Chapel Bridge, Lucerne


In the same way that Charles Bridge is an icon of Prague, and Tower Bridge is emblematic of London, the wooden Chapel Bridge with the water tower nearby is the most well-known symbol of Lucerne (Luzern) and one of the key tourist images of Switzerland. In fact the bridge you see now is not the original 14th century medieval structure, which was destroyed by fire in August 1998, but a reconstruction. Unfortunately the fire also consumed a number of 17th century paintings which were inside the covered bridge above the walkway, painted on triangular boards up in the apex of the roof. Only 30 were able to be saved or restored, out of a total of 158 before the fire.

The idea of showing pictures of Lucerne’s Catholic history in this way seems to have been a town clerk’s, Renward Cysat. Local artist Hans Wägmann was commissioned and a councillor wrote the accompanying text. Although there are a number of covered wooden bridges around the world, the idea of using them to display paintings is thought to be unique to Lucerne.

Originally part of the town’s defences, Chapel Bridge diagonally links the south bank of the River Reuss to St Peter’s Chapel on the other side. It used to be longer, but over the centuries some of the twists and turns of the bridge have been removed, shortening it to 170 metres (560 ft.) Chapel Bridge is believed to be the oldest example of a truss bridge in the world – a form of bridge-building using linked triangular structures (trusses) to bear the load. At the time it was built in 1333 the bridge defended the town from the direction of Lake Lucerne to the south, which is why the wall is higher on that side. Now it houses a tourist shop selling Swiss made souvenirs.

Most photos of Chapel Bridge also show the 43 metre (140 ft) tall ‘Water Tower’ (Wasserturm) which never contained water, but was so called because it stands in water. The bridge passes by the tower, and from most angles it looks like part of the same complex, although in fact the tower is the older structure by 30 years. The octagonal Water Tower has been a lookout, a prison, a torture chamber and a municipal archive; it is now home to the local Artillery Society, and is not open to the public, although you can make an appointment to be shown round it by contacting the society ( Entrance is via Chapel Bridge.
St Peter’s Chapel itself is a tiny 18th century church on the site of an earlier chapel. Its outside walls display a carving of the Mount of Olives from the previous 12th century building, and paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Chapel Bridge is not the only covered wooden bridge in Lucerne. There were originally three of them, the other two being the Spreuer Bridge and the Hof Bridge, which was taken down in the 19th century. Spreuer Bridge still has sixty seven 17th century paintings by Kaspar Meglinger of the ‘Dance of Death’ displayed under its roof, a constant and dramatic reminder of mortality to all those using the footbridge!

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