Zug, 17.03.2023

Paintings, relics and holy figures

The mobile cultural assets of the Maria Opferung Convent are being donated to the Museum Burg Zug (Zug Castle Museum). A mammoth task for project manager Marco Sigg and his team. But the effort is worth it all along the line, as it turns out.

It’s a fate that many smaller religious communities will have to come to terms with sooner or later: the often outdated community is shrinking, there is a lack of young people, and monastic life is gradually disappearing from the buildings. The Maria Opferung convent (Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary) in Zug, where Capuchin nuns have been active since the late Middle Ages, is no different.

The Maria Opferung Convent Association was founded ten years ago. Its purpose was to ensure that the remaining sisters could lead a dignified monastic life on site for the rest of their lives. Sister Anna Nerlich, the last mother superior (Frau Mutter) of the Maria Opferung convent, passed away in 2019, whereupon the establishment was gradually dissolved. Only one religious sister was eventually left.

A new spiritual use
The Maria Opferung Monastery Association then decided to renovate the monastery buildings and make them available for a new spiritual use. In the summer of 2021, the Anima Una association thereby became the new sole tenant of the former convent, and was henceforth responsible for the maintenance of the entire property. The association, which, for the time being, is dedicated to the new evangelisation of youth, had already rented an office in the former Zug convent since September 2018.

In order for Anima Una to be able to use all of the rooms for its purposes, all of the mobile cultural assets from the convent had to be cleared out. But the Maria Opferung Association wanted to ensure that the cultural assets were not scattered to the four winds or carelessly disposed of, but that they would remain in the canton of Zug. In the spring of 2020, the association approached the State Archives and the Museum Burg Zug, and proposed a donation.

"This came as a great surprise to us," says Marco Sigg, then director of the Museum Burg Zug, who was responsible for the inspection and inventory of the convent properties. "After an initial on-site inspection, it quickly became clear that this was a unique opportunity for everyone involved," he recalls.

Thousands of objects and individual parts
After further clarification of the feasibility of the takeover and its financing, the major project was given the green light: within two years, the entire inventory is to be processed, and the art objects that are significant for the Canton of Zug in various respects are to be sorted out. Marco Sigg has taken over the management of the project after passing on his directorship at the end of 2021. "This came at the right time for me," he told this newspaper at the time. "It allows me to be a practising historian again."

A lot of work for project manager Marco Sigg and his team - collection curator Alexandra Hutter and art historian Anna Tomczak.            
Rich furnishings from several stylistic eras are part of the collection from the former Zug convent
Among the sacred paintings are some particularly valuable ones. For example, works by Deschwanden, Brandenberg or Speck   
A testimony to improper handling of valuable cultural assets: these two possibly important baroque figures have been covered from head to toe with a modern gold paint.        
Paraments - both older and modern, more or less elaborately crafted - tell the story of the monastery
What should be taken over and what not? All objects have been photographed to make the selection easier                 Photos Mathias Blattmann

A donation - that sounds like a comfortable act at first, but in this case it involves an enormous amount of work. Marco Sigg: "Only in the course of a more detailed inspection did it become clear how extensive the entire collection really is. In the end, it consists of 20,000 to 25,000 registration units that have to be listed, sorted and - where indicated - assigned to each other." All in all, it is a huge treasure with great potential in terms of cultural significance for the city and canton of Zug.

Objects that (continue to) write history
For the time being, financing for the ambitious project has been secured from the lottery fund and with a contribution from the city of Zug. If everything goes according to plan, it should be completed by the end of 2023. "A sporting goal," says Marco Sigg in view of the unexpectedly large size of the inventory.

He explains that the museum would never be able to take over every single piece - for reasons of space alone - but that, in an elaborate process, they sorted out around 1,000 objects worth preserving, which are either significant for the region, provide information about the history of the convent and everyday life there, or at best can even continue to write the history of art in Zug.

In the latter category, Marco Sigg and his team came across some promising trouvailles. For example, precious paintings and figures that could be previously unknown works by important Zug artists and master craftsmen. Paintings from the Brandenberg family are among them, or those of the Menteler and Speck families. They possibly represent a piece of the puzzle in the work of the respective artists and may thereby prove to be interesting research objects.

Among other things, the former altar pieces of the convent church from the hand of Melchior Paul von Deschwanden have been preserved. These impressive examples of Nazarene painting had been stored in the attic of the convent since the reorganisation in the 1960s and - like many other precious objects - have shown clear signs of suboptimal storage.

"Take care of historical cultural assets"
At this point, Marco Sigg expresses his astonishment that some monastic communities and many parishes are not infrequently somewhat careless with their valuable holdings.

He points to two excellently crafted Baroque figures of saints that may have come from the Wickart workshop. They have been lovelessly painted over from head to toe by a more recent hand with an obviously cheap, commercially available gold paint. “This is, in fact, tantamount to a total loss," Marco Sigg remarks. "My urgent message to all parishes and convents is to take care of such historical cultural assets, and to seek professional advice - for example in a museum”.

Some things have purely sentimental value
Work is currently being done in the depots on the Hofstrasse and in a specially equipped workroom in the former Zug Cantonal Hospital. In addition to paintings from several centuries, all kinds of furniture and devotional objects, such as prayer utensils and a large number of relics or holy figures from several epochs, there are numerous paraments (cloth or tapestry hangings used to adorn the space for worship) and other liturgical vestments. Complete religious costumes and entire table sets with tableware and cutlery have also made it into the selection.

"Some of it has no art-historical or noteworthy monetary value," says the project manager. "The significance of these objects lies primarily in their function as witnesses to an important institution in the cantonal and urban history of Zug. They provide insights into monastic life, salvation history, arts and crafts, and help to reconstruct the unique history of the Maria Opferung convent."

At the moment, some things are still waiting to be restored. Crumbling gold leaf on precious frames is being fixed, several objects have to be freed from worm infestation, some paintings have developed mould  - there’s still a lot to do. "The sheer volume and the time pressure are demanding," says Marco Sigg, but one senses that the historian is completely in his element with this project.

Making it accessible to the public
There are no concrete plans yet as to what will happen to the collection once it has been neatly sorted and professionally stored in the museum depot in the Chollermühle. But one thing is already clear to Marco Sigg: the public should be able to see this collection. Be it in the form of an online archive or in the context of exhibitions.

The conclusion of the passionate historian is and remains: "The possibility of preserving the mobile cultural assets of the Maria Opferung convent and making them accessible to future generations is a real stroke of luck. Both for the history of the monastery and for that of the city and canton."