Paintings on the walls of the mistail of St Peter, founded close to 800 AD, have been done and re-done over a period of time. Even the most recent date back to the 14th century.
Filisur is not a place that many are likely to have ordinarily heard about, even in Switzerland. But that little village, with a population of no more than 500 persons, is where dear friends of our family — Dorothee and Melchior Zumbach (Doro and Melk to us) — have recently bought their ‘retreat in the mountains’, and that is where we headed a few days back, to spend a quiet weekend.
The area, like much of the canton of Graubuenden, is mountainous, breathtakingly beautiful: vast green slopes, even greener pine forests, snow on peaks so close that one can almost touch it; limpid streams. And, of course, traditional little homes that once housed peasants and herders and workmen. There are no spectacular structures in the village, no great historic monuments even though nearly every second home proudly bears a date that goes back to the late 1500s or early 1600s. Not much traffic passes through the village; a quiet life is what one can lead here.
But we were not prepared for the level of quietness —`A0quietude is perhaps the right word —`A0we were to experience just the morning after we arrived. There is a little church close by that I am very fond of, Doro told us, and asked if we would like to see it. We drove up a few miles, and parked in an area reserved for visitors, for no vehicles were permitted to go right up to the church. It had begun to rain a bit but we began to walk through the forested area: a short but idyllic 15-minute walk along a path strewn with moist, fragrant pine needles.
One short turn at the end, and it swung into view, the church: in the midst of a small, emerald green meadow, a tall bell tower, all undressed stone; attached to it a relatively small, equally rough structure with a high ceiling and a gabled roof; and three semi-circular apses visible from the outside. There was nobody around, not a soul. Through a not very large door we softly entered, voices dropping as if so commended by the surroundings. It was a bit dark inside, but only a bit, light filtering through the three windows placed very high up on one wall, close to the ceiling. On either side of the short aisle, there were four rows of benches for the faithful to sit on, at this time all unoccupied. At the further end, in the apses, were three altars, not especially tall; atop one of them a lone
We began to look around and up, managing to speak only in whispers. As the eyes got used to the level of light inside, the walls began to reveal, slowly, what was on them: remains of paintings, some in the form of faint traces, others more discernible. A frieze with three panels stood on the wall to the north by the side of which was an enormously tall painted figure — St Christopher carrying the child Christ — some seven metres in height; in the vault-like space above the central apse was the figure of Christ in all his Majesty, surrounded by a rough circle in which, we were able to make out even from way below, were painted figures of the four Evangelists and their symbols: St Luke and the ox; St Matthew and the winged angel; St John and the eagle, and St Mark and the Lion. Below that, on either side of the window high up, were the 12 apostles, beginning with Peter carrying a key on the left, and on the right Paul wielding a sword. They seemed all to be looking down, eyes painted as if to drop and rest on the faithful. This is how they must have stood for close to 1000 years, we were able to sense.
But nothing rushed you here; things did not come at you from all directions. There were whole walls empty of images, large blank spaces. All you could see was rough-hewn surfaces. There was no sound except that of our softly shuffling feet; we did not even hear the lady — presumably the sexton’s wife — who entered, while we were there, to leave freshly cut flowers on a bench for placing them, later, in front of an image.
The light was gentle, and it was all quiet, very quiet. The silence in the place was not mere absence of noise or of sound: it was palpable, had a velvety texture. This, I thought, must have been a place — for priest or laity — to sit or kneel in silence, surrounded by sacred presences.
It was deeply affecting, the serenity of the place. We left after a while. I took some photographs; outside there were a few graves marked with names carved on rough-hewn stones; remains of an ancient looking surrounding wall lay around. When we began walking back, I asked a few questions, and we shared thoughts.
Doro said how fond she had grown of the place. We spoke of the erosion of faith that has taken place everywhere: a gap in our minds and hearts filled only by faith in money perhaps.
Talking, I learnt a little about the place: named the mistail of St Peter – the word mistail (pronounced as ‘miss-tyle’) derived from a Latin word, meaning a monastery — it was founded close to 800 AD, and went back to the days of the great Carolingian empire; there was a nunnery here that was ‘dissolved’ in the 12th century; the place steadily declined mostly due to political reasons; the paintings on the walls were done and re-done over a period of time, but even the most recent went back to the 14th century.
But, with all the ups and downs of history, the place continued to retain its sacred status. It is still seen as a place of pilgrimage, I was told.`A0But this came as no surprise, for there is something about the place that is not easy to erase from the mind. We had all been affected by it, each in his or her own way. My bright little grandson, Madhav, communicates in ways different from yours and mine. No one had told him where we were, but all of us noticed that almost as soon as he went into the church, he quietly brought his little hands together, as if in prayer, and uttered just one word: “Jai”. I found that very moving.