbert. South wall, Church of St. Arbogast, Oberwinterthur, Canton Zurich, Switzerland. Photo: Author

The Adoration scene that closes the entire sequence should be read in this light as well (Fig. 10). The picture opens with two crowned riders moving from left to right against a white, tree-lined background toward Mary, baby Christ, and a third figure plausibly interpreted as the prophet Isaiah.34 The holy company lifts their arms to greet the third king, who has already dismounted in Mary’s presence and offers her a golden vessel. Hans-Friedrich Reske analysed this scene as a paradigm of gift-giving, a scriptural precedent for the kneeling Dagobert offering his own gift, and a pastoral model for contemporary parishioners to emulate.35 No doubt this is true, but the Adoration picture should also be read in light of its visual and thematic parallels to the hunting scene. Both feature a procession of three secular horsemen, the foremost of whom falls to the ground. But where Siegbert is brought low by his pursuit of worldly pleasures, the kneeling magus willingly submits to God’s commandments and thus chooses the path of salvation. The Adoration riders thus provide a counter-example to the secular riders: once again the sacred and the profane are set against each other, to the detriment of the latter.

Adoration of the Magi. South wall, Church of St. Arbogast, Oberwinterthur, Canton Zürich, Switzerland.
Fig. 10 Adoration of the Magi. South wall, Church of St. Arbogast, Oberwinterthur, Canton Zurich, Switzerland. Photo: Author

The visual design of the wall undergirds and enhances this conceptual contrast between sacred and secular authority. Both sets of riders move left to right. This is more than a concession to the customary direction of reading and viewing, however: the beholder standing in the nave would perceive that both sets of riders move eastward toward the church’s choir, but of course, only one reaches their destination. Siegbert’s death and subsequent revival under the church’s auspices serve as a lesson and a foil to the noble riders in the Adoration scene, neither of which can thus be fully appreciated without the other. It is easy to imagine this contrast being folded into a sermon condemning worldly pleasures and the vagaries of temporal authority, perhaps accompanied by a sweeping gesture to the painted walls above the parishioners’ heads. In this light, the cycle conveys a broader message from the clergy at Oberwinterthur to the elite nobles who funded the cycle and whose arms trumpet their wealth and status to the viewer. If the cycle showcases secular prestige on its surface, a deeper message insistently undercuts that status to glorify the church as an institution and to assert its ultimate authority over the world outside.

What do we know of these lay noble patrons? The arms arrayed in two rows on the north wall represent the Meier von Neuburg-Mörsburg and the von Hegi families, both members of the lesser nobility whose castles were located within the Oberwinterthur parish.36 Ten of the twelve extant crests belong to the von Hegis; they cluster around the Schutzmantelmadonna and, interestingly, the scene of Arbogast’s burial. Given that a certain Recke von Hegi left funds to the church in 1327 for the purpose of providing burials for parishioners, we are probably justified in seeing a ‘portrait’ of this benefactor in the handsome, conspicuous knight standing immediately to the right of Arbogast’s burial, inserting himself into the sacred past (Fig. 11).37

Burial of Arbogast. South wall, Church of St. Arbogast, Oberwinterthur, Canton Zürich, Switzerland.
Fig. 11 Burial of Arbogast. South wall, Church of St. Arbogast, Oberwinterthur, Canton Zurich, Switzerland. Photo: Author

These patrons’ insistence on self-promotion ran counter to the clergy’s own mission and message, and the paintings, in their design and execution, allow us to glimpse these tensions within the parish community. On the one hand, the lay noble patrons who funded the paintings sought to magnify their reputations and assert their own status within the community, while on the other hand, the clergy who designed and implemented the paintings made choices that gently suppressed those ambitions with unmistakable reminders of their own ecclesiastical authority.

Already, then, we have moved far beyond Gregory. Can we probe further? If these paintings chart tensions between different social factions within the church itself, what messages might they have conveyed to neighbouring churches in a wider regional context? And how does this relate to the church’s unusual focus on Arbogast himself, a figure with little name recognition, no iconographic tradition, and whose historical ties to the church were questionable at best?

