Rorate Caeli

Contemporary "Art": Defilement of a Sacred Building with the Blessing of a Cardinal (guest-post)

“Corporeity and Sexuality”
A peculiar art exhibit in one of Vienna’s great churches:
Some thoughts from the point of view of art history and art theology

Tibor I. Szabó [First English version]

Built following a failed assassination attempt on the Emperor Francis Joseph in 1853, Vienna’s Votive Church (Votivkirche) is one of the preeminent monuments of the Austrian Capital. From 25 April to 15 June 2014, a bizarre exhibit was held there, under the auspices of Viennese Archbishop Christoph Card. Schönborn. The homepage of the Votive Church had the following information to offer on the matter:

This exhibit puts art at the center of a critical dialogue between religious and non-religious perspectives on human sexuality, the body, desire, and relationships. The artworks do not take up religious themes. Yet by exhibiting them in a church, they can take on a religious dimension, to be found not so much in the objects themselves, as in the context of the overall experience. The concept behind this exhibit is based on the premise that churches are more than a mere backdrop for liturgical functions. […] The exhibit aims to create a basis for dialogue between contemporary art and the so-called ‘theology of the body’. […] That is why each installation is carefully integrated into the church’s architecture and its religious significance has been respected, both in whole and in part. Visitors profit from contemplating, and engaging critically with, the experience the exhibit creates, from comparing their own experiences with those inspired by this dialogue, as well as from ensuing impressions.”1

Some thoughts on the experience

[Unbelievable disrespect - with the Cardinal's blessing...]

To those brave enough to scale mounds of bird droppings and dodge pigeon carcasses, the recent exhibit in Vienna’s Votive Church, with its secular works of art embedded in sacred spaces, gives a very concrete idea of what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once meant when speaking of today’s “crisis in art”.2 I had come to the Votivkirche one day, just before noon, to see what all the fuss was about. After overcoming the aforementioned obstacles, I found that, regrettably and with very few exceptions, the overall artistic quality of the exhibit was, let’s say, rather modest. The publicity hype, flaunting the names of several renowned contemporary artists3, had raised expectations which were not entirely satisfied; of the promised dialogue there was virtually no trace. Then came a surprise. I suddenly found myself in front of a side-chapel, separated from the nave by a sort of sound-proof Plexiglas wall. Passing by, I noticed a priest dressed for Mass, giving communion on the tongue to two young people kneeling reverently on the stone floor. The gulf between sacramental and profane corporeity could not have been clearer than at that moment. Though not part of the intendedly provocative exhibit4, it was actually this sacramental scenario that finally managed to open up some sort of dialogue, albeit one which seemed to invert, as it were, the stated nature of the affair. For the Church Triumphant had suddenly appeared amidst “non-religious perspectives on human sexuality”, as if she had come to gently, but very definitely, move such “perspectives” outside the confines of her sacred cosmos.    

Some thoughts on sacred architecture

Since 70 A.D. at latest, the Catholic Church has understood her sacred architecture to be the synchronisation of two main elements, which together form a single expression of the economy of salvation5. These are, on the one hand, Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, built according to the instructions of Yahweh as a microcosm of salvation; and, on the other, the Heavenly Jerusalem as described in St. John’s Book of Revelation. Thus it is not difficult to grasp that the Votivkirche, like all churches, was conceived with a particular function in mind6. In the Christian understanding, the church as a building is, through Christ, the legitimate heir to the temple in Jerusalem; but it is also the material and immaterial link to the place where the Lamb of God is enthroned and worshiped, i.e. the Heavenly Jerusalem. In the Old Testament, Yahweh’s presence in the world was established by the Ark of the Covenant, entrusted to His chosen people. In the New Testament, Christ’s work of redemption transforms the Ark of the old covenant into the tabernacle of the new one, by which He is present to the faithful and, through them, to the whole world. That is why everything which traditionally belongs to and is practiced in Catholic churches points to Christ’s work of salvation and bears eschatological witness to this living connection between heaven and earth, or rather, between God’s people throughout all ages (i.e. the Church Triumphant) and their Redeemer. This “analogy in Christ” is the reason why true liturgy and traditional Christian architecture are to be considered an artistic and theological unity. It follows, then, that a Catholic church is not a multi-purpose hall made to host just any old event. It also follows that any non-liturgical functions, any activities outside the worship of God, have their limits, i.e. some things are possible and legitimate, while others are not7. The recent exhibit falls into the latter category. It would be just as difficult to justify if held in a synagogue or mosque, as these too have their theological symbolism not unlike that found in Christian architecture.

