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Oberammergau is not only famous in the whole world for its wood carving tradition and tromp d'oeil paintings but especially for its Passion Play, which is performed every 10 years and tracks back to a 365 years history. If Oberammergau would not have the reputation it has, it could have been one of the most quiet places among numerous others in the Alps. But its tradition made it that well-known. This tradition does apply to handicraft, to history up to the legends and stories of the village. Beside the Passion Play the two main topics, which are contributing to the reputation of Oberammergau are thus the it´s roll regarding the history of wood carving and the "Lüftlmalerei" (house wall painting), which are omnipresent everywhere in the town.

The roots of Oberammergau's wood carvings go back to the middle ages. A manuscript dated to the year 1111 first mentioned a Rottenbucher monks who brought "…the Ammergau art of carving small household goods out of wood..." to the area of Berchtesgaden. The carving of religious figures most probably has its origins in the pilgrimage to Ettal .In his travel report dated 1520, a Florentine traveller praises the fineness of the Oberammergau carvings. In 1563, the Ammergau carvers even received a Handicrafts Code of their own from the Abbot of Ettal.

oberammergau woodcarving

oberammergau woodcarving

Although the carvings were sold mostly locally at that time, many distributing houses were set up in the 18th century with branches all over Europe. From these distributing houses, travelling salesmen, the so-called "Kraxenträger", took over selling the goods from doorstep to doorstep.

Today there are about 120 wood sculptors in Oberammergau, actively carving and selling a large variety of wooden artefacts, from figures of saints to household goods. Furthermore, a Carvers School in town offers courses providing specialist training for wood carvers.

Wall Painting
The other famous aspect of Oberammergau is the "Lüftlmalerei" (house wall painting). The "Lüftlmalerei" is a handicraft method of wall-painting originally applied for decorating the baroque facades in Italy and Southern Germany. It was only in the 18th century that this method began to become popular in the foothill region of the Alps, where wealthy traders, peasants and craftsmen displayed their wealth by means of opulently painted facades.
oberammergau wall painting

The subjects of the paintings are mostly of a religious character, particularly involving figures of saints as well as manifold scenes all around the Passion Play theme in Oberammergau.
The painting technique is the so-called fresco technique, i.e. the water colours of a mineral basis are applied to wet freshly laid plaster. As the colours dry, they become a fixed layer of colour, insoluble to water. The necessity to work quickly in the fresh air (Luft), led to the belief that the term "Lüftlmalerei" is somehow connected to this particular method of painting.
More convincing, however, is the story going back to Franz Seraph Zwinck (1748-1792), probably the most well-known craftsman of his guild.

The story goes that he lived in a house called "Zum Lüftl" in Oberammergau (such house names can still be found here rather often) and because of his profession, was called "the Lüftlmaler" (the "Lüftl" painter). The name of the whole guild most probably developed from this name during the 19th century.

The said Franz Seraph Zwinck decorated a great many beautiful facades in Oberammergau and its area. The most prominent of them would be the "Forsthaus", the "Mußldomahaus" and, last but not least, the "Pilatushaus" with its ornate architectural fantasies. Also two very nice houses are located right at the entrance of Oberammergau, the "Hänsel- and Gretelhaus".

oberammergau city center
Passion Play

The Passion Play, the Play of Life and Death, not only of Jesus, promised in a moment of mortal threat - so began the history of the Oberammergau Passion Play in 1633. In the middle of the Thirty Years War, after months of suffering and death from the plague, the Oberammergauers swore an oath that they would perform the "Play of the Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ" every ten years.
oberammergau passion play
At Pentecost 1634, they fulfilled their pledge for the first time on a stage they put up in the cemetery above the fresh graves of the plague victims. In the year 2000, the Community of Oberammergau had performed the play for the 40th time they have preserved throughout the centuries with singular continuity - often against resistance. Passion plays - performed throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, then banned from the cities in the 16th century - were, after experiencing a heyday in Baroque-Catholic Southern Germany, forbidden there as well in the middle of the 18th century in the wake of the age of enlightenment. Oberammergau alone kept the tradition alive.

Was it a sense of obligation to the pledge? Or was it the theological support of the nearby Ettal and Rottenbuch Monasteries that made the difference? In any event, the people succeeded in acquiring a privilege from the lord elector and thus rescued the fascinating undertaking of depicting the Passion of Jesus on the stage into the 19th century.

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