In a 2004 study of ecclesiastical and civic patronage in medieval Zurich, Joan Holladay demonstrated how a series of architectural renovations and artistic commissions undertaken by Zurich’s two dominant churches, Grossmünster and Fraumünster, were conceived and executed in direct competition to each other.38 So, for instance, when Fraumünster honoured its founder Louis the German with a series of relief sculptures, Grossmünster commissioned a sculpture of Louis’s predecessor Charlemagne, claiming him as their own founder and thereby ‘enriching [itself] with a past that established its historical priority over the Fraumünster’.39 Fraumünster retaliated by commissioning a mural depicting the removal of the relics of the important local saints Felix and Regula from Grossmünster to Fraumünster, bolstering their own claims to priority. The city government even got involved when an entirely new saint, Exuperantius, began appearing on the city seal alongside the venerable Felix and Regula, a controversial gesture that Holladay believes marked the burghers’ increasing independence from the two great churches in their midst.

Did smaller parish churches wield images and saints with similar intent? We have already seen how over the course of three centuries, the architectural development of the church at Oberwinterthur responded to renovations undertaken by its closest neighbour at Niederwinterthur, especially after their formal political split in 1180. As multiple writers have noted, the likeliest explanation for this is an institutional rivalry that expressed itself in architectural patronage, mirroring the situation in Zurich.40 In fact, architectural developments in Zurich filtered into the two churches’ competition: Winterthur’s reconstruction in the 1250s was modelled after Grossmünster’s newly-built choir from the 1220s–30s, and this design was subsequently appropriated by planners at Oberwinterthur.41 We recall too that in the lower zone of the south wall at Oberwinterthur we find the local saints of Zurich: not only Felix and Regula, but even the newly-minted Exuperantius, whose cult in Zurich was scarcely a generation old. Clearly the designers at both churches were keen to remain ‘modern’.

Holladay’s study thus provides a framework to understand the architecture of smaller churches outside the urban hubs, but it also opens a new line of inquiry into the origins of Arbogast’s cult at Oberwinterthur. For decades, scholars have noted the remarkable fact that, though they overtly affirm the church’s dedication to a sanctified figure from the past, the paintings themselves are in fact the earliest evidence of building’s dedication to Arbogast (together with the roughly contemporaneous bell of 1336). Written documents naming Arbogast as the church’s patron do not occur until later, first in 1369, then 1373, and 1413.42 So when and why exactly did the church at Oberwinterthur become associated with the name Arbogast? We simply do not know. Earlier scholarship assumed without evidence that the grandiose mural cycle must imply a pre-existing dedication to Arbogast.43 At work here is the false belief, rooted in Gregory’s widely accepted dictum, that images serve only didactic or aesthetic purposes and cannot or do not carry political weight. Freed of this assumption, it is possible to argue that Arbogast, whom no other church in the region had yet claimed as patron, might have offered a small but expanding parish church the perfect blank slate onto which to project its own ambitions and desire for prestige.

The choice of Arbogast was not random but fits rather nicely with the premise of a regional ‘competition for saints’. In the thirteenth century, one of the most important and prominent dedicatees of this region was another early Strasbourg bishop named Florentius.44 Florentius’s cult was based around his tomb at Niederhaslach, just west of Strasbourg, whose parish church also undertook a major renovation in the late 1200s and early 1300s, which included a new sculpted tympanum celebrating Florentius’s life and miracles.45 Despite belonging to the diocese of Constance, Oberwinterthur and its community had strong ties to Alsace and the Strasbourg bishopric, especially through the influential thirteenth-century counts of Kyburg and the local Dominican convent of Töss.46 The patrons and clerics at Oberwinterthur would likely have been aware of the renovations at Niederhaslach and the wider cult of Florentius.

