THEOLOGY AND ARCHITECTURE AT THE TIME OF THE FALL OF GODS

Heidemarie Seblatnig (ed.), Hetzendorf und der Ikonoklasmus in der zweiten Hälfte des 20. Jahrunderts. Vienna: Facultas Verlag, 2010.
Review by Stefano Serafini

Yet at first sight, one may disagree with book’s title harshness («Iconoclasm in the second half of the 20th Century»), reading through the nine essays composing the volume, could result in a change of mind.
A polemics among traditional and progressive Catholics lies for sure under this work, but due to presented facts, data, and analysis, it results worth of reading also for secular Architects, Historians and Sociologists.
The phenomenon of a few men’s will of transforming a neo-Roman Catholic parish church, into a modernistic and quite aniconic building, in Austria, during the 50s, represents an interesting document about European culture after the Second World War.
Authors show and explain from different points of view the ideological reasons that lead to what, today, looks even odd, and really not too far away from the definition of “modern iconoclasm” offered by Authors.
The Rosenkranzkirche in Hetzendorf, Vienna (Church of the Rosary, 1909, architects Hubert Gangl and Eugen Ritter von Felgel) is an exemplar of Nordic Catholic neo-baroque, with a special character, that made it unique among all Vienna’s churches: architects worked together with the sculptor Franz Zelezny, who designed the interiors, including furniture, the chandelier, and the wooden relief panels of the stations of the cross, with the aim of producing an organic art work, even at the scale of the last detail. Work resulted in a imposing, pleasant, and harmonic building, with a strong traditional identity, but at the same time an original feature. A model of the project is preserved in the Museum of Vienna, while the Wien Technichische Universität has produced a virtual rendering of the original interior in 2008.
The editor tells us how two relevant religious figures, such as Msgr. Otto Mauer, and Fr. Joseph Ernst Mayer, firmly struggled for the transformation of the church, going even further, by finally destroying most of the furniture, statues, panels, and melting the chandelier.
According to H. Seblatnig, they did it for the sake of the liturgical reform introduced by the Council Vatican II, while D. G. Stroik, in his contribution, shows as aniconism to which they referred as an ideal, belonged to the very root of Modernism in architecture. It’s noteworthy that both protagonists of this story, were members of the ultramodern art association “Bund Neuland”, influenced by the Viennese Actionism, and behaved as patrons of the arts. Not by chance, card. Franz König instituted the “Otto Mayer price” for modern art in 1981, was carried on by architects Friedrich Achbeitner and Johann George Gsteu. «Sacred architecture become the experimental area of young architects supported by influential representatives of the Church who used the interest of the young architects in experiments to further their own schemes of liturgical restructuring within the Church» (p. 177).
Thus, a mutual influence among art innovation and liturgical reform worked in Hetzendorf, with the participation of high rank intellectuals and Church officers, and it cannot be recorded as a mere accident. For sure, it is an example of an elitist operation. It’s noteworthy that not only actors didn’t care about users’ opinion, but in fact they acted against the will of parishioners, the majority of which did not like such a transformation. People were considered too “ignorant” to have a say about what was going on with their church. At the very end they were cajoled (see Fr. Meyers’ speeches about the future “beauty” of the church) or fooled (the destruction work carried on at night), in order to be “rightly” driven. «The events around the Rosary church in Vienna-Hetzendorf show the intentions of leading representatives of the Church in Austria already in the year 1957, i.e. five years before the Council. Hetzendorf was a pilot project that should give an answer to the question: “To what degree can the faithful be excluded from the restructuring of sacred architecture and thus of the liturgy? What can be enforced against the will of the faithful under the headline of pretended ‘democratization’?”».
A larger reflection about the health condition of both Church and art, is carried on by Walter  Brandmüller, who says that both «Church and art must overcome this crisis of identity they have both come in because of the ideological development of Modernity» (p. 216).
Gherard Schuder recollects the origins of such a crisis in the thought of Martin Luther, seen as an expression of modern bourgeoisie, and refers to the very concept of incarnation as the real target of iconoclasm. Actually, most of the catholic supporters of the new liturgical aesthetics, declared a sympathy for Protestantism, and revealed an attraction for a non-analogical concept of God’s uniqueness, quite similar to that professed by Arius during the 4th century. The very Le Corbusier – atheist son of a Calvinist pastor – took his name of art from a Cathar, who had escaped the crusade against his sect. Puritanism and war against ornament seemed to form a natural alliance.
The same concept has been well explained by Ciro Lomonte in his contribution, fundamentally blaming the ignorance of certain members of the Catholic Church, too enthusiastically following the “zero option” of modern art, without recognizing the theological roots of such a position. On the other side, Lomonte suggests to react not by refusing the modern as such and, in doing so, “zeroing the zeroing”. On the contrary, contemporary Church should find the way to a new figurativism, with modern ornament and proportion, in order to be able again to exhibit the meaning of the incarnated logos.
The book offers a double (yet weak, sometimes) translation of each contribution, so that it can be read in German, English, and Italian.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s