Chur : the Cathedral
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Chur is dominated physically and spiritually by its huge cathedral, constructed between 1151 and 1272 in late-Romanesque and Gothic styles. Still hived off from the workaday town by a thick gated wall, which reflects the bitterness of the disputes between bishop-princes and local population which flared around the Reformation, the cathedral is the focus of the Hof, a complex of eighteenth-century buildings in the heart of the city protecting Chur’s religious elite from contact with the mob. Today, from his palace beside the cathedral, the Bishop of Chur still controls a diocese covering Graubünden, all the central Swiss cantons and Zürich, and students flock to the adjacent St Luzi theological seminary to train for the priesthood. In 1997, responding to years of rancour sparked by ultra-conservative bishop Wolfgang Haas, the Vatican decreed the splitting away of Liechtenstein from the ancient Diocese of Chur; Haas was transferred to Vaduz, and Chur was finally granted a more moderate bishop who could set about reuniting the diocese.

The atmospheric interior of the cathedral (daily 8am–7pm) is huge and gloomy, with Romanesque capitals above the massive columns showing grotesque creatures and gargoyle-like demons. To the left of the main nave is a blank space where once stood the altar of St Laurentius: thieves broke into the cathedral through the crypt a few years back and looted both the altar and its paintings. The altar was destroyed, but the paintings were later recovered and are now under restoration. Looking back from the choir steps, it becomes apparent that the ground plan of the church is asymmetrical: the nave is out of alignment with the choir. Many stories are put about as to why this should be, the most fanciful of which is that, from the perspective of the choir, the nave is tilted to the right, to match the tilt of Christ’s drooping head on the cross. What’s more likely is that the twelfth-century architects, following the ground plan of previous buildings, were restricted by the bedrock, which peeps through at the base of the northern and northeastern walls. High up opposite the Baroque pulpit is a tiny gallery – this is one end of a “secret” passage from the bishop’s palace next door, allowing the bishop to enter the House of God at a suitably lofty altitude and without soiling his shoes on the courtyard outside. The elaborate winged high altar, carved in 1486–92 by Jakob Russ, is well worth a close look, although these days it’s kept locked and protected by alarms: you might want to wait for one of the many tour groups and tag along behind as they’re led into the choir. The intricate depiction of the crucifixion, with Christ stumbling under the weight of the cross, rises from the floor to a mere 5cm below the ceiling – evidence that it was carved in situ. The artist thoughtfully incorporated a tiny, whimsical self-portrait into a crescent moon just behind the crucifix at eyelevel, and also devoted much attention to the unseen rear of the altarpiece, covering it with detailed portraits. Below the choir, the crypt holds four carved stone figures of the Apostles dating from around 1200.

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