So what was the appeal of Arbogast? Simply put, he came first. Arbogast was Florentius’s immediate predecessor as bishop of Strasbourg, and devotees of Arbogast could derive from his historical priority a claim of institutional precedence over the more popular Florentius and the churches honouring him as patron. Just as Arbogast was less well known, but historically pre-dated other saints in the region, so too Oberwinterthur saw itself as smaller and less renowned, but older, than its neighbouring church at Niederwinterthur. This parallel could have encouraged the adoption of Arbogast as its institutional patron. Just as the Zurich burghers embraced their independence by promoting the obscure Exuperantius, so too might Oberwinterthur have embraced the little-known Arbogast to raise its own regional profile. In other words, the church’s dramatic renovation during the late-thirteenth and early-fourteenth centuries may have been more than physical: the cult of St. Arbogast at Oberwinterthur could itself be an artefact of the Gothic period, part of an institutional rebranding that re-shaped the collective memory and situated the church squarely in a prestigious, sanctified lineage.

While the new artistic programme would have been the chief means of propagating this new identity to parishioners, the bell cast in 1336, which probably marked the completion of the physical renovation, would also have complemented and punctuated this less tangible act of redefinition.47 Interestingly, in contrast to Utho’s Latin text, bells feature prominently in the German life of Arbogast preserved in the Solothurn Legendary. In response to the divinely-ordained selection of Arbogast as Bishop of Strasburg, the clergy and laity alike celebrated by ringing bells throughout the city.48 On another occasion, after Arbogast’s death when his name and reputation had been forgotten, a woman whose sons had been hanged called on him to resurrect them. He did so, and when the woman spread news of this miracle, the townspeople once again celebrated his name by ringing bells.49 Noteworthy here is that both stories pertain to moments when Arbogast was chosen or called upon after a period of obscurity, precisely as the parish church of Oberwinterthur did. As Michelle Garceau explains, medieval parishioners believed that bells symbolically broadcast the messages inscribed on them over vast distances as a form of collective prayer.50 Inscribed with an invocation to Arbogast, every peal of the bell would have symbolically proclaimed news of the church’s patron across the surrounding countryside (and especially, perhaps, to their closest ‘competitor’ at Niederwinterthur).

Medieval viewers may have cited Gregory, but the people who planned and executed paintings on church walls knew that pictures did much more than tell sermons in paint. They expressed relationships. They invited personal immersion by appropriating popular visual idioms, while also appealing to a legendary past to help solidify a public, institutional identity. They negotiated tensions within the parish community itself, while also articulating relationships with a wider circle of neighbouring churches, cities, and dioceses. They jockeyed for status by manipulating the cult of saints, thereby shaping a community’s understanding of its own history. While much has been made of the role played by memory in medieval art, there are cases, as at Oberwinterthur, where images encourage forgetting. In the final analysis, the designer and artists responsible for the Arbogast cycle painted over one version of the past with another, more prestigious version, supplanting the church’s earlier history so thoroughly that its original dedicatee remains unknown today. And this coat, unlike a layer of material paint, does not so easily fleck or fall away.


