One’s political zeal, another’s lavish table: The Jost-Sigristen House Museum

One day last week, the Head of the Ernen Tourist Office, Irene Clausen, kindly took me on a special tour of the handsome Jost-Sigristen House Museum, a house that proudly stands smack in the middle of Ernen.

Martin Jost, the honored «Meier and Banner Lord» of the large communities («Zenden») in Goms, built the residence in 1581, just outside the central «Hengert» square. Jost was the second-most important man in Ernen at the time, surpassed only by Governor Matthäus Schiner. He held the so-called «Meieramt» of Goms in the years 1580, 1584 and 1609, and in 1591/92, resided as bailiff in Monthey, some 120 km to the West. His political zeal led him to a daring gamble in 1615, however, one which ultimately determined his fate. Against the will of the district administrator, he formed an alliance among the Goms, Morel, and Brig communities on the one hand, and Milan on the other. As a result, the passports of those Zenden were closed to the French. Having been the idea’s initiator, Jost paid for his venture with the loss of all honorary office, imprisonment, and finally, his life. Whether he was executed point-blank or died a natural death in prison has never been definitely established.

The squared timber block home that he erected in Ernen, though, still stands on its generously-proportioned cellar. As early as 1598, Jost enlarged the house with a brick extension on the eastern side. In 1772, during the Rococo period, the interior of the house also underwent a major renovation to reflect the taste of another owner: Jakob Valentin Sigristen (1733-1808), the last governor of the old Republic of Valais before the invasion of the French. Most of the paneled rooms and marvelous coffered ceilings of that later period have been carefully preserved.

Today, the first floor houses a museum that focuses on the culture of everyday life and entertaining of that last eminent resident, who died in 1808. I marveled at the almost puritanical lines of the dining room, whose decorative wall paintings must have been the backdrop to gracious entertaining, and, by contrast, the blackened walls and greasy surfaces of what once was a functional kitchen. In the dining room, a life-sized figure, fruits, and tableware are assembled to make you feel like you’ve interrupted a lavish meal: braised meats, fish and eel dishes, and a wide variety of vegetables were apt to be on the menu. Desserts in the house apparently featured southern and exotic fruits: nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, almonds and lemons. It’s not surprising that Bishop Josef Anton Blatter, visiting in late June, 1795, said that during his travels through the Wallis, he had had «the most elegant bedding in Oberwald, but the most magnificent meal in Ernen at Governor Sigristen’s.»  

For me, the most intriguing place in the house was the large and stately office of the notary public, owing primarily to the marvelous paintings on its coffered ceiling. An attribution to the «Fiesch School of Painting» offers no specific painter’s name, but whoever the artist was fashioned some 20 somber, grisaille vignettes to include a whole community of allegorical figures, tributes to charitable acts, and bucolic landscapes. Whether shepherdess, weary old woman, angler, or vagabond, the cross-section of 18th century figures and costumes are utterly fascinating.

Ernen, Friday, 3 August 2018, by Sarah Batschelet

The Jost-Sigristen Museum is open on Wednesdays and Sundays from the middle of June through the end of October, 17.00 to 18.00h. Entrance is free.  

Photos of the costumed celebration inside the museum are by Chistian Pfammatter, © Landschaftspark Binntal.