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History

Baron Marquard von Schwendi

The diocesan town of Passau has long been a centre of religious life in Bavaria and Austria. In 1611, Prince-Bishop Archduke Leopold of Austria brought to Passau, his town of residence, a painting of the Mother of God tenderly embraced by the Child Jesus. The painting was the work of Lucas Cranach the Elder, a leading German painter, and was probably produced after 1537.

This outstanding painting was greatly admired by the Passau Cathedral Dean Baron Marquard von Schwendi. He had two copies of the painting made, one of which he hung in a wooden chapel in his garden at the foot of what is today known as Mariahilf hill. After having several visions of Our Lady, he decided in 1622 to re-locate the chapel with the painting to the top of the hill and to open the chapel to all the faithful. Interest was so great and the crowds of pilgrims so large that in 1624 he had to start building a church, which was completed in 1627. The architect was Passau master Francesco Garbanino, who was one of the group of artists from Ticino who brought Baroque art to Bavaria at the time. The new church rapidly became a highly popular place of pilgrimage. From 1631 onwards, it came under the aegis of the Capucin monks from the nearby hospice and from the monastery in the Passau Innstadt. They made Mariahilf into a major centre of pilgrimage for Central and South-East Europe, especially after the deliverance of Vienna from the Turks in 1683, seen by many as a response to appeals to Our Lady of the Succours.

The cult of Mariahilf (Our Lady of Mercy) is an important feature of the cult of Our Lady that flourished particularly in the Baroque period. Hundreds of affiliated pilgrimages sprung up, especially in Amberg/Upper Palatinate, Innsbruck (where the original by Lucas Cranach is housed), Vienna and Munich.

Although the cry of “Mariahilf” – the literal meaning of which is “Mary – help!” was very widely used in the period of defensive wars against the Turks and although Marcus of Aviano, the Capucin popular preacher of the period, placed his struggle against the Turks under Our Lady’s protection, the devotion to the Mother of God was always primarily an expression of fundamental problems of human existence. This is attested by the innumerable accounts of miracles, by ex-voto images and by songs such as those written by Prokop of Templin, the poet of Our Lady and a member of the Capucin order. It explains why people from all social classes and regions flocked to Mariahilf until about a century and a half ago, when the enlightment period and the subsequent secularisation reduced and then practically put an end to the pilgrimage.

Ex-voto images

After about three decades, the spirit of Catholic Reform in Bavaria revived the pilgrimage from about 1830 onwards, this time as a pilgrimage confined to the diocese of Passau and the surrounding Austrian region. Regular processions and pilgrimages to Mariahilf still take place today.