Why are some church spires in the Ziller Valley red and some green?

I love the Ziller Valley’s many slender, pointed church spires, reaching into the sky. But, why are some of the spires red and some green?

St. Pankraz, perhaps the most picturesque church in the Ziller Valley, which belongs to the diocese of Innsbruck.

© Werner Kräutler

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In school we learnt the standard rule: those churches with green spires belong to the dio-cese of Salzburg, and those with red spires to the former diocese of Brixen, nowadays the diocese of Innsbruck. The border between the two bishoprics is the river Ziller, which me-anders through the valley and after which the valley is named.  But why was the river Ziller the designated boundary? And, is it really true that the colour of the church’s spire signals its affiliation to one diocese or the other?

Red spire in Hippach

Church in Hippach

Hippach and Schwendau are on the right side of Zillertal. So the spire is red and belongs to the diocese Innsbruck.

green spire in Zell am Ziller

Curch in Zell/Ziller

Zell am Ziller is on the left side of Ziller Valley, so the church has a green spire and belongs to the diocese Salzburg.

Even in Roman times, the River Ziller marked the border between provinces 



“The Romans were the first to draw a border here,” explains Josef Kral from the art inven-tory of the diocese Salzburg. “Over two thousand years ago the Ziller marked the bounda-ry between the roman provinces of Raetien and Noricum. And this demarcation has con-tinued to the present day in the form of the border between bishoprics.” Quite unbelievable, I would say. 


If you assumed that Roman borders were changed after the Christianisation of the Roman Empire, you’d be wrong: the Church simply assumed the original Roman demarca-tions. In this way, it intentionally positioned itself as the successor of the Empire. The popes even decorated themselves with the title ‘Pontifex Maximus’, the name reserved for the high priest of the deity cult in ancient Rome, and later assigned to the Roman Emper-or.


Border between bishoprics since 739 A.D. 

It’s difficult to believe, but the river Ziller was fixed as the boundary between the arch-bishopric of Salzburg and the bishopric of Brixen-Säben (and therefore also Tyrol) as ear-ly as 730 A.D. From the spires, it’s quite evident that the parishes on both sides of the Ziller wanted to publically display which diocese they belonged to. 


However, at this point it must be noted that the division between red (Brixen) and green (Salzburg) is not without exception. It is sometimes claimed that, “the Salzburg diocese was richer and could, therefore, afford to clad their church spires in copper”. However, Josef Kral disputes this theory, noting dryly that, “there was no shortage of copper in Tyrol in the Middle Ages.


The best example of an exception to the rule is Jakobs Church in Strass. This church belongs to the Innsbruck diocese (formerly Brixen) and yet has a green spire. This anomaly is sometimes explained by the theory that, because of its copper mines, Strass had more money and the copper resources to afford a copper spire. Alternatively, it has been sug-gested that the colour green, as the official colour of the Tiroler Schützen (state guard), was used in homage to the defenders of Tyrol in 1809, who fought many battles in Strass. 


So, are green church spires a visible sign of the earlier wealth of a parish? Josef Kral doesn’t discount this possibility. It remains, however, an undisputed fact that these col-ourful church spires, which can be clearly seen from both sides the river Ziller, were an eye-catching and distinct sign of affiliation with either Salzburg or Innsbruck.

© Werner Kräutler

St. Pankraz, perhaps the most picturesque church in the Ziller Valley, which belongs to the diocese of Innsbruck.