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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Kade

Fountains of Bern and so much more....

Colorful figures, skillfully crafted pillars and detailed decorations – those are the characteristics of Bern’s fountains. The medieval works of art were once important meeting points for locals and still form an essential part of Bern’s image.

"Be it fountains, cisterns, the subterranean stream or the Aare river – in Bern, water is omnipresent. There are over 100 public fountains in Bern’s Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Apart from their decorative character and interesting history, Bern’s fountains obviously also have a functional aspect. The cool water flowing from their spouts is drinkable and free for everyone. The pragmatic locals have combined the useful with the beautiful, placing some of the fountains on busy streets and therefore making them – as people call it – the world’s most charming traffic blocks.

The history of Bern’s public water supply dates all the way back to the Middle Ages: in the 13th century, there were already several standpipes in the city of the Zähringen people. The water came from the city’s underground stream, wells and probably cisterns. The main supply was the city’s creek. It was used as sewage, transported water to fight fires and connected – and still connects – Bern’s fountains. Around 1550, the city replaced the then wooden fountains with elaborate stone ones.

In the past, the public fountain played an important role in the everyday hustle and bustle of the city. Apart from supplying water, it also had an important social role.

It was a watering hole where people met up, chatted, exchanged news, settled disputes, discussed politics and made deals. Women and maids carried large copper pots to the fountains to bring back water for household use, water carriers filled their containers and brought them to people’s homes for a small fee, and waggoners came to water their horses. The lower, smaller basins were built specifically for animals and are a reminiscence of the times when cows and horses were led through the streets and alleys of Bern.

When the State Chancellery at 68/70 Postgasse was renovated in 1992, an important archeological site was unearthed: the tower-like cistern – Len Fountain – in the basement of the building is the capital’s oldest preserved historic monument.

In the past, the public would get safe and clean drinking water from the well chamber of the once three-storied building. In the Middle Ages, Len Fountain, with its holding capacity of 15,000 liters, carried enough water for all 3,000 of the city’s inhabitants – this was possible because people at the time used only around three to five liters a day. Today, the reservoir is open to guided groups, thanks to careful and elaborate restoration. There are plaques and a model on location to tell visitors about the history of Len Fountain.

Bern’s eleven historical fountain figures are eye-catchers. Be it in remembrance of heroes, historical events or social ideals: every fountain has its own history and special meaning. What most of them have in common is the creator: eight of the eleven figures were made by sculptor Hans Gieng from Freiburg, who seems to have lived and worked in Bern in the 1540s. The fountains remain the same as when they were constructed and are magnificent examples of Renaissance art. The designs and pompous figures are indications of the prosperity and wealth of the bourgeoisie at the time.

Kindlifresserbrunnen - (Ogre Fountain, Granary Square)

High up on a pillar looms a terrifying ogre. There are some defenseless, half naked children in a bag next to him, others are crawling around on the scary man, probably trying to escape him. His crazy stare and wide-open mouth as well as the fact that he is depicted devouring a baby tell us that he is not to be messed with. There are different theories as to the meaning of this fountain, the most plausible one being that the fountain was built to have an educational effect and that the monster was meant to scare little children into behaving.

It is a painted stone fountain at the Kornhausplatz (Granary Place).

"The fountain sculpture depicts a seated ogre devouring a naked child. Placed at his side is a bag containing more children. Because the ogre is wearing a pointed hat resembling a Jewish one, it has been speculated about the possibility of the ogre being the depiction of a Jew as an expression of blood libel against Jews. Another theory is that the statue is the likeness of Krampus, the beast-like creature from the folklore of Alpine countries thought to punish children during the Christmas season who had misbehaved. According to other theories it is a depiction of the Greek god Cronus eating his children or the Roman Saturn eating the months, though Cronus should have six and Saturn twelve rather than the sculpture's eight. Another theory is that it represented Cardinal Schriner who led the Swiss Confederation into several bloody defeats in northern Italy. An alternative theory is that it is a depiction of the older brother of Duke Berchtold (founder of Bern) who it is claimed, was so incensed by his younger brother's overshadowing of him that he collected and ate the town's children but such an incident is not recorded in Bern's history books. A final theory is that it is just a carnival character intended to frighten disobedient children.

Another theory is the eight children depict the eight cantons of the Old Swiss Confederacy and the Ogre is an enemy (possibly Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy,) trying to gobble the cantons up. This would match with the fountain's base which shows a frieze of armed bears going to war, including a piper and a drummer. The frieze may have been designed by Hans Rudolf Manuel Deutsch."

