Nobody knew who he was, she said

THE 12th-century German manuscript of the Gospels, which sold at Sotheby's in London for about (STR)8.5 million, is the most expensive item of its kind. Perhaps you noticed that the news dispatches about this sale at auction neglected to name the writer. Conjecture suggests he is unknown, so the most successful scribe in the art of human letters can shrug in his oblivion and mutter Sic Transit Und So Weiter. Henry the Lion of Saxony and Bavaria was mentioned as the patron, but where are the snows of yesteryear? Pity.

Some years ago my bride wanted a hair-do, and I led her into a beauty salon in Mindelheim, a last pause for us before we toured into Munich. I had my small German dictionary in hand so I could ask to have my wife made pretty without throwing the beauticians into hysterics, and, when I would ask how long, I understood ''eine Stunde.'' That gave me time for a haircut, and when I returned to retrieve her she looked like the Marquise de Pompadour right after a severe fright, and I surmised the haridresser had been practicing on her.

But she was agog with a good piece of news. Just down the road a few kilometers was the farming village of Apfeltrach, where an ancient church had magnificent murals well worth a visit. Since my bride speaks only English, and still thinks Frau is short for frowzy, I wondered how she had learned of this. It turned out there had been one of these understandings without reasonable communication, an oddity at which she is superb, and when we drove to Apfeltrach we found the church just as she said we would. The coiffeuse had somehow conveyed.

At midday the farmers and families of Apfeltrach were off to their fields attending their beets, so the little village was deserted. The only person we saw was a beldame who had just mopped the entry to the church and was now putting the water in her pail into the flower vases in the cemetery. She answered our good day but had nothing else to say. Inside the church, we found the dry-fresco artistry as promised, and we spent the afternoon with it. We didn't have to fight a crowd, as we did afterward at the Louvre, and when we came to the lovely quarter-paintings in the dome we reclined on pews and eased our necks.

Perhaps not so many people have experienced the utter silence of an aged church on an off-day. We thought perhaps a priest would appear, but none did. Had there been vespers, we would have been found there, still supine on the pews , staring into the dome. But vesper time passed before we left the church and drove back to Mindelheim, satisfied we had seen some magnificence few, if any, tourists would chance upon.

And it seems to be so. In the years since the memorable afternoon we have heard of nobody who ever went to Apfeltrach and saw those paintings in that church. The Hotel Stern in Mindelheim remains one of our better memories, and at dinnertime we told the host, Hermann Fischer, where we had been and how impressed we were. He nodded, and, busy with his customers, he told his grandmother, who owned the hotel, where we had been. She then came to our table, sat with us, and told us the story of the Apfeltrach church.

Yes, it was very old, and the poor farmers of Apfeltrach had struggled a century or more to find the funds to finish it. When finished, it had served them for another century or so with unadorned walls and dome. But then in the Middle Ages there developed a kind of peripatetic artist who came up through the countryside from Rome, looking for churches he might work on. It was, Grandmother explained, a matter of easy living. The monk had free lodging and fare, set his own pace, and stayed as long as he was happy. This one, who came to Apfeltrach, liked it first rate, and stayed until he had completed the murals and the dome. He had moved on after that, she supposed, to another church and another sinecure.

Many churches in Germany were embellished that way, but it was the good fortune of Apfeltrach to have a truly fine artist who was something a good deal more than a journeyman. Nobody knew who he was, she said, but ''he was very famous.'' Maybe he worked for Henry the Lion.

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