Monday, April 29, 2013

Woodcarving in Oberammergau - Both Sacred and Profane

Oberammergau is a small village in the Bavarian Alps which is known for its famous Passion Play performed every 10 years, and its woodcarving. It seems like half the shops in this tourist destination are wood carving shops. Some are small, with the local wood carver proprietor actually working on pieces in the shop. Most shops are large and overwhelming with thousands of carved figures appealing to every type of tourist. They range in size from huge carvings selling for hundreds of Euros down to tiny 5 cm animals and saints. Most of the huge carvings are hand-carved in Bavaria. Most of the smaller carvings are from China or Indonesia, although not marked as such. Some items are obviously machine-carved.

For the most part, the subjects are sacred religious carvings of saints and crucifixes mixed in with a few traditional Bavarian figures. The odd thing is that most window displays also include profane or suggestive carvings right next to a Madonna holding the Infant Jesus. One might see a nude woman right next to St. Francis. On some shop websites, anything that is not religious is actually classified as profanfiguren.

One reoccurring carving theme that certainly fits into the profane category is a carving of a chubby man in a squat position, grunting and…defecating. (See photo above) This little man appeared in several shops, right on the shelf with all the religious figures. I discussed it with a shop owner who was actually carving one of these figures at the time. He explained in broken English that it is a traditional Bavarian theme. At one time, long ago, it was actually used as a form of political protest. When Bavaria was occupied by a conquering army, the carvers gave the swatting man the face of the foreign leader. Today, it is the same traditional shape but it is done as just a humorous character.

As a contrast, take a look at the photo below of the grave marker. This is not a famous carving in a prominent place. It is just a simple grave, hidden in the church cemetery. It is not a recurring theme, but rather a unique work of art. No doubt the grave marker was done by a local carver, perhaps by a family member or friend. The symbols and saints probably had some special significance to the person buried there. It is certainly sacred. It will not be found in any shop window.

If you screen out the crass commercialism and tourist focus, without a doubt, the carvers of Oberammergau are highly skilled craftsmen and they produce beautiful work. Oberammergau is a repository of carving skills passed down from previous generations. If you are a woodcarver, you get the feeling you are in a very special place, a place sacred to woodcarvers.

Carving of a Kraxentrager. 
These traveling salesmen carried wood
carvings to villages throughout Bavaria.

Detail of Kraxentrager carving