Bavarian equine worshipping-courtesy of Leonard, one kindly saint
He is known variously as the Kettenlöser (chain breaker), the patron saint of those, “die in Ketten liegen” (who lie in chains), the Bauernherrgott (the farmer’s god), the protector of livestock and patron of horses, and, perhaps most importantly, the Bayerischer Herrgott — Bavaria’s most beloved and cherished saint.
His name is Leonard (Leonhard in German.) The colorful, ever-popular celebrations held on his feast day, November 6, in numerous towns and villages during the weeks both before and after that date, are considered a highpoint of the rural Bavarian calendar.
The Leonhardiritt, or Leonhardifahrt, as the grand and festive religious street processions are called, are a centuries’ old tradition in southern Germany. It is, therefore, somewhat surprising to learn that this legendary, “most Bavarian” of saints was born, lived and worked not in Bavaria — as one would expect — but in France.
Since the earliest accounts of Leonard’s life were written as late as the 11th century, hundreds of years after his death, any historical facts about the man remain somewhat shrouded in obscurity. Yet even the Catholic Encyclopedia retells, with a bit of storybook enchantment, the unforgettable tales surrounding this extraordinary man.
As the legend goes, Leonard was born to nobility in early Christian France, during the time of King Clovis in the late fifth century AD. Saint Remy of Reims was his godfather. Leonard chose the life of a Benedictine monk and, as an adult, lived in seclusion in a forest near the town of Limoges, where he gave sermons and healed the crippled and needy who sought his help.
Leonard’s great passion, though, was liberating prisoners, whom he regularly visited and defended.
Thanks to his good relationship with the king, the French monk is credited with winning many of the prisoners’ freedom, and, even today, Leonard is often depicted holding chains or broken shackles.
Revered as a saint while he was still alive, it is said that Leonard was offered various church offices because of his alleged holiness and wisdom, but that he refused all of them. Toward the end of his life, he founded a monastery, St-Léonard-de-Noblac, in his beloved French forest, and, according to legend, he died there on November 6, 559. The site is still a popular pilgrimage destination.
Originally venerated as the patron saint of prisoners and the mentally ill, who until the 18th century were customarily kept in chains, Leonard’s legacy was transformed during the Counter-Reformation. Thereafter, the chains with which he was associated became symbolic of livestock chains and he was worshipped as the protector and patron of farm animals, such as cattle, sheep, swine and especially horses.
Bavaria’s own overwhelming and enduring adoration of Saint Leonard can be traced to his close association with the farming community and his esteemed status as the protector of farms, stalls and stables. It is notable that although modern-day Bavaria has an industrially dominated, tourism-influenced economy, the vast majority of Freistaat Bayern’s landmass is still devoted to agriculture and forestation. Bavaria’s unbridled devotion to Leonard is further enhanced by its vigorous admiration and long-standing, passionate relationship with the Ross, or Pferd (horse).
Just 30 years ago, the horse population in Bavaria appeared threatened, hitting a low of about 35,000. But thanks, in part, to a strong Leonhardi tradition and to a concerted government effort to raise the animal’s status to that of a significant branch of the Bavarian economy, the horse population has successfully increased to more than 130,000 today. This makes Bavaria Germany’s leading horse-breeding region, the heart of which is in Schwaiganger, in the picturesque alpine foothills, south of Munich, between the towns of Murnau, Grossweil and Ohlstadt. The facility, which collaborates with the veterinary faculty of Munich University, works together with affiliated branches devoted to the study of Bavaria’s other traditional livestock — cattle and sheep. Schwaiganger is also the home of Bavaria’s only horseshoeing school.
The Bavarian government will proudly point out that approximately 30,000 people — from breeders to blacksmiths, saddlers and veterinarians — have professions closely linked with the state’s majestic and noble equine. So, given the relative prominence of horses even in today’s Bavaria, it takes no real stretch of the imagination to understand the Bavarian people’s historical and staunch affection for the French-born Leonard.
