Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. During this period, believers fast, pray, engage in acts of penance, and perform acts of charity in recognition of their own faults and failings, and in preparation for the celebration of the commemoration of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead at Easter. And this particular Lent, perhaps no one will be more conscious of the reality of what a vain, vapid, vituperative world we live in at present than the good people of Vienna, Austria, thanks to a new art installation in the magnificent Stephansdom, or Cathedral of St. Stephen.
No doubt to the eternal embarrassment of the Order of Preachers, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn is a Dominican theologian, who has served as Archbishop of Vienna since 1995. During his time in office, he has permitted a number of artistic and theological atrocities to be displayed during Lent in the city’s historic St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Tibetan prayer flags, anyone?) However, the latest installation which His Eminence has greenlighted takes bad taste and bad theology to an entirely new, and indeed monumental level.
One part of the latest installation is a sculpture of a hot water bottle on feet, placed outside the entrance to the Cathedral. Another, located inside the nave of Cathedral itself, is a sculpture of a man without a head, hands, or feet. The centerpiece however, is a giant purple sweater, made of over 860 square feet of fabric, hanging in the sanctuary above the high altar. You can scroll through this article to see photographs of these objects in situ.
The man behind the works at issue is Erwin Wurm (1954-), an Austrian artist who has never produced anything worthy of merit or even of consideration, at least so far as I’m aware. Most of his work is rather boring, and those pieces which aren’t are the sort of overly obvious pornographic work that one expects from an otherwise unremarkable art student. I suppose that his installation “Gurken” (2011), in which he lined a bit of sidewalk in Salzburg with a group of oversized bronze pickles, might be considered high art by some. However, since that installation would look just as much at home lining the entrance to the Heinz Pickle Corporation, it’s the sort of thing that hardly seems worthy of anyone’s serious attention. As to this particular installation project for the Vienna Cathedral, the fact that it hasn’t even been reviewed or commented on in any of the major English-language art news outlets to date is perhaps as telling as the reaction of ordinary, pew-sitting Catholics to its presence in a sacred space.
The justification-defense provided by the Cathedral (in rough translation), for the installation reads as follows, in part:
Easter penitence is the beginning of a liberation from the deformities of our lives and our environment. Fasting and praying free us from the dominance of consumption and let us recognize the difficulties in our lives. The priority of Christian charity in a warming and shining coexistence cannot be surpassed.
The encounter with these sculptures gives the biblical triad “fasting – praying – giving alms” a new taste and, of course, its own objection, which no superficial religious ritual of complacency can overtake.
Putting aside the question of whatever the author means by the practice of “superficial religious ritual of complacency”, in point of fact Christians do *not* engage in “Easter” penitence, but rather “Lenten” penitence: Lent is for penance, Easter is for joy. This is a rather basic fact, which someone who actually understood the Catholic faith would not have been so blissfully ignorant as to assert in a public forum. Perhaps it isn’t at all surprising, then, that those who thought this installation was a good idea also happen to be those who clearly don’t actually understand the faith which they claim to practice, at even a basic level.
No doubt one of the greatest Easter joys that Christians in Vienna will experience this year, once Lent ends, will come when this purple proof of prelatic putrification and its companions are removed from their Cathedral – one can only hope that His Eminence’s own removal, into a clearly much-needed retirement from public life, will follow soon thereafter.