An Omen For Our Times: The Altenberg Altarpiece

An Omen For Our Times: The Altenberg Altarpiece

A new exhibition at The Städel Museum in Frankfurt called “Heaven on Display” caught my eye in the art press this morning. Although the gallery is filled with beautiful works of art created over many centuries, as with any exhibition of this sort the visitor is cautioned not to forget the fact that such a show is something of a Frankenstein monster. Torn from the fabric for which they were created, and chopped into bits for the benefit of greedy governments, the objects on display provide a good opportunity for us to call to mind exactly why they were made, why they ended up as they have, and what we can learn from their story.

The centerpiece of the The Städel exhibition is the Altenberg Altarpiece, which was created in the 14th century for the Abbey of the Premonstratensian (Norbertine) Sisters in Altenberg an der Lahn. Its central portion consists of a well-loved statue of the Madonna and Child, which was placed in an architectural framework of Gothic tracery. This was flanked by hinged wooden wings, painted with lively, colorful images of scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and the Saints. The entire ensemble stood on the High Altar of the Abbey Church for centuries, and was greatly admired by numerous visitors.

In 1803, Altenberg Abbey was secularized by the local princelings, in collusion with the secular French Republic led by then-Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. The sisters were forced to leave both their home and their religious vows, Altenberg was stripped of everything of value, and the Abbey’s contents were broken up and sold to the highest bidder. Today, the component parts of the Altenberg Altarpiece are scattered among municipal, regional, and private collections around the world.

The story of how the Altenberg Altarpiece ended up in its present state is a part of Western history which at best is usually glossed over in school. While England’s Henry VIII is certainly the most infamous of despoilers of the patrimony of Western Christianity, a supposedly “enlightened” Europe decided to match his efforts beginning in the late 18th century. Hundreds of abbeys and monasteries were forcibly closed, and buildings, land, and contents were sold off. This was done supposedly for the benefit of “the people”, but in reality for the benefit of people like the (Un)Holy Roman Emperor Josef II, an eternal embarrassment to the Habsburg family, and those who backed the radical destruction of Catholic culture.

This practice picked up pace under Napoleon, and continued well into the 19th century. Spanish Prime Minister Juan Álvarez Mendizábal for example, one of the largest pigs ever to achieve the feat of walking on two legs, is responsible for the fact that many works of Christian art and architecture were ripped out of Spain and sold to private collectors. When you see bits of frescoes from Catalan Romanesque monasteries or embroidered altarcloths from Burgundy in places like Boston or Philadelphia, the secularization process begun under the Enlightenment is most probably responsible for how they ended up where they are.

Understanding how these works of art came down to us is important, since they are no longer serving the purposes for which they were created. In seeing the Altenberg Altarpiece patched back together, we can be reminded that while an age of faith created this work of art, and built the Abbey that housed it, an age of secularization needed to destroy these things. The visual impact of Catholicism needed to be diminished or eliminated by secular forces in Western Europe, just as the communists needed to bulldoze cathedrals in Eastern Europe to show that there was no going back.

In earlier times, man’s creative energy was put at the service of God, cataloguing his blessings upon us all. Today, surrounded by contemporary art and architecture that catalogues and celebrates the self, which accepts no criticism of any kind, we may very well ask what such things portend. As we head into an increasingly perilous age for Christianity, perhaps in seeing what became of Altenberg Abbey and its beautiful Altarpiece, we have a preview of what may be in store.

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Wings from the Altenberg Altarpiece

New Church To Glow At Ground Zero

I must confess that, being neither a New Yorker nor Greek Orthodox, I was unaware that a significant, new church is under construction at Ground Zero in Manhattan. Designed by Catalan architect Santiago Calatrava, the St. Nicholas National Shrine will replace the now-demolished St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which was destroyed on 9/11 when the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed onto it. The hope is that the church will be completed in time for Easter of next year.

I encourage you to watch the video of what the completed building will be like, and to pay particular attention around the midway point to see what effect it will have at night on its somber surroundings. Thanks to the materials that will be used in its construction, St. Nicholas will actually glow from within, rather like alabaster does when you put a candle behind it. Moreover, the placement of the building within an elevated park will give it a far greater physical prominence in the neighborhood than it held prior to the previous church’s construction. As the parish website points out: “It is clear that the Church will be a lamp on a lampstand, and a city set on a hill (cf. Matthew 5:14,15).”

What struck me immediately was how wonderfully appropriate this house of God will be, in a place where so many cried out to Him in despair. There is a tremendous, symbolic poignancy in the juxtaposition of this small but dignified building, located just across from the massive memorial fountain-waterfall. This part of the 9/11 memorial is certainly a very powerful design, summing up the feelings of those who lost loved ones on that day. Yet it has always struck me as being dangerously nihilistic, like a well descending into nothingness.

Although not a part of the 9/11 memorial itself, St. Nicholas will nevertheless be a fitting companion to it. You will not be able to visit the waterfall and pools without seeing the church, looking as if it was perched solidly on the precipice of an abyss, as a refuge from what terrifies us. It will no doubt receive many visitors seeking somewhere to pray, but I think its greater significance over time will be as a reminder of the bulwark of Faith, particularly in times of trouble.

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The Courtier in Aleteia: A Papal Pilgrimage in the Holy Land

Check out my latest for Aleteia today, reviewing Diana von Glahn’s new series, “A Papal Pilgrimage in the Holy Land”, which begins airing on Catholic television networks tomorrow. In this three-part travel documentary, Diana chronicles Pope Francis’ historic visit to the Holy Land, and in her own well-informed, enthusiastic way she introduces us to the people and places of this sacred but troubled part of the world, where Christians in particular have suffered so much in recent years. Follow the link in the article for air dates and times in your area, or visit TheFaithfulTraveler.com

My special thanks to the always gracious Elizabeth Scalia and her team at Aleteia for letting me share my thoughts with their readers once again!

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