The altars of Johann Ritz by JOHN A. STEEL IN the far south of Switzerland next land next to Italy there lies the wild mountainous Canton of the Valais with its great 14,000 feet peaks and magnificent valleys, whose inhabitants have aways remained true to the Catholic faith. Although not renowned for its artistic treasures, it is not generally known that it contains some of the most beautiful examples of Baroque art in the country.
This is largely due to the universal use of timber throughout the Canton in the latter part of the 17th century. Houses, farms, granaries, interior fittings and even household utensils and farm implements were all made of wood.
The sculptors who dominated the visual arts during the Baroque period worked almost exclusively with wood. As they
were very devout it was natural that they produced hundreds of altars, adorning them with the figures of saints, cherubs, angel heads, set off by a profusion of vines, acanthus and other decorative effects.
Foremost among the Baroque artists who contributed to an upsurge of creative art in the Valais was undoubtedly Johann Ritz. His output was prodigious and so great was his local renown that Baroque altars were popularly known as "Ritz altars."
Johann Ritz was born in Selkingen on November 6, 1666 and died in 1729. His family were simple peasants and of the eight children born to him by his wife Maria Jost, only one. Jodok, followed in his father's footsteps.
Cesar Ritz the world famous hotel king issued from a branch of the family at Niederwald. Where and under whom Ritz
studied wood-carving is not known. but he probably did so locally for his art betrays local influence both in its technique and iconography. Ritz's first important achievement was the altar in the Mortuary Chapel at Biel. His second creative period led him to Burchen and Unterbach near Raron where he built several altars between 1694 and 1697.
In 1702 he was commissioned to build the high altar in the Sedrun Parish Church, his first engagement beyond the confines of the Valais. There followed sumptuous altars at Tschamutt, Disentis, Vrin, Surrhein and Andermatt.
Meanwhile, he also worked at various places in the Rhone Valley and, between 1716 and 1720, in the Visp Valley, at Tasch, Graeber). Zermatt and Torbel, where his altars are familiar to visitors from this country.
After 1720 his working life was spent largely outside the Valais, at Sedrun, Igels, Stens and Pleif, where the superb high altar in the Parish Church (1724) was his last authenticated major achievement.
Ritz was naturally not responsible for every detail of these many altars with their multitude of figures and ornaments.
Ritz's early work consisted of single-tier altars reminiscent of Late Gothic shrines. Their
four twisted Corinthian columns, entwined by foliage and set on a stylobate. form three recesses crowned by an entablature with cornice, the centre often being heightened by a medallion.
Examples of this type of altar are to be found in the St. Anthony chapel in Munster or in the Wandfluh below Burchen; the later altars are mostly double-tier and occasionally treble-tier.
Each alterpiece is always dominated by a statue or a painting according to the patron's wishes. Particularly noticeable are the figures which have the following characteristics, slightly crooked faces— the nose being particularly so —with eyelids sunken at the outer extremities giving an impression of gentle sadness and beautifully arranged hair. Whilst hands and feet are treated quite realistically, anatomical exactitude is dispensed with in so far as the rest of the figure is concerned.
Ritz's strength lies in his rich ornamentation and lively treatment of drapery. Botanical detail is prominent in his early decorative effects—pomegrane ates, roses, vine foliage, laurel, etc.
Later these are almost entirely replaced by acanthus motifs of great complexity. These entwine twisted Corinthian columns, cover pedestal fronts, figure as rosettes in friezes and frame cartouches and medallions; they also take the form of scrolls or flow in elongated waves.
With their elasticity and the fire of their gilt, the acanthus leaves resemble flames licking the altar and its figures. A delicate touch is added here and there in the form of acanthus sprays lightly set on pillars or drapery. This is Ritz at his most brilliant.
His work may be classified as a late flowering of the Mannerism prevalent in Italy a century earlier, for his art grew in a district isolated by mountains. This belated manifestation of a style is typical of mountainous regions and other remote areas.
Ritz however was not unaffected by contemporary developments. The general design of his altars. while its basic conception remained unchanged, showed decided Baroque influence in grouping and co-ordination.
His figures became increasingly free in posture and movement, and the graceful fall of their draperies was far removed from the unnatural stiffness found in Late Gothic examples. He never quite attained the complete freedom of movement and the true Baroque touch associated with his contemporaries north of the Alps.
Even in the Valais there were artists far more Baroque in spirit than he. Nor could Ritz's work lay claim to great originality. Nevertheless, it constituted an outstanding artistic achievement both in its range and quality. In the lovely villages of the Valais it was to serve as a model for generations to come.