Some thoughts on the concept

Bearing these considerations in mind, the art historian would be quite right to question the compatibility of such an exhibit with its location in a Catholic church. Finding a straight-forward answer is no easy task, however, especially in light of the aggiornamento of John XXIII and the decrees of the Second Vatican Council, which in their vagueness have allowed for a broad range of arbitrary interpretations8. What’s more, the “corporeity” as expressed in the exhibit is in some instances in clear contradiction to what John Paul II meant by his “theology of the body”9. That being said, any approach to this question must be open to the general assessment that the artworks in question cannot, of themselves, enter into a constructive dialogue with the sovereignty of sacred architecture and its salvific symbolism; nor vice versa, unless, of course, communion were constantly being administered for the duration of the event. These observations also pave the way for musings of an exegetical nature. Ezekiel 8; 5–16, for example, gives a fairly good idea of what Yahweh’s prophet might see if he were to walk into today’s Votive Church. We also have, appropriately enough for the Paschal season in which the exhibit opened, the testimony of all four canonical Gospels in which Christ drives the money changers from the Temple and repeats thrice the injunction: “My house shall be a house of prayer.” 10 It should, therefore, come as no surprise that from the viewpoint of art history, any forced union of “non-religious perspectives on human sexuality” with true Catholic architecture is detrimental to both sides of the equation and doomed to fail miserably. Apart from the fact that it flouted a number of artistic norms, this exhibit was, from the point of view of art theology, a decidedly bizarre and ill-conceived affair. Its organizers are not so much to blame for their choice of individual works of art, which, true enough, achieve very well their intended effect of being a pagan provocation amidst things sacred. What is much more reprehensible, however, is their wilful attempt to dissociate an autonomous piece of sacred architecture, a church with its multifaceted references to salvation, from its very raison d’être and to abuse it degradingly as a stage for libidinous paganism. Did those involved ever stop to think about how poorly that might reflect on the Catholic Church?     

Some thoughts on the sponsor

All this brings us to one last point. How could a man like the present Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna11, with his expert knowledge of art history and art theology, have possibly been willing to lend his name to such a patently dissonant project? How could he do so in spite of the Church having repeatedly emphasized that her sacred places have a primarily salvific significance and that as such there are non-negotiable limits to their use12? Cardinal Schönborn himself has had some very unambiguous things to say about artistic aberrations, and (if he still stands by his earlier statements) would probably be one of the most appropriate sources to cite on these matters: “Artistic activity must be judged, like any other human activity, according to whether it reflects man’s God-given dignity […] When man leaves the realm of ‘divine reason’, he undermines the very basis of his existence and denies the most fundamental dimension of his humanity, given to him by God in Jesus Christ. In that sense, ‘artistic freedom’, so frequently invoked, can only come to fruition within these boundaries which, if ignored, lead to the destruction of the individual and of culture.”13 In the light of such clear words, one can only wonder if the Cardinal’s support for the exhibit wasn’t rather due to influences which he deemed to have left him no other choice.

