The nuns open their doors

According to legend, the monastery complex in Val Müstair in the canton of Grisons, was founded in the 8th century by Charlemagne and was never fully destroyed. Well preserved, it still reveals building styles from several eras, and holds art treasures from more than twelve centuries. The wall paintings in the convent church were decisive for its acceptance on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This is the largest and best-preserved fresco cycle from the early Middle Ages. The nuns are still active in the convent today in the spirit of “ora et labora”, pray and work. Convent life, cultivation, the museum, research and restoration all merge to form a unique whole. Cultural Heritage since 1983.


The Val Müstair, in the canton Graubünden, connects the Fuorn Pass and the Vinschgau Valley, in the Italian province of South Tyrol. Today it is a very quiet place, but not in the past. In the 1st century AD the Via Claudia Augusta passed nearby, linking the Po Valley with the north of the Alps, over the Resia Pass. At the time of Charlemagne (742 – 814), this road and the nearby passes acquired strategic importance. Charlemagne, already King of the Franks, defeated the Lombards at the siege of Pavia in 774 and became their King. In 788, he further extended his reign by vanishing the rebellious Tassilo III, Duke of Bavaria. The Müstair and Vinschgau valleys, both under the control of the Bishop of Chur, were therefore like a wedge drive between these two territories. No doubt the Benedictine monastery of St John was also built to secure the passage between north and south.

A number of elements indicate the importance of the monastery’s founder: the mentioned historical context but also various archaeological finds and dendrochronological datings which show the oldest timber to be from the year 775, as well as the sophisticated design and the overall dimensions of the building – the original Carolingian abbey was bigger than today’s convent. Thus according to local tradition, the founder was none other than Charlemagne himself. And indeed the King was generous towards the Church of Rome which he also used as an instrument for the accomplishment of his political objectives. It is also possible however that the actual founder of Müstair was the Bishop of Chur, acting on behalf of Charlemagne and with the latter’s financial support.

The monastery was conceived from the start as both a place of worship and a residence for persons of consequence. It was the Bishop’s secondary seat, in the southwest of his diocese. The Carolingian monastery had a church with a single hall, three apses and annexes. A cloister and a farmyard garden were adjacent to the church.

Did you know?

• St John‘s monastery in Müstair is a centre of benedictine life since 1246 years.

• If you counted the number of psalms recited in the monastery until now, you would come to the amazing total of 9 804 375.

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