[1] See Celia M. Chazelle, ‘Pictures, Books, and the Illiterate: Pope Gregory I’s letters to Serenus of Marseilles’, Word & Image 6:2 (1990): pp. 138–53; Herbert L. Kessler, ‘Gregory the Great and Image Theory in Northern Europe during the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, in Conrad Rudolph (ed.), A Companion to Medieval Art: Romanesque and Gothic in Northern Europe, second edition (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2019), pp. 221–44.
[2] Cf. Anna Nilsén, ‘Man and Picture: On the Function of Wall Paintings in Medieval Churches’, in Axel Bolvig and Philip Lindley (eds.), History and Images: Towards a New Iconology (Turnhout: Brepols, 2003), pp. 323–40; Athene Reiss, ‘Beyond “Books for the Illiterate”: Understanding English Medieval Wall Paintings’, British Art Journal 9:1 (2008): pp. 4–14.
[3] On this church generally see Emanuel Dejung and Richard Zürcher, Die Kunstdenkmäler des Kantons Zürich, Bd. VI: Die Stadt Winterthur und die Stadt Zürich (Die Kunstdenkmäler der Schweiz, Bd. 27) (Basel: Verlag Birkhäuser, 1952), pp. 285–312; Hans Kläui, Walter Drack, Karl Keller et al, Die reformierte Kirche St. Arbogast in Oberwinterthur: Festschrift zur Restaurierung 1976 bis 1981 (Oberwinterthur: Evangelischreformierte Kirchgemeinde, 1981); Felicia Schmaedecke, Die reformierte Kirche St. Arbogast in Oberwinterthur: Neuauswertung der Ausgrabungen und Bauuntersuchungen, 1976–1979 (Zurich: Neue Medien Verlag, 2006); Peter Niederhäuser, Oberwinterthurer Kirchengeschichten (Zurich: Chronos Verlag, 2015).
[4]Ihr Hauptzweck war es, die Gläubigen zu erbauen und das Auge durch einen angenehmen Wechsel von Formen und Farben zu ergötzen’. Johann Rudolf Rahn, ‘Die Kirche von Oberwinterthur und ihre Wandgemälde’, Mitteilungen der antiquarischen Gesellschaft in Zürich 21:4 (1883): p. 108.
[5]eigenständige Form der Verkündigung neben die Verkündigung durch das Wort’. Hans-Friedrich Reske, ‘Typus und Postfiguration: Zu der mittelalterlichen Bilderpredigt von St. Arbogast in Oberwinterthur’, Zeitschrift für schweizerische Archäologie und Kunstgeschichte 29 (1972): p. 36.
[6]das des Lesens unkündige Volk’. Albert Knoepfli, ‘Die Bilderpredigt im Gotteshaus St. Arbogast’, in Die reformierte Kirche St. Arbogast in Oberwinterthur: Festschrift zur Restaurierung 1976 bis 1981 (Oberwinterthur: Evangelischreformierte Kirchgemeinde, 1981), p. 90.
[7] Niederhäuser, Kirchengeschichten, p. 25; Niederhäuser subsequently emphasises another purpose of the paintings, the self-promotion of their lay noble patrons through a public display of piety.
[8] For the geography and early history of Oberwinterthur, see Hans Kläui, Geschichte von Oberwinterthur im Mittelalter (Winterthur: Ernst Jäggli AG, 1968/69), pp. 1-52, and Kläui, ‘Geschichtliche Hintergründe’, in Die reformierte Kirche St. Arbogast in Oberwinterthur: Festschrift zur Restaurierung 1976 bis 1981 (Oberwinterthur: Evangelischreformierte Kirchgemeinde, 1981), pp. 9–22. Today Oberwinterthur and Niederwinterthur are both incorporated into the modern city of Winterthur in Canton Zurich.
[9] Renata Windler and Werner Wild, ‘Früh- bis hochmittelalterliche Siedlungsentwicklung und Stadtwerdungsprozesse im archäologischen Befund: Das Beispiel Winterthur’, in Matthias Untermann and Alfred Falk (eds.), Die vermessene Stadt: Mittelalterliche Stadtplanung zwischen Mythos und Befund (Heidelberg: Neumann Druck, 2004), pp. 36–40.
[10] Schmaedecke, Kirche, p. 148; Niederhäuser, Kirchengeschichten, pp. 9–17.
[11] Kläui, Geschichte, pp. 29–33; Niederhäuser, Kirchengeschicten, p. 12.
