The first Baroque residence on the Upper Rhine

Rastatt Residential Palace

Rastatt Residential Palace, ceiling fresco; Photo: Staatliche Schlösser und Gärten Baden-Württemberg, Hausner
The Uncovering of the Holy Cross

The ceiling fresco

The palace church in Rastatt is dedicated to the Holy Cross. This is the cross on which Jesus was crucified. This history of its discovery by Saint Helena is depicted in the ceiling fresco. The margravine is depicted in a special way here.

Rastatt Residential Palace, ceiling fresco detail; Photo: Staatliche Schlösser und Gärten Baden-Württemberg, unknown

Sibylla Augusta as Empress Helena.

Helena as promoter of the Christian faith

Sibylla Augusta commissioned artist Johann Hiebel (1681–1755) to paint the ceiling fresco in 1722. It depicts the uncovering and adoration of the Holy Cross. According to tradition, it was discovered by Helena in Jerusalem in 326. She was the mother of the late Roman Emperor Constantine who paved the way for Christianity as a state religion.

Rastatt Residential Palace, ceiling fresco detail; Photo:  Staatliche Schlösser und Gärten Baden-Württemberg, Lutz Altenkirch

The temple was destroyed and the church built.

Church instead of temple

Saint Helena found the Holy Cross beneath a Roman Temple of Venus. The ceiling fresco depicts its destruction – the statue of Venus had already lost its head! It also shows the new construction of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, which Helena and Constantine commissioned to be built above the place where it was found. There is clear symbolism behind the depiction: the triumph of Christian faith over pagan religion.

The worship of the Holy Cross

When a dying woman was healed, the Holy Cross of Christ was identified from among the three that were found – the so-called cross test. The Cross was then “exalted” or raised for worship. Among the believers before the Cross were Bishop Macarius who pointed Helena to the site where the Cross was found and Helena herself. However, anyone who knows Rastatt Palace and its inhabitants will quickly notice: Helena is wearing Sibylla Augusta's facial features and widow's clothing.

Rastatt Residential Palace, portrait of the margravine Sibylla Augusta; Photo: Staatliche Schlösser und Gärten Baden-Württemberg, Andrea Rachele

Portrait of the margravine Sibylla Augusta.

The margravine as Saint Helena

For Sibylla Augusta, Saint Helena was an ideal figure with which to identify: Helena encouraged worship of the Holy Cross and the Passion of Christ –by building churches. She is also said to have brought the Holy Stairs to Rome. With the construction of the palace church and other chapels in Rastatt, Sibylla Augusta was emulating Saint Helena. Incidentally: as the mother of an emperor, Helena took the title “Augusta.”