Heidemarie Seblatnig (Editor)
(Vienna: Facultas 2010)
(In German, English and Italian; 308 pages, illustrated)
With each year and in ever increasing numbers publications, books and websites struggle to understand the loss of art and beauty in contemporary Catholicism. – and attempt to outline paths of recovery. It is a source of dismay, particularly to the younger generation, that Catholicism and art, for ages so closely allied, now appear to be mutually exclusive concepts. Hetzendorf is a major contribution to this literature. It is a collection of essays focusing on the destructive developments in the Catholic Church both before and after the Second Vatican Council. The book takes its name from the history of a particular parish church in Vienna: Our Lady of the Rosary in Hetzendorf.
We are given an introduction to this church. Completed in a historical neo-Romanesque style just before the First World War, it boasts a splendid picturesque exterior. But it was also noteworthy in that it had received a complete set of furnishings and painting in the same style (similar in this respect to the roughly contemporaneous New York churches of St. Vincent Ferrer or Blessed Sacrament). Inge Scheidl provides, based on the example of this church, a positive evaluation of the artistic achievement of the Romanesque revival and other similar historicist movements.
In the Second World War this church sufferd some damage highly disputed in its extent. Taking the alleged damage as the starting point, pressure started (originating in the clergy) to make a clean sweep of the interior’s historical artistic legacy (only 30-40 years old!) and to make a radical leap into modernity . Heidemarie Seblatnig takes us through a detailed analysis of the process based on the publications of the parish. We see the relentless activity of the pastor in support of “renewal” in league with activist elements of the clergy of the Archdiocese of Vienna. The details of their arguments will be familiar to those of us who have lived through subsequent clergy –led renovations – including the claim that the creation of a modern interior was more in line with the architect’s original intentions! Of course there was strong opposition from the laity – and initially from the Archbishop of Vienna as well. But when Franz Koenig ascended the archepiscopal throne all resistance was overrun. In 1957 the interior of the Church was not just renovated but gutted: statues, ciborium, altars and reliefs were smashed, metalwork melted down and paintings whitewashed. The fury of destruction matched that of the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution or of the 8th century iconoclasts. The triumph of modernity was complete. And this was in 1957! For Our Lady of the Rosary was only the opening salvo for the onslaught of iconoclasm that swept over Austria and the rest of the Catholic church in the next 20 years.
(Here is an image of the present day interior of the Church. In 1959, after the events covered in this book, three paintings by the self proclaimed “visionary artist” Ernst Fuchs were set up in the apse).
Other essays in this volume trace the origins of the modern iconoclastic movement and provide a broader theological and historical framework for understanding the status of art in the contemporary Church. Duncan J. Stroik shows the conflict of the rationalist, “enlightened” and revolutionary art of the “modern masters” with Christianity. It is tragic that the Church adopted such art as her own just at the moment when its ideological basis was being questioned. Michael Wimmer describes the ideological gulf between modernist iconoclasm and the Christian identity, just as was the case in its predecessor movement of the 8thcentury. Ciro Lomonte reveals the surprising influences of theosophy and the occult on modern architecture. Cardinal Walter Brandmueller also describes the deep philosophical conflict between the philosophical and theological roots of modernity and the foundations of Catholic belief. Fr. Uwe Michael Lang hopes for a revival of sacred art thorough a new focus on the liturgy and analyses some of the official church documents relating to the issues discussed in this book.
From my own perspective, much of this discussion circles back to the Second Vatican Council and the exact significance of Nr. 123 of Sacrosanctum Concilium: “The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own….the art of our own days…shall also be given free scope provided it adorns the sacred buildings and rites with due honor… .” Now the intent of this typically ambiguous (and factually highly debatable) conciliar formulation is clear: to discredit opposition by advocates of historical and classical styles to the introduction of modern art in the church. Of course, in the wake of the council, modern art was imposed as the exclusive mode of artistic expression in the Church, especially in Europe. Cannot the literal language of the conciliar document be employed against this hegemony? Moreover, taken literally, this language does not say that any form of art or that specifically “modern art”, in its existing forms, is compatible with Christianity. As to the substantive issue of whether modern art is so compatible, the evidence to the contrary of the contributors to this collection is overwhelming.
The contributions to Heztendorf are clear and powerful. It is in the nature of the the subject matter of this book that the authors pinpoint and analyze issues, problems and possible opportunities rather than offering concrete solutions. Thankfully, the editor has made no attempt to harmonize all opinions expressed in this collection or to tone down the more forceful positions (including her own). For example, her praise of Msgr Lefebvre and denunciation of the antics of characters like Cardinals Schoenborn and Ravasi come across loud and clear. In summary, if you are a fan of Martin Mosebach’s Heresy of Formlessness, you will like this book. The essays all appear in the German, Italian and English languages. Those who know German, however, will enjoy this book more – the English translation of the predominantly German contributions is stiff and unidiomatic.