In 3rd century Zürich, Roman soldiers beheaded brother and sister Felix and Regula and their unlucky but exceedingly loyal servant Exuperantius for being Christian converts. Then things got interesting. Legend says they picked up their heads, walked 40 paces (uphill no less), knelt down, prayed, then finally expired.
For this miracle, Regula and Felix were named the patron saints of Zürich. We can only guess why the loyal Exuperantius was not likewise sainted.
Today you can walk in their footsteps with little fear of losing your head. A good place to start is Fraumünster, the church founded in 853 where, in an exterior alcove, there’s a 19th-century fresco depicting the two future saints and their servant cradling their heads as they walk toward the Great Beyond. Even with its ghoulish subject matter, the fresco is lovely.
Inside the church you’ll find more dazzling art – five large stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall – see photograph below.
From there it’s a short walk across the bridge to the site where legend says the future saints and servant were relieved of their heads. Today this is the site of the 13th-century church, Wasserkirche. During its history, this beautifully spare building featuring a geometric vaulted ceiling has been used as the home of a cult, a library and a place to store crops.
Forty (or so) paces uphill is where Regula, Felix and Exuperantius had had enough. They knelt, prayed and died. Today, Zürich’s two-towered Grossmünster church stands on this spot. Tradition says that an earlier church was built here by Charlemagne, whose horse fell to its knees at the spot where the martyrs expired.
The 13th-century Grossmünster’s stained glass windows are decidedly unmedieval. Some are composed of brilliantly coloured translucent agate slices, while others are arranged in the motif of traditional Swiss paper-cut folk art. Swiss artist Augusto Giacometti also contributed religious-themed windows. All are enrapturing. You can also climb the 187 stairs up one of the towers for beautiful views. The snowy rooftops in winter are heavenly.
At this Romanesque formerly-Catholic-now-Protestant church, you may or may not feel inclined to fall to your knees like Charlemagne’s horse, but you’ll certainly find it a grand place to contemplate the sacrifice and eternal reward of Zürich’s patron saints. And their servant.
By Bill Harby