St. Mary Magdalene Parish Church in Versciaco/Vierschach

St. Mary Magdalene Parish Church sits atop an archaeologically fascinating hill in Versciaco/Vierschach and is one of the most enchanting locations of its kind in South Tyrol.

Although Versciaco/Vierschach only became an independent parish in 1891 – until 1684 it formed part of the parish of Sillian and later that of Prato Drava/Winnebach, becoming a slightly more independent chapel of ease in 1786 –, it was consecrated as early as in 1212. Of this early church, only the bottom part of the walls forming the nave remains today: It appears to have been a rectangular hall with a small apsis in the east and a flat wooden ceiling. The remnants of Early Gothic frescoes from around 1300 show St. Ursula and her companions. It is quite possible that the church was originally dedicated to this noblewoman and martyr, since the majority of saints venerated up until the Late Middle Ages were of princely or at least noble descent. With the passing of time, St. Mary Magdalene, the secondary patron saint of the church, presumably replaced her "rival". She was much venerated among the population, and every year processions from the neighbouring villages make their way to Versciaco/Vierschach on her feast day, 22 July – three processions per year from San Candido/Innichen alone.
It was around 1470 that local architect Andrä Firtaler began to convert the structure into a Gothic church, raising the the nave and the apsis, adding a Gothic ribbed vault alongside long, narrow windows with pointed arches to replace the typically small, round Romanesque windows. To counteract the arch thrust, the nave walls were reinforced with flying buttresses which divide the exterior into a harmonious structure. The new church was consecrated in 1479, and in 1910 the nave was extended by a vaulted bay. The small cemetery chapel containing a war memorial by Rudolf Lanzinger from San Candido/Innichen dates back to around 1500. Only the bell tower retained its original Romanesque style.
Everything that was added when, in the 18th century, the church was given an enthusiastic but fortunately not too profound Baroque make-over was duly removed in the course of thorough renovation efforts in the mid-1960s. Today, the stunning Gothic temple is thought to have regained most of the impact once bestowed upon it by the architect: Its vaulting shafts, ribbed vaults, re-entrant wall ribs and other construction elements gracefully structure the interior, with the supporting components adding almost a touch of decoration. The keystones and quatrefoils feature paintings of the Resurrection, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Sebastian, St. Catherine and the symbols of the Evangelists which undoubtedly date back to 1479, the year in which the church was consecrated. Very little remains of the original Gothic paintings: the Virgin of Mercy with her protective cloak on the northern side of the choir, another Madonna on the triumphal arch and fragments of the Adoration of the Kings, all painted by the prolific Simon von Taisten, who at the time must have been only 25 years old. In a show of true confidence, the architect Andrä Firtaler immortalised himself on the triumphal arch.
In the 18th century, the Gothic fixtures – altars, pulpit etc. – were replaced with Baroque fittings. The Baroque altarpieces, which in the 19th century had to make way for neo-Gothic altars carved by Josef Stauder from San Candido/Innichen and can now be found in the choir, show St. Mary Magdalene, St. Sebastian and St. Peter. All three are thought to be the work of Franz Sebald Unterberger, although only the last portrait bears his signature. The statues of St. Nicholas and St. Barbara on the other hand are presumed to be part of the original Gothic altar and the work of sculptor Ruprecht Potsch, who lived in Bressanone/Brixen around 1530. The statue of St. Mary Magdalene is thought to be a later addition.
St. Mary Magdalene Parish Church, on its quiet hill in Versciaco/Vierschach, is most certainly one of the true gems of Tyrolean Gothic art and among the most accomplished creations of Andrä Firtaler.
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