Out with the Old: Berlin Evicts Its Collection of Old Master Paintings

The ongoing evolution of the art museum took a new turn recently, when it was announced that the venerable Gemäldegalerie in Berlin and its hundreds of Old Master paintings would have to find a new home. In order to acquire the Pietzch Collection, a group of works from Modern artists like Mark Rothko and Max Ernst collected by a German industrialist and his wife over the past few decades, Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie had to promise the Pietzches that their collection be displayed in its entirety. The only way to do this was to expand the Neue Nationalgalerie’s space at Berlin’s Kulturforum, by taking over the space occupied by the Gemäldegalerie.

Assurances have been issued that the Gemäldegalerie’s encyclopedic holdings covering the history of Western art – including paintings by Botticelli, Caravaggio, Dürer, Raphael, Rembrandt, Van Eyck and Vermeer – will not disappear into some basement. Rather, they will go on temporary display at the Bode Museum, a sculpture gallery on Berlin’s historic Museumsinsel. At present there is no word on when a new home for the Gemäldegalerie building will be built, for there are neither plans nor funds available for undertaking such a project.

The art world expressed shock this summer at the decision to evict the Gemäldegalerie, in order to obtain a collection of 20th century art. However it should not really surprise any of us that this could happen. After all, many of those voices expressing shock over this decision are the same voices who laud the work of certain modern and contemporary artists who demonstrate no artistic merit whatsoever. It was only a matter of time before institutions began to value such art more highly than the work of artists living centuries ago, many of whom worked in Christian themes.

Anyone who follows the art trade knows that for some time now, the market has shifted away from the Old Masters, thanks to several factors. The most obvious factor in this shift is scarcity. There simply are not enough high-quality Old Master paintings left in private hands coming onto the market, to be able to sustain the demand of would-be art collectors. New collectors are thus directed to collect in other areas, in order to drive up prices. This is one reason why the market for Impressionists and Post-Impressionists went through the roof twenty years ago, and why the same has been happening in Modern and Contemporary Art in recent years.

This is turn is tied to the practice of viewing art largely or even primarily as an investment. If in the past an aristocrat or magnate would purchase a Titian or a Poussin with no intention of ever selling it, unless involuntarily forced to do so, today’s collector is more likely to be of a mind to purchase a work to enjoy for today, and then sell it for a profit tomorrow. This explains the sense that one is watching a real-life version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in the art world, as we see prices for untested, contemporary art of questionable merit going beyond the point of reason.

However another factor in this shift is secularization. There is a greater market today for art whose subject matter is utterly incomprehensible, than for art depicting virtues or universal truths, let alone scenes from the life of Christ or the saints. Evocations of eternal beauty or Christian morality were gradually eliminated, as a godless civilization realized that without Faith, there was little it could celebrate in art. It is no accident that denigration and ugliness are more prominent features of our supposedly more sophisticated output of art over the past century. If there is so little hope or joy in modern and contemporary art, it is because those who create and promote it find so little to be hopeful or joyful about.

Though by no means a museum of Christian art per se, a substantial portion of the Gemäldegalerie’s holdings includes paintings of religious subjects. Like other museums of its type, such as the Louvre or the Prado, chronologically speaking the Gemäldegalerie starts out as an expression of the Christian Faith, and ends as an expression of personal ego. And while I enjoy seeing insightful portraits, still life studies, and sweeping landscapes at a great secular museum, I always find Old Master religious art in such a place to be a bit forlorn and devoid of meaning removed from their context. Try going to The Metropolitan Museum and kneeling down to pray the rosary in front of an altarpiece dedicated to Our Lady, and you will dealt with rather swiftly by security, or mocked by your fellow museum patrons.

The offer of the Pietzch Collection was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In one go, a substantial collection of Modern art became available which today would be cost-prohibitive for any museum to attempt to assemble. If that meant the Gemäldegalerie would have to go into exile for a time, then that was viewed as a non-unreasonable price to be paid. This is not a bonfire of the vanities, but rather a reflection of the fact that in the art world as in European society at large, values have changed. More’s the pity, those of us who care about such things might reasonably say to ourselves.

Unlike a private collection, a public art museum has to reflect the needs of the people whom it serves. If the people in question are increasingly secular and relativist, being unpersuaded of universal truths and standards, then institutions like art museums will naturally come to reflect that outlook, as old ways of looking at the world are put to one side. It should therefore not come as so great a shock that an ever-more secular Europe would value the beauties of its Christian past less than it does the ugliness of its secular present.


Visitors in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

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Cuckoos from the Ashes

Beginning in the second half of the 20th century, Western culture developed a fixation on bringing ugliness out of the ruins of loveliness, at least when it comes to the rebuilding of churches destroyed in wars or natural disasters.  We can all point to some examples of how these shotgun weddings between prelate and architect in recent decades usually turned out to be an unhappy ones for the rest of us to behold.  So with a significant new church-building project beginning to take shape in Haiti, which will no doubt garner a great deal of international attention, one cannot help but wonder whether what will rise from the ashes of that country will be not a glorious phoenix, but rather a marauding cuckoo.

