The last third of the 19th century witnessed a great interest worldwide in panoramas that represented subjects of national identity, battles in particular. Hoping for a lucrative income from entrance fees, panorama companies were founded to finance the buildings and the production of the gigantic circular paintings which measured up to 15 metres in height and up to 120 metres in circumference. At the end of the 19th century many big cities had a rotunda in which panoramas were exhibited and exchanged for new ones from time to time. It was in this period that the idea came up of representing the historic event of the Crucifixion of Christ in a panorama.
For a panorama depicting a religious subject pilgrimage centres provided ideal locations. The first panorama depicting the Crucifixion of Christ was exhibited in the Belgian pilgrimage site of Montaigu in 1884. It was painted by the Belgian artist Juliaan de Vriendt (1842-1935). One year later, a Munich panorama company commissioned the renowned German painter, Bruno Piglhein (1848-1894), to paint a panorama of the same subject. Piglhein, like de Vriendt before him, travelled to Jerusalem in order to make preparatory sketches for his panorama. He was accompanied by Karl Hubert Frosch, whose role was to paint the architectural detail in the painting, and by Joseph Krieger, who would paint the landscape. Piglhein himself was responsible for the overall design and the figural composition of the panorama. After six months in Palestine and another nine months of executing the painting, the panorama, 120 metres long and 15 metres high, was finished. From June 1886 to March 1889 it was exhibited in Munich with great success. It was then on exhibition in Berlin, from spring 1889 to the end of 1891. In March 1892 it opened in Vienna, where it was unfortunately destroyed by fire just one month later.
Piglhein’s panorama of the Crucifixion of Christ was much admired. Several panoramas were directly modelled on it. In 1886, Karl Hubert Frosch, Piglhein’s collaborator, was engaged by an American panorama company as a specialist for Jerusalem panoramas. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as member of a team of German, Austrian and Swiss artists, he helped create three Jerusalem panoramas, being responsible in each case for the architectural detail. Two of the panoramas depicted the Crucifixion of Christ. They toured several American and English cities. More Jerusalem panoramas were being painted in America by a group of artists under the direction of the French painter Paul Philippoteaux. They also toured Australia and Canada. In Europe, in particular in Germany, several panoramas depicting religious subjects were created. Three panoramas of the Crucifixion of Christ have survived worldwide, all of them in pilgrimage centres: in Ste. Anne de Beaupré, situated near Québec, Canada; in Altötting, Upper Bavaria, Germany; and in Einsiedeln, Switzerland.
In the 1890s, Karl Hubert Frosch (1846-1931) and Joseph Krieger (1848-1914), now experienced panorama artists, specialised in panoramas of religious subjects. In 1892, the panorama entrepreneurs, Eckstein & Esenwein from Backnang near Stuttgart, made contract with the two artists about the production of a panorama of the Crucifixion of Christ. In search for a location to exhibit the panorama the monastery of the Swiss pilgrimage place of Einsiedeln was approached. However, the monastery declined the offer. Instead, the entrepreneurs Martin, Adelrich, and Karl Gyr from Einsiedeln, with the help of the Einsiedeln publisher Benziger and Co., became partners in the project.
The giant circular painting, 10 metres high and 100 metres long, was painted in six months in the panorama building Theresienhöhe 2a, one out of three panorama exhibition buildings in Munich at that time. As with Piglhein’s panorama, Frosch was responsible for the painting’s architecture and Krieger for the landscape. The figural part was executed by the American painter William Robinson Leigh (1865-1955) who at that time was active in Munich, collaborating in the production of other panoramas. Before the finished panorama was transported to Einsiedeln it was exhibited for several weeks in the Munich panorama building Theresienhöhe 2a. On 1 July 1893, the panorama of the Crucifixion of Christ was opened to the public in Einsiedeln, in a twelve-sided rotunda, 33 metres in diameter, built for the purpose. It would very soon become a well-visited site of the pilgrimage centre.
The first life of the panorama in Einsiedeln ended most tragically on 17 March 1960 when during renovation works carried out on the front and in the interior rooms fire broke out and both building and painting were completely destroyed. The panorama’s second life began immediately. The decision was taken to re-erect the building and to re-create the painting after existing colour photographs of the original picture. First of all a new panorama building had to be erected. The wooden construction of the former rotunda was replaced by a fireproof building constructed of steel girders and Leca concrete blocks. For the re-creation of the painting an artistic competition was held which was won by the Viennese artists, Prof. Hans Wulz (1909-1985) and Prof. Josef Fastl (1929-2008). The idea was not to paint an exact copy or a reproduction of the former picture. The new picture would be executed in a modern style reflecting a contemporary artistic interpretation of the subject. The new panorama was painted in 1961/62, within six months, following the former picture in size and all details of the composition, but in a free painting style which differs from the detailed realistic style of the earlier one. ‘When standing close to the canvas, the astonished eye realises how all objects are being dissolved in most colourful spots and broad brushstrokes. The new artwork presents itself as fresh, young, spontaneous and vivid, with highly intensive brilliant colours.’ (Prof. Huggler in his opening speech). The three-dimensional faux terrain was re-created after the destroyed original one by Hans Städeli in co-operation with stage designers from the Berne City Theatre. On 14 April 1962 the panorama was re-opened to the public.
1993 was the year in which the panorama celebrated its 100th anniversary. Today it is one of the most important places of artistic and cultural interest in the Einsiedeln area. Nearly five million pilgrims and tourists have visited it over the last hundred years. Since 1894 it has been run by a panorama company governed by the Swiss Code of Obligations.