Mosesbrunnen (Moses Fountain, Minster Square)

Just like its historical archetype, Moses Fountain on Minster Square has had a long journey: the predecessor had to be removed from the square because of damaged feet, shattered Tablets and complete decomposition, and was replaced by a water fountain composition. The Moses statue became privately owned and adorned a garden shed and later the antiques chamber of the former Church of St. Anthony. In 1791, the fountain was finally replaced with the current exemplar. The statue was made by sculptor Nikolaus Sporrer from Konstanz and represents Moses in a long, golden-blue robe. With his right hand, he is pointing to the second Amendment on his Tablets of the Law.

"The statue dates from 1544. After storm damage it was rebuilt in 1790-1791. The Louis XVI style basin was designed by Nicklaus Sprüngli. The statue represents Moses bringing the Ten Commandments to the Tribes of Israel. Moses is portrayed with two rays of light projecting from his head, which represent Exodus 34:29-35 which tells that after meeting with God the skin of Moses' face became radiant. The twin rays of light come from a longstanding tradition that Moses instead grew horns.

Most commentators have simply said that Jerome mistranslated קָרַ֔ן (qāran) as “horned” rather than “radiant.” But Bena Elisha Medjuck, a McGill University Department of Jewish Studies graduate student, offered a more complex explanation in his 1988 thesis “Exodus 34:29-35: Moses’ ‘Horns’ in Early Bible Translation and Interpretation.” Medjuck explains that Jerome was well-acquainted both with the variant meanings of qāran and with the prevailing translation of his contemporary Jewish scholars – with whom he consulted! Jerome chose the “horned” translation as metaphor faithful to the text: a depiction of Moses’ strength and authority, and a glorification of the Lord! Jerome even explained this in his accompanying commentary!

Horns were almost universally viewed by ancient civilizations as symbols of power, not as the negative or demonic symbols they became for Christians thousands of years later. For example, both Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun were described as wearing horns. Mellinkoff reminds us that horned helmets were often worn by priests and kings, with the horns connoting that divine power and authority had been bestowed upon them.

The correct interpretation of these two words is that Moses was enlightened, that "the skin of his face shone" (as with a gloriole).

The Septuagint correctly translates the Hebrew phrase as δεδόξασται ἡ ὄψις, "his face was glorified"; but Jerome translated the phrase into Latin as cornuta esset facies sua "his face was horned".

With apparent Biblical authority, and the added convenience of giving Moses a unique and easily identifiable visual attribute (something the other Old Testament prophets notably lacked), it remained standard in Western art to depict Moses with small horns until well after the mistranslation was realized in the Renaissance. In this depiction of Moses, the error has been identified but the artist has chosen to place horns of light on Moses head to aid in identification."

Vennerbrunnen - Banner Carrier or Vexillum Fountain (Banneret Fountain, Town Hall Square) The Bernese standard bearer stands proudly on the Corinthian pillar. The banneret in his right hand once fell prey to the French: after the invasion of the “Grande Armée” in 1798, a soldier tore down the metal plate. Artist Hans Gieng’s figure was not suited for this kind of treatment, and its left underarm broke off. For a long time, no one seemed to care, the missing part was not replaced. There is documentation from this time that shows the armored man propped up on a cane instead of his sword. Today, many years and relocations later, the restored standard bearer stands elegantly atop the fountain on Town Hall Square.

"The fountain is located in front of the old city hall or Rathaus. The Venner was a military-political title in medieval Switzerland. He was responsible for peace and protection in a section of a city and then to lead troops from that section in battle. In Bern the Venner was a very powerful position and was key in city's operations. Each Venner was connected to a guild and chosen from the guild. Venner was one of only two positions from which the Schultheiß or Lord Mayor was chosen. The statue, built in 1542 shows a Venner in full armor with his banner."

Zähringen Fountain (Kramgasse, upper part)

Near the historic Zytglogge (Clock Tower) and at the end of Kramgasse, a bear stands upright on a fountain, overlooking the street. At its feet sits a cub, eating grapes. Bern’s heraldic animal is reminiscent of the founders of the city, the Zähringen people. The large bear is wearing a helmet on its head and carrying a banner in one paw and a shield in the other. Both of these accessories are emblazoned with a golden lion on a red background.

"The Zähringerbrunnen was built in 1535 as a memorial to the founder of Bern, Berchtold von Zähringer. The statue is a bear in full armor, with another bear cub at his feet. The bear represents the bear that, according to legend, Berchtold shot on the Aare peninsula as he was searching for a site to build a city. The armored bear carries a shield and a banner, both emblazoned with the Zähringen lion.

