Bishop links synodality and shocking modern art intruded into Churches

Glettler: Dialogue with art is a "freshness test for synodality"

Guns in Church

Fishes in Church.  One can comfort oneself that a fish was the first Christian symbol but the purpose is not to evangelise but shock

Yes, that is a fishbowl altar. Altars which stood once for the grave of Christ.  

Bishop of Innsbruck advocates more "hospitality" for artists in the Church at autumn meeting of religious orders - Benedictines call for professional handling of historical art objects and everyday objects

Bishop Hermann Glettler of Innsbruck has called on the Church to actively engage with contemporary art and to commission renowned artists. Through "hospitality" for art in church spaces, a different aesthetic consciousness and a new perception is allowed, said Glettler, who is responsible for the area of "Art and Culture" in the Austrian Bishops' Conference and is himself active as an artist. Glettler made his comments on Wednesday at the "Culture Day" of the autumn conference of religious orders, which was held as a video conference due to corona. For the Church, he said, the venture of this dialogue was a "freshness test of synodality and a sensitisation to the signs of the times".

"We must bring the cultural knowledge of today into our churches," the bishop was convinced. The Church makes a statement when it allows in its sacred spaces "more than is often right for our frugality". Despite all the efforts for openness and dialogue, the acid test for this is usually whether commissions are given to artists for the redesign of churches or their furnishings. "Often people think they can do everything themselves. However, this carries the danger that one no longer allows oneself to be advised, fertilised and inspired by the aesthetic professionalism that has developed outside the churches," Glettler warned, and emphasised: "For Christ only the best, most beautiful and most valuable of the time!"

(Cathcon: Bishop Glettler's works of art perhaps don't live up to the standard he sets. Link to many articles.

Implementation examples of contemporary art in church interiors and exteriors: white sheets with "open stigmata", including a horse sculpture with a malformed head ("The Shame") and an implementation of the "church of fear" by Christoph Schlingensief.  Shame indeed!)

In Austria's Church there are some institutions - dioceses, monasteries and cultural institutions - that are making a genuine effort to engage in dialogue with contemporary art. The goal is a "living tradition that at the same time appreciates the old by looking closely and allows for the new". The Church should not overlook the fact that it has a "cultural responsibility for today", which also includes an obligation to quality. For the Bishop, artistic quality is one of the most important criteria; it could be ensured, for example, by inviting renowned artists to design competitions, which would then, of course, also require a competent jury to courageously select the best proposal.

Glettler also found encouraging words for commissioning "secular" artists, especially if their oeuvre already at least allows for spiritual interpretability. "There is much more spiritual interest in the artistic community than we think," was the bishop's experience. Artists are "seismographs" who can help clarify their own charism by looking at things from the outside. They are highly sensitive to the space they are invited into, for which they usually feel very grateful. Often they have become "interesting discussion partners" and long-lasting friendships have developed. Glettler said he was also pursuing a "missionary" goal: "It's also about how we can build a bridge and trust with the cultural workers of today.

Preservation of historical monuments for the "cultural memory"

But the proper handling of art objects from the past was also a topic at the "Culture Day". Benedictine nun, Klara Antons from the Abbey of St. Hildegard in Rüdesheim am Rhein called for the preservation of historical monuments to be seen as a help rather than a cost factor: preservation and professional inventorying of things from everyday monastic life demanded special attention. The knowledge of the background of a historical object and its significance in its time of origin allows it to "gain depth". Conversely, when such objects disappear, contexts of meaning and overall the "cultural memory" of a place, a monastery or a community are lost.

As an example, Sister Antons mentioned the so-called "nun's crown" of Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1079-1179). When there was neither use nor appreciation for the headdress of the mystic and church teacher in the early modern era, it had disappeared for several centuries and was only found again in 2020. With drastic consequences: For a long time, no one was able to interpret Hildegard's vision texts referring to it in a comprehensible way, according to the theologian and archivist. The saint's "revolutionary understanding of poverty" thus remained unknown for a long time.

In particular, the Benedictine also referred to a passage in the Rule of Benedict, which is authoritative for many religious communities, in which the abbot is obliged to keep an inventory of the objects of his monastery. "All the utensils and all the property of the monastery he regards as sacred altar utensils," Benedict instructed the cellarer of his monastery. Anyone who treated them carelessly or defiled them was to be censured, the monk-father wrote.

Team decision-making

Dutch art historian, Eugene van Deutekom provided insights into inventory practice. When monasteries are dissolved or merged, or when a church is profaned, the question often arises of what to do with objects such as statues, crucifixes, chalices and paintings, and which objects should be preserved and which should be given away. When van Deutekom is called upon by religious orders for help, he first puts together a team consisting of a neutral leader, a member of the order who is familiar with the cultural property as his representative, and experts who provide expert assessments from various points of view when evaluating the objects, the expert explained. During a joint tour of all the premises, an inventory list is first drawn up.

What is particularly challenging, however, is deciding on the procedure for the individual objects, for which van Deutekom first works out the guiding criterion for this, such as: "Is the object important for ensuring understanding about the Order and its charism?" Whether an object is consecrated and has a special connection to a saint or blessed - for example, as a relic - can be decisive for further use, as can its condition, usefulness, social perception and financial, artistic and informative value. "In the end, the options are to leave the object in place, to give it to a museum or other monasteries or churches, to sell it, to destroy it or to temporarily store it for a possible later re-evaluation," says the Dutch expert.

A handout for the inventory of cultural assets is currently being developed by the Culture and Documentation Department of the Association of Religious Orders, said its head Karin Mayr.