Lucerne, Switzerland’s Hirschenplatz is named after a vanished hotel, the Hirschen, or stag. Light-colored paving stones mark the places where two small houses once stood. When Goethe passed through Lucerne en route to Italy, he would not have been able to look across the square as we can now. Thanks to modernization, the pesky structures are out of the way, and today’s visitors can appreciate the full picture, so to speak.

My guide pointed in turn to the buildings lining Hirschenplatz, and asked “Why do we paint on our walls?” It was a mostly rhetorical question, which she answered by describing the facades on several buildings facing the square.

“Our building decorations thank our protectors, such as a saint or Maria…”, as she pointed toward just such a painting, delicate against a rose-hued background. In Catholic Lucerne, saintly images abound, but specifying what they’re up to helped put the idea in context.

Our tour of the square was almost done, with just one more facade to talk about, and it was an interesting one indeed. The building had housed a jewelry business, and was faced with  painted panels: on one, rings are garlanded together, and held aloft by cavorting cherubs.

“And then there is advertising, such as the garland motif advertising a jeweler; each ring on the panel has a different mount.”

My guide pointed to the final ring, held by a cherub at the left-most side of the painting and asked “What do you think that skull is all about?” She continued, “I ask this of every visitor I meet!”

I have an idea, but I’d be interested in yours. What do you think the skull on the ring means?

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Thanks to Gaby Bürkli  for taking me around Lucerne and answering my questions, and to the Lucerne Tourist Board for hosting my visit.


  1. Family lore has it that a young bride died of the plague before her wedding after nursing during the outbreak and that she is painted into the Death Bridge. The building with the ring at Hirschenplatz was owned by the Goeldlin family.


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