The basin below the fountain bore the date 1542 until 1889 when the entire basin was replaced. At the same time the column and figure were repainted. The old basin was octagonal. On one face it had the inscription Protege Nos Domine and on another Soli Deo Gloria. Another face had the date 1542 in Roman numerals and the fourth had an inscription that was unreadable in the 19th century. The current basin is an exact replica of the Pfeiferbrunnen's basin.

Simsonbrunnen (Samson Fountain, Kramgasse, middle part) The figure on the fountain depicts the biblical hero Samson, dressed in roman garb. The statue is the personification of a popular Renaissance-era attribute: strength. With his bare hands, the strong man grabs the lion’s mouth, ready to tear it apart. On his belt, he carries a weapon and butcher’s tools. This detail suggests that the fountain was donated by the Butcher’s Guild. It is therefore no wonder that in 1687, people started calling the fountain “Butcher’s Fountain”. It didn’t get its current name until about 150 years later.

"The fountain represents the biblical story of Samson killing a lion found in Judges 14:5-20. According to the story, Samson was born to a sterile Israelite couple on the conditions that his mother and her child (Samson) abstain from all alcohol and that he never shave or cut his hair. Because of his commitment to live under these conditions, Samson is granted great strength. As a young man he falls in love with a Philistine woman and decides to marry her. At this time, the Philistines ruled over the Israelites and Samson's decision to marry one causes great concern among his family. He calms their concerns and travels to marry his love. On the way he is attacked by the lion and with his incredible strength kills the lion. Later, he sees that bees have built a honeycomb in the lion's body. He uses this event as the basis of a riddle, which when not answered, gives him a pretext to attack the Philistines and lead an unsuccessful rebellion.

The fountain, built in 1544 by Hans Gieng, is modeled after the Simsonbrunnen in Solothurn"

Anna-Seiler-Brunnen (Anna Seiler Fountain, Marktgasse) It’s unclear if the female figure with the jug was initially meant to be an allegory for temperance or depict Hebe, goddess of youth. Today, the fountain is dedicated to Anna Seiler, who, in 1354, donated a hospital – which later became known as Inselspital – to the city of Bern. By the way: rumor has it that this very fountain is where the parents of famous Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler met.

"The fountain, located at the upper end of Marktgasse memorializes the founder of the first hospital in Bern. Anna Seiler is represented by a woman in a blue dress, pouring water into a small dish. She stands on a pillar brought from theRoman town of Aventicum (modern Avenches). On November 29, 1354 in her will she asked the city to help found a hospital in her house which today stands on Zeughausgasse. The hospital initially had 13 beds and 2 attendants and was to be an ewiges Spital or a perpetual hospital. When Anna died around 1360 the hospital was renamed the Seilerin Spital. In 1531, the hospital moved to the empty Dominican monastery St. Michaels Insel (St. Michael's Island) and was then known as the Inselspital, which still exists over 650 years after Anna Seiler founded it. The modern Inselspital has about 6,000 employees and treats about 220,000 individuals per year.

Pfeiferbrunnen (Bagpiper Fountain, Spitalgasse) Along with the Ogre Fountain, the Bagpiper Fountain is one of Bern’s most original fountains. The musician is merrily playing his bagpipe, accompanied by a golden goose and a small monkey playing the flageolet, spreading happiness and lightness. The lively fellowship is meant to celebrate cheerfulness, life, music, games, dance and good food. A copper engraving by Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürrer served as inspiration and template for the figure on the fountain.

That was a little sampling of the fountains in Bern.

Statues on buildings

Interesting chimneys

The Last Judgement at the Cathedral.

Over the main portal is one of the most complete Late Gothic sculpture collections in Europe. This collection represents the Christian belief in a Last Judgement where the wicked will be separated from the righteous.

This sculpture shows the wicked naked on the right, while the righteous stand clothed in white on the left. In the center is Justice, with Saints and the wise and foolish virgins around her. In the center stands Michael the Archangel with a raised sword.

The sculptures of the Last Judgement were the only statues in the Minster to survive the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation. The 47 large free-standing statues are replicas (the originals are in Bern History Museum), and the 170 smaller figures are all original.The Last Judgement was the work of one sculptor, Erhard Küng from Stadtlohn, Westphalia, which gives the collection a unity of design. The Justice sculpture is the only one that was done by another artist. It is signed by Daniel Heintz, who was the master builder after 1571. The rest of the statues were carved some time between 1460 and 1501, most likely between 1460 and 1480.