[12] Published with German translation in Alois Postina, Sankt Arbogast, Bischof von Strassburg und Schutzpatron des Bistums, second edition (Strassburg: F.X. Le Roux & Co., 1928), pp. 10–20; cf. Migne, PL 134:1003–1008. On Arbogast see above all Medard Barth, Der Heilige Arbogast, Bischof von Strassburg: seine Persönlichkeit und sein Kult (Kolmar im Elsass: Alsatia Verlag, 1940).
[13] Kläui, Geschichte, pp. 29–33; Kläui, ‘Hintergründe’, pp. 10–14.
[14] For example, Schmaedecke, Kirche, p. 130.
[15] Walter Drack, ‘Zur Baugeschichte der Kirche von den Anfängen bis ins 13. Jahrhundert’, in Die reformierte Kirche St. Arbogast in Oberwinterthur: Festschrift zur Restaurierung 1976 bis 1981 (Oberwinterthur: Evangelischreformierte Kirchgemeinde, 1981), pp. 23–60; Schmaedecke, Kirche, pp. 128–47; Niederhäuser, Kirchengeschichten, pp. 13–14.
[16] Karl Keller, ‘Baugeschichte vom 13. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart’, in Die reformierte Kirche St. Arbogast in Oberwinterthur: Festschrift zur Restaurierung 1976 bis 1981 (Oberwinterthur: Evangelischreformierte Kirchgemeinde, 1981), pp. 61–75; Schmaedecke, Kirche, pp. 148–73; Niederhäuser, Kirchengeschichten, p. 14.
[17] For the pictorial programme generally, see Rahn, ‘Die Kirche von Oberwinterthur’, pp. 98–110; Dejung and Zürcher, Kunstdenkmäler, pp. 296–308; Knoepfli, ‘Bilderpredigt’, pp. 76–97; Jürgen Michler, Gotische Wandmalerei am Bodensee(Friedrichshafen: Verlag Robert Gessler, 1992), pp. 34–5, 190–1; and Niederhäuser, Kirchengeschichten, pp. 24–9. I was unable to consult the unpublished Lizentiatsarbeit by Kathrin Schöb, ‘Die Wandmalereien der reformierten Kirche St. Arbogast in Oberwinterthur’ (University of Basel, 1996).
[18] Rahn (‘Die Kirche von Oberwinterthur’, pp. 107–8) initially proposed a date in 1330s; Dejung and Zürcher (Kunstdenkmäler, p. 296) date the frescoes to c.1340; Knoepfli (‘Bilderpredigt’, pp. 93–4) prefers an earlier date of c.1310–20; Michler, Wandmalerei, pp. 34–5, assigns them to the 1320s.
[19] For early recovery and restoration efforts see Rahn, ‘Die neu entdeckten Wandgemälde’, pp. 787–8, and Knoepfli, ‘Bilderpredigt’, pp. 94–7.
[20] Knoepfli, ‘Bilderpredigt’, pp. 81–3; the division of male and female saints on the walls may reflect expectations placed upon the medieval congregants below; cf. Katherine L. French, The People of the Parish: Community Life in a Late Medieval English Diocese (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), pp. 167–8.
[21] Rahn (‘Die Kirche von Oberwinterthur’, pp. 102–4) conflates the first two scenes into one and does not attempt identification; Dejung and Zürcher (Kunstdenkmäler, pp. 300–1) separate the first two scenes, leaving the first unidentified and suggesting Arbogast’s consecration as bishop as the subject of the second; Knoepfli (‘Bilderpredigt’, pp. 86–7) offers the identifications given here.
[22] Joseph Gantner, Kunstgeschichte der Schweiz, Bd 2: Die Gotische Kunst (Frauenfeld: Verlag von Huber & Co. Aktiengesellschaft, 1947), p. 287.
[23]commitit se beatae Mariae patrociniis’. Postina, Sankt Arbogast, p. 15.
[24] Knoepfli, ‘Bilderpredigt’, pp. 86–7. Cf. Rahn, ‘Die Kirche von Oberwinterthur’, p. 101; Dejung and Zürcher, Kunstdenkmäler, p. 304; and Michler, Wandmalerei, p. 110.
[25] Solothurn, Zentralbibliothek Cod. S 451 [hereafter SL]; the Life of St. Arbogast appears on folios 101r-108v. For an online overview, facsimile and bibliography see E-Codices: Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland, accessed 1 June 2021,
[26] On medieval images of Arbogast see Barth, Der heilige Arbogast, pp. 116–25, and Wolfgang Braunfels (ed.), Lexikon der Christlichen Ikonographie, vol. 5: Ikonographie der Heiligen Aaron bis Crescentianus von Rom (Rome: Herder, 1973), columns 240–1.
