Chapter 6: Prince Wilhelm's Chapel

In 1591 an envoy from the court of Mantua visited the Munich Residence, the ancestral home of the Wittelsbach rulers of Bavaria.  While he was there he recorded seeing a chapel which he thought must be the finest in the world.  He was struck by the quality and quantity of the precious jewels and metals on display, but what impressed him most of all was the stupendous ‘artificio’, which he declared to be worth ‘more than all the rest’.  He was referring to the extraordinary scagliola panelling which covered the walls, supplied by Blasius Pfeiffer (a.k.a. Fistulator) at the request of Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria (r.1579 – ab.1597). This is the earliest documented use of scagliola on a grand scale.

Duke Wilhelm’s Chapel, known also as the Private Court Chapel (Geheime Hofkapelle) or simply the Rich Chapel (Reiche Kapelle), was built between  1586 and 1591 in the outer fortifications of the Neuveste, one of the oldest parts of the Residence.  The intensely religious ruler wanted a private area where he and his wife could pray and receive Mass; but in addition he needed a suitable setting in which he could show off the dynasty’s priceless and ever-expanding collection of holy relics, one of the largest in Europe.  As well as providing him with a spiritual sanctuary, the chapel was to serve Duke Wilhelm as an expression of his exclusivity, his prestige and his wealth. 

The Duke’s advisers may well have warned him that he was taking a risk with his royal dignity.  This was an age in which princely representation (the architectural, cultural and ceremonial attributes through which a ruler projected power) was becoming almost synonymous with the right to govern itself.  In the second half of the sixteenth century coloured marble had taken on ‘representational’ status due to its association with imperial Rome.  Like bronze, it was considered a noble material, and to counterfeit it with this ‘artificio’ – a mixture of common plaster and pigments – was to invite the ridicule of rulers who could access the real thing.

The gamble paid off.  Contemporaries greeted Blasius Pfeiffer’s invention with admiration and astonishment; all agreed that it was a material eminently fit for royalty.  News spread quickly and before long Wilhelm was receiving requests from other rulers who wanted information on the new material and the loan of a specialist who could supply it. Would-be clients included Elector Christian I of Saxony and Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua, both of whom were  successful; and the Habsburg Archdukes Matthias (later crowned Holy Roman Emperor) and Maximilian III,  who were not.  

No detailed description of the scagliola in Prince Wilhelm’s Chapel has survived.  The area was abandoned in the early 1600s when his son, Duke Maximilian I (r. 1597-1651) had all the treasures moved to his own private chapel above the newly-built Grotto Courtyard (Grottenhof). The walls of the new chapel were once again lined with scagliola panels by Blasius Pfeiffer, with later pictorial additions by his son Wilhelm.  The second Reiche Kapelle exists to this day (although, like the Munich Residence itself, mostly as a meticulous post 2nd World War re-construction).  The work has a pre-eminent place in the early history of scagliola.

There is a strong probability that the original panels from Wilhelm’s chapel were transferred to his son’s at the same time as the relics and other religious artefacts.  Maximilian I was notoriously penny-pinching, and as late as 1601 was complaining about having to settle outstanding debts on his father’s chapel.  It seems unlikely that he would have abandoned such valuable and prestigious furnishings in a forgotten part of the Residence if there was a chance they could be used more prominently elsewhere.  The Reiche Kapelle that exists today may therefore give us a good idea of the earlier chapel’s appearance. 

References: Dorothea Diemer, Hubert Gerhard und Carlo di Cesare del Palagio, Bronzeplastiker der Spätrenaissance – Berlin 2004.  Vol. I pp. 113-117.  The existence of Prince Wilhelm’s chapel, conclusively established by Dr. Diemer’s analysis of the contemporary documents, was unknown prior to the publication of her book.  Much of the information in this and the following two sections comes from the same source.

The Reiche Kapelle, Munich Residence.
(Scagliola wall panelling with inlaid marble floor).*

Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria
(r. 1579 – ab. 1597)
by Hans von Aachen
(Wikimedia Commons)

The Reiche Kapelle, Munich Residence-  Detail.