The trumeau to each side and between the doors has thirteen life-size figures. The middle figure and the two figures on each side of the door are raised by about half their height above the other figures. The figures on the left of the door represent the five Foolish Virgins.

The ones on the right are the Wise Virgins.

Below the outer two Wise Virgins and the two Foolish Virgins, two faces peer out of the wall on each side. On the wise side, they represent the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.

On the foolish side, they represent Zephaniah and, maybe, Isaiah.

In the center, between the two doors, is Justice flanked by two angels. Below Justice and the angels is a scroll commemorating the laying of the cornerstone in 1421.

The archivolt features three rows of figures. The inner two rows are attached to the wall and lay at an angle which follows the curve of the portal. The outer, third row features statues that stand upright on individual platforms. The inner row contains five angels with the instruments of the Passion. The second row contains eight Old Testament prophets. The outer row is Jesus, Mary and the Apostles, including John the Baptist and Paul, but not Judas Iscariot.



The tympanum is 4.75 m (15.6 ft) wide at the base. It is made up of thirteen individual sections. The bottom row is made up of three plates located about 10 cm (3.9 in) above the lintel. It is 38 cm (15 in) deep and about 50–60 cm (20–24 in) high. On the left side of the tympanum, it contains two rows of figures and on the right, three. The lower figures are nearly fully three-dimensional, while the upper figures are mostly carved in relief, with only the head and shoulders projecting out of the stone. Above these three plates, the remaining ten plates are arraigned in three rows. The bottom row is made up of four plates which rest on a 30–40 cm (12–16 in) high base. The plates are high relief carvings, each about 38 cm (15 in) deep and an average of about 1 m (3.3 ft) high. The figures were all carved with a rock pick. In the center of the tympanum is the Archangel Michael. He stands on his platform which is projected forward from the rest of the figures. The entire tympanum represents Heaven and Hell in the Last Judgment.

Water spout gargoles

"First it was a fortified guard tower, then a prison, a lookout and fire observation tower, and finally a clock tower. Over the centuries, this landmark has fulfilled different functions for the city of Bern but has always played a key role.

As Bern continued to grow and expand its city limits, the former guard tower gradually found itself closer and closer to the city center. After the devastating fire of 1405, the structure was rebuilt and given a new identity.

Now known as the Zytglogge (Clock Tower), it began telling time for the inhabitants of Bern. As the official timekeeper, its location could not be more central and from then on, the locals listened for it to strike the hours.

The tower was also an authoritative building for other matters in the capital city. For example, official travel times were measured from the Clock Tower and marked on stones along the cantonal roads. The ancient length measurements of cubit and fathom – which are still marked today in the tower entrance as meter and double meter – served as the reference length and for official checks."

"The tower’s outstanding features are the astrolabium – an astronomical calendar clock – and the musical mechanism installed in 1530.

Right before the clock strikes the hour a crowing rooster announces the start of an entertaining spectacle. Bears dance their hourly routine, a jester jokingly signals the hour too early, the quarter-hour chimes are heard from the tower, and Chronos, the god of time, turns his hourglass over. The golden figure of Hans von Thann finally strikes the hour in time with Chronos’ swinging scepter.

The hands of the astrolabium move somewhat more slowly but just as precisely. The discs of the astronomical calendar clock are artfully arranged above the Clock Tower’s entrance. Both fixed and rotating spheres form an exact replica of the constellations with the earth in the center. Sun, moon and stars circle our planet in the orbits we recognize from the earth’s vantage point.

The complex display of the northern hemisphere always shows the current zodiac sign, the moon’s phase, the time of sunrise and sunset, and the date. Frescoes of the five planetary gods from Roman mythology adorn the space above the astrolabium.

A day in Bern would not be complete without a stop to see the bears.

My new camera was playing funny tricks. It has a mind of its own. Yes, I have read the manual but....

This bear loves to blow bubbles

Do you think I need a manicure? Polish?

The mixed salad had beet greens, lettuce, spinach, radish, carrots, fava beans, tomato and cucumber. Fresh and delicious

Crusty top and squishy bottom. Tasty!

Fresh noodles cooked al dente.

I had the Bolognese. Perfect!

Michael had the Carbonara. He said he had it last in the late 1970's when he lived in Switzerland.

We could have snacked on chocolate and pastry but didn't.

Friend or foe? The only thing I knew was the bayonet looked real. He stood next to me on the bus.

My favorite picture. For me, this is Bern - a city of arcades.

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