The skeleton sweeps the scythe hither and thither in slow rhythm, marking the passage of the minutes and the hours. Day in, day out, since the 17th century, the grim reaper has tolled the passing of the days, the months and the years in Altötting.
There’s nothing like a visit to Altötting, a modestly sized Bavarian town in the Inn Valley, to make you reflect on the essentials of life. We almost missed the grim reaper, for he stands perched high up above a clock just inside the town’s parish church. To and fro, to and fro, each swing of the reaper’s scythe marks — so they say in Altötting — the death of someone, somewhere, on this planet. An automaton patrolling the limits of life, scything the borders of death.
For where thy treasure is, there shall thy heart lie too
In this community, the Tod z’ Eding (as the Altötting reaper is called in the local Bavarian dialect) is evidently regarded with some affection. When Pope Benedict visited Altötting in 2006, he commented on the impact that the skeletal reaper had on him as a young boy living not far from Altötting in the nearby town of Marktl. Even during the most sacred part of Holy Mass, the grim reaper is always keeping time, busily working away at the back of the parish church.
From Altötting’s parish church (the Stiftskirche in German), it is just a few steps across the town’s main square to the octagonal chapel which holds the town’s greatest treasure: a 14th-century Black Madonna carved from the wood of a lime tree. This statue is the centrepiece of Altötting spirituality, the physical object which underpins Altötting’s claim to a place in the premier league of European Marian shrines. Pope Benedict remarked that there is an echo of the heathen numen locale (a local god — as opposed to a universal deity) in that Black Madonna at Altötting. “To less enlightened believers,” wrote the pope, “the Madonnas of Lourdes, Fatima and Altötting sometimes seem to be absolutely different beings and by no means simply the same person.”
Altötting trumps its rivals when it comes to fusing the sacred and the secular. For the tiny chapel with the Madonna houses a fine collection of 28 human hearts, mainly of royal provenance. Over half of the hearts are in urns on display in the chapel; the remaining urns are secreted away under the floor or in the walls. The roll call of hearts in the chapel includes relics of seven Bavarian kings, sometimes accompanied by their wives, and an attendant crew of counts, dukes and cardinals. While heart-burials were common in mediaeval Europe, as part of a wider practice of apportioning the body between favoured places, the remarkable thing about the Altötting collection is that it dates mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries. The most recent additions are the hearts of a Bavarian crown prince and his wife who both died in the 1950s. This display of hearts is a remarkable way of staging Bavarian identity, ensuring that religious and royal authority preside hand-in-hand over the quiet drama of Altötting.