The Val Müstair, in the canton Graubünden, connects the Fuorn Pass and the Vinschgau Valley, in the Italian province of South Tyrol. Today it is a very quiet place, but not in the past. In the 1st century AD the Via Claudia Augusta passed nearby, linking the Po Valley with the north of the Alps, over the Resia Pass. At the time of Charlemagne (742 – 814), this road and the nearby passes acquired strategic importance. Charlemagne, already King of the Franks, defeated the Lombards at the siege of Pavia in 774 and became their King. In 788, he further extended his reign by vanishing the rebellious Tassilo III, Duke of Bavaria. The Müstair and Vinschgau valleys, both under the control of the Bishop of Chur, were therefore like a wedge drive between these two territories. No doubt the Benedictine monastery of St John was also built to secure the passage between north and south.
A number of elements indicate the importance of the monastery’s founder: the mentioned historical context but also various archaeological finds and dendrochronological datings which show the oldest timber to be from the year 775, as well as the sophisticated design and the overall dimensions of the building – the original Carolingian abbey was bigger than today’s convent. Thus according to local tradition, the founder was none other than Charlemagne himself. And indeed the King was generous towards the Church of Rome which he also used as an instrument for the accomplishment of his political objectives. It is also possible however that the actual founder of Müstair was the Bishop of Chur, acting on behalf of Charlemagne and with the latter’s financial support.
The monastery was conceived from the start as both a place of worship and a residence for persons of consequence. It was the Bishop’s secondary seat, in the southwest of his diocese. The Carolingian monastery had a church with a single hall, three apses and annexes. A cloister and a farmyard garden were adjacent to the church.