The reader is no doubt familiar with the mythological phoenix, a bird which sets itself on fire in order to produce an egg.  After this self-destruction, a magnificent offspring hatches and rises from the ashes, symbolizing new life coming from death.  This is one reason why the phoenix was adopted very early on in Christian iconography as a symbol which would remind the viewer of how Jesus rose from the dead.

Of course from ornithology we know that no species of bird actually comes into the world in this way, but we do know about the rather curious way that a cuckoo is hatched.  Many species of cuckoo lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, in what is known as parasitic brooding.  When the fledgling cuckoo hatches, it kills its adopted siblings in the nest, or the cuckoo’s “birth parents” will kill the other little birds for it.  [N.B.: Next time you smile at the charm of hearing the chirping of a cuckoo clock, you might think about that gentle bit of nature.]

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, international relief focused on caring for the physical needs of those who survived it.  Burying the dead, tending to the wounded, and feeding, clothing, and sheltering the survivors were of primary importance.  Infrastructure had to be rebuilt, services restored, and the like, in a desperately poor country which never really had much of these things to begin with.  At the same time however, the majority Catholic population of Haiti needed to have their spiritual needs attended to, since food rations and water alone do not provide hope for something beyond surviving the next 24 hours.

The losses to the Haitian Catholic community as a result of the earthquake were staggering.  Not only was the historic Cathedral in Port-au-Prince completely destroyed, along with many other churches, but so were the offices of the Archdiocese and the Apostolic Nunciature, i.e. the Vatican embassy.  Even more tragically, the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, the Vicar-General of the Archdiocese, and dozens of seminarians were among those killed in the disaster.

More than two years have passed since the earthquake, and now an architectural competition is underway to submit designs for a new Cathedral in Port-au-Prince.  A look at the photographs displayed on the website for the competition reveals the extent of the devastation of the old building, and why it is almost certainly impossible to rebuild the cathedral to look as it was before the disaster.  According to the competition site, the destruction was made all the more complete by the theft of metal from the ruins of the Cathedral, including the zinc frames holding the few remaining stained glass windows that might otherwise have been preserved.

Part of me wishes that the place could be rebuilt, since it was such a lovely and appropriate building.  It was a very feminine, graceful church, mixing Victorian Neo-Gothic with some of the fantastical elements we see in contemporary French churches of the time, such as the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris. And the pastel pink and white color scheme used both on the interior and exterior of the building spoke of its Caribbean heritage.

However this is not to be, and if recent examples are anything to go by, I am afraid the Haitian people had better prepare themselves for the arrival of a rather ugly hatching in their midst. For example, the once-majestic Coventry Cathedral in England, which was destroyed during World War II, was replaced with a dark, oppressive, brick and concrete monstrosity. The lavishly-decorated Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, which was also destroyed in World War II, received two utterly godless glass boxes which are locally referred to as the “lipstick case” and “powder box”, since they look like late 50’s/early 60’s accessories from a lady’s purse.

A recent example from this side of the pond is perhaps my personal favorite – if “favorite” is the right word for such horrors. Even before he used the excuse of damage from the 1994 Northridge Quake in California,  Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles had been trying to have the lovely old Cathedral of St. Vibiana demolished, so that he could build something more in keeping with his appallingly bad taste on the same site. After years of legal battles with the city, historic preservation groups, his own parishioners, and so on, the Archdiocese finally obtained land nearby, on which was built a monstrosity popularly known as the Taj Mahoney. The lovely old Cathedral was de-consecrated, and turned into a local community cultural center – which, by the way, is still standing just fine, thanks very much.

I will admit that I am, to some degree, rolling out the “jump to conclusions mat” with regard to this design competition for the new Cathedral in Port-au-Prince. After all, the submissions have not even been entered yet, let alone the three finalists selected. And once a winner is chosen, it will still take many years and many millions of dollars in fundraising to build the winning design.

That being said, it is important to keep in mind that churches are not structures which are built every day. They are first and foremost buildings whose purpose is to glorify God, and serve as a place to worship Him.  From a practical standpoint a cathedral, which is the church that serves as the seat of the local bishop, is a monumental undertaking, particularly when it is being built in a country’s capital. Cathedrals always feature prominently in both the religious and secular life of a city, not only in their primary role as the House of God, but also as venues for the Church to receive and meet with members of the local community and with civic authorities.

Before anything gets decided, those who make the final selection for this competition should keep in mind not only the past and the future of Haiti, but also the unique opportunity they have to build something beautiful and inspiring that will last for centuries. Anyone who looks at the three examples I gave in this post and concludes that the replacements were better than the originals should not be allowed anywhere near a voting slip in this matter.  A country like Haiti, which is so much in need of hope after unimaginable devastation and sadness, ought not to put its resources into building something that is trendy now, and then maligned less than a generation later. In looking to the future, I would challenge the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince to remember that over the past 2,000 years, time and again history has shown that the most glorious, lasting, and well-loved houses of worship are those which seek to put God first.


Cathedral of The Assumption, prior to the 2010 earthquake
Port-au-Prince, Haiti