(Quotes from Scripture taken from the Douay-Rheims translation)
1           !ausstellung--konzept/cdhb (aufgerufen am 29. und 30. April 2014).
2                     Joseph Kardinal Ratzinger, Papst Benedikt XVI.: Der Geist der Liturgie. Eine Einführung, Freiburg im Breisgau 2000/2013, S. 112f.
3                     Cf. footnote  1.
4                     Cf. footnote 1.
5                     Paul von Naredi-Rainer goes into great detail in his work: Salomos Tempel und das Abendland. Monumentale Folgen historischer Irrtümer, Köln 1994, cf. especially p. 9-11; 46-55; 103-115.
6                     Hans Sedlmayr treats extensively of this topic in: Die Entstehung der Kathedrale. Baukunst. Mystik. Symbolik, Wiesbaden 2001 (reprint Zürich 1950), hier insb. p. 95-163; (cf. John 21,1-26). Dieses ergänzend s. auch Willibald Sauerländer: Die gotische Kathedralskulptur / Die inhaltlichen Bildprogramme der Kathedralfassade / Stellung und Funktion der Kathedralfassade, alles erschienen in: Werner Busch / Peter Schmoock (Hhg.): Kunst. Die Geschichte ihrer Funktionen, Weinheim und Berlin 1987, S. 65-79. (Es geht hier auch um die Vermittlung zwischen dem Antitypus des Salomonischen Tempels und dem Himmlischen Jerusalem als eschatologische Vision, wie diese gemeinsam im katholischen Kirchenbau eine zunächst sich selbst bestimmende, dann eine symbiotische Konstante verkörpern.)
7                     überblicksweise zusammengefasst bei Dieter Kimpel / Robert Suckale: Die gotische Kathedrale: Gestalt und Funktion, erschienen in: Werner Busch / Peter Schmoock (Hhg.): Kunst. Die Geschichte ihrer Funktionen, Weinheim und Berlin 1987, S. 11 und 16-22. (Nach der Meinung einiger Architekturtheoretiker spiegelt der Kirchenraum als Bauaufgabe zudem einen sich zwar über die Zeiten wandelnden, aber dadurch gerade auch einen sich über die Zeiten ergänzenden Gottesbegriff, so z.B.: Romanik – Deus est mysterium, Gotik – Deus est lux, Barock – Deus est majestas, wobei das eine das andere weder ausschließt noch auflöst sondern zunehmend zu einem Gesamtbild vervollständigt).
8                     Konstitution des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils über die heilige Liturgie, lateinischer Text und deutsche Übersetzung, Rom 4. Dezember 1963: Sacrosanctum Concilium Art. 122-130, insbes. Art. 124.
9                     vgl. Papst Johannes Paul II.: „Theologie des Leibes“.
10                  Matthäus 21,12ff; Markus 11,15ff; Lukas 19,45ff; (Johannes 2,13ff).
11                  so z.B.: Kardinal Dr. Christoph Schönborn: Kunst und reale Gegenwart. Vier Betrachtungen zum Verhältnis Kunst und Glaube, Wien 1994; ders.: Kunst im Spannungsfeld von Staat und Kirche, Wien 1995; ders. (gemeinsam mit Christian Spalek u. Josef M. Müller): Wir werden was wir schauen. Klarstellungen zum Auftrag der christlichen Kunst, Wien (o. J.); ders.: Die Christus-Ikone. Eine theologische Hinführung, Schaffhausen 1984, Wien 1998.
12                  in Anlehnung an Fußnote 7 kann präzisiert werden, dass die Bestimmungen z.B. für die temporäre Verwendung einer Krypta situationsbezogen kulanter gehandhabt werden als jene für den eigentlichen Sakral- oder Liturgieraum, womit sich u. a. eine deutliche Hierarchie der einzelnen Gebäudeteile zueinander nachweisen lässt. Hinzu tritt die denkmalhafte Bestimmung des Bauwerks (frei nach Hans Hollein), die sich hier mit der utilitas (Vitruv) verbindet. Es verbinden sich also im Kirchenbau metaphysische Konnotationen (vgl. Otto v. Simson) mit dem in der jeweiligen Zeit  technisch Realisierbaren (vgl. Kimpel / Suckale [ergänzend zu Fußnote 7]). Das Produkt wird demnach niemals Abstraktion sondern wirkliche Veranschaulichung zu nennen sein (vgl. dazu auch dementsprechende Schlussfolgerungen von Günter Bandmann).

13                  Christoph Kardinal Schönborn: zitiert aus dem Vorwort in: Georg Stein (Hg.): Kirche und Kunst. Die Kunst im Blickfeld der Päpste und Heiligen, 4. Aufl., Wien 1994, S. 5.

[Rorate translation by E.P.]