The first Bavarian church was erected in his honor in 1184 in the town of Kreuth, near Tegernsee. The tradition of the Leonhardiritt, meanwhile, is also linked to Kreuth, where the event was first recorded, in 1469. Today, churches and chapels named in honor of the saint Leonard abound in Bavaria and are the focus of the yearly Leonhardi celebrations, which usually begin around mid-October.
Originally, only men riding handsomely adorned horses took part in the Leonhardi processions,
but women, children and horse-drawn carriages were later included. Once the procession reaches the church or chapel, participants circle the building three times, after which the parish priest bestows special blessings on horses, livestock, farms and stables. Many of the places of worship are usually encircled with a symbolic chain in honor of the saint’s feast day. In earlier times, iron was considered a valuable material, so, then and even today, smaller iron chains, or sections of chain, are often left at the pilgrimage sites by religious believers, as votives to honor or thank Leonard for requests and answered prayers.
The center of Bavaria’s devotion to the saint is Inchenhofen, near Augsburg. From the 14th to the 18th century, in this small town alone, it is said that some 4,000 prayers were answered through Saint Leonard’s intercession. Many miracles are attributed to him as well, and farmers, prisoners and the mentally ill aren’t the only ones who receive his help. Miners, coopers (barrel makers), coachmen, locksmiths, farm hands, new mothers and pregnant women pray to him, too.
One of the best-known and most beautiful Leonhardiritt celebrations takes place in Bad Tölz. This event — held every year on November 6th — attracts thousands of spectators and features about 80 decorated horse-drawn wagons, including the so-called Tafelwagen — distinctive wooden carriages, exquisitely painted with traditional folk art motifs. Women and children dressed in their finest, regal-looking riders atop festively bedecked horses, flower-accented folk costumes, and the peal of church bells adds to the memorable splendor.
Other Bavarian towns and villages, like Guntersberg, Lippertskirchen, Benediktbeuren, Murnau, Hundham, Breitbrunn, Schliersee, Illerbeuren, Fürstenfeldbruck, Unterammergau and Oberaudorf, hold their own religious masses and processions to honor Saint Leonhard.
Above all, the feast day is regarded and revered as a time of thanksgiving for the farming year just ending, with an appeal for continued protection in the year to come. One particular Bavarian blessing asks God to bestow his luck and good graces on everything in one’s life, especially the house and stables. It also asks for Saint Leonard’s protection of livestock. It goes like this: “Gott, wird Euch geben, Glück und Segen, in Haus und Stall und Überall! Bei Pferd und Rind, bei Schaf und Schwein da soll Euer heiliger Leonhard sein!”
Locations in October & November
17.10 Wildsteig 08867 / 409
20.10 Truchtlaching 08667 / 71 39
21.10 Oberaudorf 08033 / 309 743
28.10 Rottau 08641 / 27 73
29.10 Breitbrunn 08054 / 234
Grafing 08092 / 18 22
Grassau 08641 / 23 40
Peißenberg 08803 / 96 99
Unterammergau 08822 / 64 00
04.11 Diessen 08807 / 10 48
Fischbachau 08807 / 867
Fürstenfeldbruck 08141 / 280
Peißenberg 08803 / 69 00
Samerberg 08032 / 86 06
05.11 Bad Feilnbach 08066 / 14 44
Benediktbeuren 08032 / 86 06
Inchenhofen 08257 / 99970
Kirchweidach 08623 / 98 860
Lauingen (Donau) 09072 / 99 8 - 116
Neuburg a.D. 08431 / 55 240
Schliersee 08026 / 60 650
St.Leonhard-Wonneberg 08681 / 246
Riedering 08036 / 90 640
Übersee 080642 / 295
Übersee-Almau 080642 / 89 89 50
Wartenburg 08762 / 73 090
06.11 Bad Tölz 08041 / 78 67 – 0
Kreuth 08029 / 18 19
Murnau 08841 / 61 410
Nußdorf am Inn 08034 / 90 79 20
Ohlstadt 08841 / 74 80
Rimsting 08051 / 44 61
12.11 Bad Heilbrunn 08046 / 323
Gmund 08022 / 750 527
Illerbeuren 08394 / 999 118
Lenggries 08042 / 500 820
Rottenbuch 08867 / 14 64