Norbertine Celebrity Spotlight: “The Flying Priest”

BY ALEX GRUBER, courtesy of MAUREEN KOETS

He was banned from jumping off the buildings. That is a fact.

Fr. Caspar Mohr was born in 1575 in Biberach, in southern Germany. He entered Schussenried Abbey for schooling at a young age. Before long, the brilliant student was sent to Rome to further his theology studies. After his return he felt a calling to join the Order. His decision to do so was celebrated, as he was described as a “Universalgenie,” a universal genius.

In addition to his studies, Mohr was a painter, carpenter, metalworker, blacksmith, gardener, musician, organist, organ builder and clock maker. In his spare time, Mohr indulged his curiosity with flight. He built a foot-activated flying machine that would only work through body motion. He constructed wings that he covered in goose feathers and built straps that wrapped around his feet. There were also handles under the wings so that he could glide like a bird.

The abbot outright forbade him from using the contraption to jump off the three-story building, but Mohr had other ideas. He was able to soar from the roof to the ground on one occasion. When caught, he continued to test the wings in secret. A brother said that one day when he was working in the garden, he saw Fr. Caspar jump from his bedroom window. He managed to fly—for a while, at least (some exaggerated accounts say for two hours). When he landed, he broke his foot. While his invention may seem ridiculous now and was even laughed at then, Fr. Caspar was a pioneer in aviation 300 years before the first Zeppelin. His device was more functional than most of da Vinci’s flying inventions.

More than 100 years after his death, Fr. Caspar was immortalized in the ceiling fresco in Schussenried’s baroque library, built from 1755-1757. Corresponding to the directions on a compass, the domed ceiling divides the world into eight “sciences” or categories of wisdom. In Mohr’s portrait, he is shown with outstretched wings in a scene commemorating the liberal arts with other scholars such as Socrates and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Standing behind Mohr, there is a painting of Daedalus, a character from Greek mythology. Daedalus constructed King Mino’s labyrinth and was later locked in a tower to prevent him from spilling its secrets. To escape, he used feathers and wax to construct wings for him and his son Icarus. His son jumped from the tower first and was so overcome by the joy of flight that he soared higher and higher. The sun melted the wax off his wings and he plunged into the sea and drowned. The painting in Schussenried is perhaps a warning against being overambitious or engaging in risky behavior. It is worth noting that in the painting, Mohr’s foot is wrapped in a cast: yet another friendly jab at Mohr’s antics.

Regardless, Fr. Caspar Mohr remains one of the most beloved Norbertine scholars. Schussenried is now empty. It has been since it was sacked by Napoleon and given to a noble to use as his private castle in the early 1800s. But Schussenried is still renowned for its baroque architecture and for being the home of “the flying priest.”

For more information, visit www.kloster-schussenried.de/en/home or the Center for Norbertine Studies on the second floor of the Mulva Library.

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