Grossmunster (Great Minster) is a famous medieval church in Zurich with a history dating to Charlemagne. Indeed, it is said that the Frankish king built the first incarnation of Grossmunster on the site where he discovered the graves of the city’s patrons, Felix and Regula.
However, the Romanesque style version of Grossmunster we see today, with its two iconic towers, was built later from around 1100 until 1220. It was here in Grossmunster in the 16th century that Huldrych Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger started the Swiss-German Reformation.
Today, visitors to Zurich flock to see Grossmunster’s Romanesque crypt, its museum dedicated to the Reformation, and its striking windows.
History of Grossmunster
Grossmunster is situated near the banks of the river Limmat. It was constructed on the site of a Carolingian church, which was, according to legend, originally commissioned by Charlemagne after his horse fell to its knees over the tombs of Felix and Regula, Zurich’s patron saints. The present church was constructed from 1100 until its inauguration in around 1220.
It was originally a monastery church, vying with the Fraumunster across the Limmat throughout the Middle Ages.
The church has borne witness to a number of important historical events. The leader of the Swiss reformation Huldrych Zwingli initiated the Swiss-German Reformation from his pastoral office at Grossmunster, starting from 1520. The reforms initiated by Zwingli were continued by his successor, Heinrich Bullinger.
These changes included making the church interior plain by removing the organ and religious statuary in 1524, as well as abandoning Lent, replacing the Mass, disavowing celibacy, eating meat on fast days, replacing the lectionary with a seven-year New Testament cycle, banning church music, and other significant reforms.
Architecturally, the twin towers of the Grossmunster are some of the most recognisable of Zurich’s skyline. The towers were originally constructed between 1487 and 1492, with high wooden steeples which were destroyed by fire in 1763, after which the present neo-Gothic tops were added.
It is a Romanesque structure, with a great carved portal featuring medieval columns with grotesques adorning the capitals. A Romanesque crypt dates to the 11th and 13th centuries.
Recent archaeological evidence confirms the presence of a Roman burial ground at the site.
Today, visitors can enjoy a the church as both a tourist attraction and a place of worship.
There are a few features that are particularly worth seeing. These include the glass windows by Sigmar Polke, the Romanesque Crypt, the Romanesque capitals in the church and cloister, the stained glass windows by Augusto Giacometti (1932), the bronze doors by Otto Munch (1935 and 1950) and the Reformation museum in the cloister.
Visitors should also take the 187 stairs from the nave up to the tower vantage point, from where visitors have panoramic views over the Zurich rooftops and lake as well as majestic Alpine summits on the horizon.
Guided tours are available.
Getting to Grossmunster
Grossmunster is reachable in around 15 minutes by foot via Bahnhofquai and Limmatquai. By car, it’s a 12 minute drive, via Route 17. There’s also a regular tram service which departs every 8 minutes from Sihlquai/HB and takes around 10 minutes.