[27] Michler, Gotische Wandmalerei, pp. 40–1.
[28]Quo viso sinopes, in quo sedit, pavefactus, cursum retorquens, in fugam vertitur. Puer vero cum freno eum retinere conaretur et in alteram partem habenam strictius traheret, heu! Nimium pronus a sella est perlapsus. Adhuc autem habenae, quam in manu tenebat, inhaerens, per terram tractus, calcibus equi miserabiliter est protritus’, Cited from Postina, Sankt Arbogast, pp. 11–2; my translation.
[29]das ros wart schügig un[d] ungustüme, un[d] kam d[er] iungeling sines ungewaltes us dem sattel un[d] geha[n]get an dem zöme des rosses, also das das ros d[a]c iu[n]geling des königes sun zersties un[d] zertrat’, SL folio 105v; my transcription and translation.
[30] Corinne J. Saunders, The Forest of Medieval Romance: Avernus, Broceliande, Arden (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993); Albrecht Classen, The Forest in Medieval German Literature: Ecocritical Readings from a Historical Perspective (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015).
[31] For boar hunts in late-medieval art see Rebekah Pratt-Sturges, ‘Illuminating the Medieval Hunt: Power and Performance in Gaston Fébus’ Le livre de chasse’ (PhD diss, Arizona State University, 2017), pp. 122–30.
[32] See John Clark (ed.), The Medieval Horse and Its Equipment, c.1150–c.1450 (London: HMSO, 1995), pp. 71–4 (stirrups) and 124–30 (spurs); for examples from Gothic Switzerland, see Claudia Brinker and Dione Flühler-Kreis, Edele fouwen—schoene man. Die Manessische Liederhandschrift in Zürich (Zurich: Schweizerisches Landesmuseum, 1991), pp. 224–25.
[33] See Kelly Midgley, ‘Salacious and Sinful Simians in the Macclesfield Psalter: An Iconographic Study’, Limina 20:3 (2015): pp. 1–16.
[34] Knoepfli, ‘Bilderpredigt’, p. 89.
[35] Reske, ‘Typus und Postfiguration’, pp. 31–33.
[36] For issues of patronage see Schmaedecke, Kirche, pp. 158–61, and Niederhäuser, Kirchengeschichten, pp. 27–8.
[37] Schmaedecke, Kirche, pp. 160–1; Niederhäuser, Kirchengeschichten, pp. 27.
[38] Joan A. Holladay, ‘The Competition for Saints in Medieval Zurich’, Gesta 43:1 (2004): pp. 41–59.
[39] Holladay, ‘Competition’, p. 49.
[40] Windler and Wild, ‘Siedlungsentwicklung’, p. 39; Drack, ‘Baugeschichte’, pp. 38–51; Schmaedecke, Kirche, p. 19. Unfortunately, the total obliteration of Winterthur’s medieval wall paintings prevents any comparison between the two church’s interior decoration. See Carola Jäggi, Hans-Rudolf Meier et al, Die Stadtkirche St. Laurentius in Winterthur: Ergebnisse der archäologischen und historischen Forschungen (Zurich: Fotorotar AG, 1993), pp. 110–1.
[41] Schmaedecke, Kirche, p. 148.
[42] Kläui, Geschichte, pp. 29–30; Schmaedecke, Kirche, p. 161; Niederhäuser, Kirchengeschichten, p. 19.
[43] Knoepfli, ‘Bilderpredigt’, p. 85; cf. Dejung and Zürcher, Kunstdenkmäler, p. 289; Schmaedecke, Kirche, pp. 161–3; Niederhäuser, Kirchengeschichten, p. 12.
[44] Medard Barth, Der Heilige Florentius, Bischof von Strassburg (Strasbourg-Paris: F.-X. Le Roux, 1952), especially pp. 5–35.
[45] See Barth, Florentius, pp. 285–6.
[46] Knoepfli, ‘Bilderpredigt’, p. 85; Niederhäuser, Kirchengeschichten, p. 12.
[47] See Kläui, Geschichte, pp. 29–30; Schmaedecke, Die reformierte Kirche, pp. 157–8. The inscription on the bell read ‘O REX GLORIE CHRISTE CUM PACE / S. ARBOGAST ORA PRO NOBIS’.
[48] SL, folio 104r.
[49] SL, folio 107v.
[50] Michelle E. Garceau, ‘“I Call the People”: Church Bells in Fourteenth-Century Catalunya’, Journal of Medieval History 37 (2011): pp. 197–214.