* © Bayerische Schlösserverwaltung, www.schloesser.bayern.de
Photos by Richard Feroze,

Chapter 6: Prince Wilhelm's Chapel

In 1591 an envoy from the court of Mantua visited the Munich Residence, the ancestral home of the Wittelsbach rulers of Bavaria.  While he was there he recorded seeing a chapel which he thought must be the finest in the world.  He was struck by the quality and quantity of the precious jewels and metals on display, but what impressed him most of all was the stupendous ‘artificio’, which he declared to be worth ‘more than all the rest’.  He was referring to the extraordinary scagliola panelling which covered the walls, supplied by Blasius Pfeiffer (a.k.a. Fistulator) at the request of Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria (r.1579 – ab.1597). This is the earliest documented use of scagliola on a grand scale.

The Reiche Kapelle, Munich Residence.
(Scagliola wall panelling with inlaid marble floor).*

Duke Wilhelm’s Chapel, known also as the Private Court Chapel (Geheime Hofkapelle) or simply the Rich Chapel (Reiche Kapelle), was built between  1586 and 1591 in the outer fortifications of the Neuveste, one of the oldest parts of the Residence.  The intensely religious ruler wanted a private area where he and his wife could pray and receive Mass; but in addition he needed a suitable setting in which he could show off the dynasty’s priceless and ever-expanding collection of holy relics, one of the largest in Europe.  As well as providing him with a spiritual sanctuary, the chapel was to serve Duke Wilhelm as an expression of his exclusivity, his prestige and his wealth.

Reliquary wall cabinet with engraved glass panels.  (Design by Friedrich Sustris c. 1590).*

The Duke’s advisers may well have warned him that he was taking a risk with his royal dignity.  This was an age in which princely representation (the architectural, cultural and ceremonial attributes through which a ruler projected power) was becoming almost synonymous with the right to govern itself.  In the second half of the sixteenth century coloured marble had taken on ‘representational’ status due to its association with imperial Rome.  Like bronze, it was considered a noble material, and to counterfeit it with this ‘artificio’ – a mixture of common plaster and pigments – was to invite the ridicule of rulers who could access the real thing.  

Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria
(r. 1579 – ab. 1597)
by Hans von Aachen
(Wikimedia Commons).

The gamble paid off.  Contemporaries greeted Blasius Pfeiffer’s invention with admiration and astonishment; all agreed that it was a material eminently fit for royalty.  News spread quickly and before long Wilhelm was receiving requests from other rulers who wanted information on the new material and the loan of a specialist who could supply it. Would-be clients included Elector Christian I of Saxony and Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua, both of whom were  successful; and the Habsburg Archdukes Matthias (later crowned Holy Roman Emperor) and Maximilian III,  who were not.  

No detailed description of the scagliola in Prince Wilhelm’s Chapel has survived.  The area was abandoned in the early 1600s when his son, Duke Maximilian I (r. 1597-1651) had all the treasures moved to his own private chapel above the newly-built Grotto Courtyard (Grottenhof). The walls of the new chapel were once again lined with scagliola panels by Blasius Pfeiffer, with later pictorial additions by his son Wilhelm.  The second Reiche Kapelle exists to this day (although, like the Munich Residence itself, mostly as a meticulous post 2nd World War re-construction).  The work has a pre-eminent place in the early history of scagliola.

The Reiche Kapelle, Munich Residence –  detail.*

There is a strong probability that the original panels from Wilhelm’s chapel were transferred to his son’s at the same time as the relics and other religious artefacts.  Maximilian I was notoriously penny-pinching, and as late as 1601 was complaining about having to settle outstanding debts on his father’s chapel.  It seems unlikely that he would have abandoned such valuable and prestigious furnishings in a forgotten part of the Residence if there was a chance they could be used more prominently elsewhere.  The Reiche Kapelle that exists today may therefore give us a good idea of the earlier chapel’s appearance.

* © Bayerische Schlösserverwaltung, www.schloesser.bayern.de
Photos by Richard Feroze,

References: Dorothea Diemer, Hubert Gerhard und Carlo di Cesare del Palagio, Bronzeplastiker der Spätrenaissance – Berlin 2004.  Vol. I pp. 113-117.  The existence of Prince Wilhelm’s chapel, conclusively established by Dr. Diemer’s analysis of the contemporary documents, was unknown prior to the publication of her book.  Much of the information in this and the following two sections comes from the same source.