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A treasure in Niederernen, and insights from Binn

«Pray to St. Anthony!» Not being Catholic myself, it was thanks to dear Mrs. Simonato, the Italian woman who helped us with the children when I went back to work, that I knew the appeal. If a homework assignment was missing, if a book had been misplaced, she called on St. Anthony’s graces to find it. And imagine; here, in nearby Niederernen, was a little pilgrimage chapel that carried his name and made a wholly inviting impression. I just had to visit it.

The front door of the stately little Chapel of St. Anthony (Kapelle des Heiligen Antonius), which dates to about 1680, is all but flush to the road today, but the structure’s stark white siding, rectangular nave and crimped choir extend an invitation to travelers going in either direction – up or down the hill. The front door is a more recent addition; for the sake of preservation, the elaborately carved original door has given a new home on the second floor of the Zendenrathaus, Ernen’s imposing Town Hall farther up the road.

The chapel’s interior is of intimate proportions; its rows of simple wooden pews might seat some 60 or 70 parishioners. When entering the chapel, one’s eye is drawn to the gold gilt of the decorative high altar, attributed to Anton Sigristen—a sculptor from Brig who lived until 1745—and Moritz Bodmer (1618–ca. 1711). Holding the Christ child, the gold-clad Madonna appears between Saint Anthony and Saint Sebastian, the saint believed to have been martyred during the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Diocletian. The altar’s narrow upper register carries a representation of the Holy Family on its way to Jerusalem and is surmounted by a figure of God the Father.

Just as impressive are the chapel’s ceiling paintings, whether centered, and directly overheard, or in flanking ovals. They date from the last quarter of the 18th century and depict challenges and physical conditions which one’s faith in Saint Anthony can help overcome. «Limbs,» for example, depicts a man forced to deal with his severed foot; «Great danger» shows a man pointing his cane at an unsuspecting woman’s abdomen. But help is likely on the way—isn’t that Antonius looking suspiciously over her shoulder?

By virtue of my exploring the chapel for this blog, I was introduced to the eminent cultural historian and ethnologist, Dr. Klaus Anderegg, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the pilgrimage chapels and ex-voto images indigenous to select parts of the Valais. When he graciously welcomed me at his home in the center of Binn to discuss the St. Antonius chapel, we spoke first about his initiative as co-founder and past president of the «Landschaftspark Binntal,» a landmark institution responsible for the sustainable development of the regional park. Today, the park’s highly commendable information dissemination and programming are working to insure the preservation of a vital national asset.

But we also spoke about what life was like in Binn in the winter, when many the tourists—of which, admittedly, I was one—had gone home. We spoke about fine photography, a passion he has cultivated with great sensitivity over many years. Further, he showed me the nooks and crannies of his magical home, an eclectic mix of scholarly library, quirky corners, work in progress, stellar panoramic views, and serious artistic presence. That said, visiting him was a unique privilege. Nothing «lost» there, but Saint Anthony might be glad that I «found» such a remarkable resource!

Ernen, Thursday, 26 July 2018, by Sarah Batschelet

According to information posted on the door, the summer services in the St. Antonius chapel in Niederernen are slated for 6 p.m. on Monday: 13 August, 18, and 25 September. In the interim, the chapel is open to visitors anytime.