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.


Wings from the Altenberg Altarpiece

When Experts Fail: The Sacred and Profane in Art

An article published yesterday in The Art Newspaper regarding some important frescoes in Rome piqued my interest, and at the same time made me raise an eyebrow as I did further reading.  So I’m going to take this opportunity to explain a little bit, gentle reader, about why too often the media and even supposed art experts themselves, are sources whose pronouncements need to be taken with more than a pinch of salt.  Too often such sources do not really seem to understand how a supposedly profane work of Christian art is, in fact, actually representing a very sacred concept.

We do need to be a little bit careful about using the term “profane” in this context.  By “profane”, we don’t mean something irreverent or scandalous, as we would when using the word, “profanity”.  Rather, in the study of art history there is a general delineation between sacred art, which deals with religious subjects, and profane art, which deals with secular subjects.   It can get confusing however, when something which at first glance might seem to fall into one category is, in fact, of the other.

Take for example Raphael’s magnificent 16th century portrait of Pope Leo X flanked by two of his cardinals, now in the Uffizi in Florence.  This is a secular work of art, even though it portrays a religious figure.  The intent of the painting is not to glorify God, but rather the sitter.  Being a Medici, Leo had excellent taste, but as was generally true of his family he was also rather prone to indulge in greed and excess.  Since this was definitely not one of the saintly popes, this was not an image designed to lead the viewer into some contemplation of things beyond the material world.

On the other hand, something which seems to be a work of art depicting secular subject matter may, in fact, have a deeper, spiritual meaning.  It’s here where oftentimes the present-day art community gets things terribly wrong.  If you have ever suffered through the exasperation of an art museum tour of Catholic art with a docent who is clearly not a Catholic, let alone a Christian, who authoritatively and incorrectly describes various aspects of theology or Church history, then you know what I mean.

Thus, the aforementioned article, about the restoration of a decorated 13th century hall in the Santi Quattro Coronati convent in Rome, is a bit of a head-scratcher.  The headline declares that this is the most important “profane” medieval fresco cycle in Italy.  The problem is, we are looking at a 13th century work of art with 21st century eyes, when we call this decoration “profane”.

If we think of the people of the Middle Ages as somehow being in the dark, “Dark Ages”, then we simply do not understand the era in which they lived.  Around the time that these frescoes were painted, the city of Paris had seen the dedication of the glorious, light-filled Sainte-Chapelle, a marvel of structural engineering even to this day, and nearby St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Albert Magnus were teaching philosophy and writing books which we still study, over seven centuries later.  Elsewhere, Jordanus de Nemore was publishing his hugely influential findings on a variety of mathematical and scientific subjects, from the study of weights, gravity, and forces, to treatises on advanced algebra, geometry, and the measurement of spheres.  There was a far more sophisticated, thoughtful, and innovative civilization in Europe in the Middle Ages, than is often recognized today.

This fresco cycle then, while seemingly profane, is in fact full of sophisticated allegories and important lessons about living the Christian life.  In portraying people engaged in work during different months of the year for example, accompanied by the respective Zodiac symbol for each month, the message was easily understandable by the people for whom these frescoes were painted.  The importance of trying one’s best to follow the Divine Order of things was encapsulated in this general type of art, typically referred to as “The Labor of the Hours”. It was a popular theme during the Middle Ages, from paintings to sculpture to book illustrations.

In some sense, a fresco cycle such as this is an embodiment of the concept of the relationship between God and Man contained in the familiar verses of Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes.  Man must recognize that God is God, and that Man is not God, but rather a created being – even if a beloved one.  All of Creation exists and is sustained through God’s Will, and it is the duty of Man to seek God’s Will and carry it out, wherever he may find himself in life: young or old, healthy or sick, rich or poor, nobleman or peasant.

Someone who does not understand this particular concept, put even more succinctly by Christ in his command to “Take up your cross and follow me,” is not going to get why these images, which seem to be profane, are, in fact, sacred.  In a way, such persons are rather like the pagans of the early days of Christianity, who would think nothing upon seeing the image of a fish scrawled on the ground, passing by unaware that it was a symbol for Christ.  Unfortunately, too often those who do not really understand sacred concepts, or have their own socio-political agendas which they are seeking to push, look at art like this and simply interpret it for an unsuspecting public however they like, sometimes to the point of laughability.

That’s why it’s important to bring examples of bad reporting like this to your attention.  Here, where the art is clearly sacred rather than profane in nature, we have a good example of why questioning the source is, as always, hugely important.  If we do so, then we can not only better understand our Western heritage, abut we can also make our way down the road toward reclaiming it, from those who, whether intentionally or through ignorance, are trying to turn it into something it is not.

Detail of "October" by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250) Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome

Detail of “October” by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250)
Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome



Rejoicing with Our Mothers

As I write this, I’m on my way home to Pennsylvania for Mother’s Day weekend to visit my parents.  In my family we’ve never made a big deal of either Mother’s Day or Father’s Day – too secular and commercial, my Mother always said.  Realistically however, their children know that they would love a little something, even just a greeting card, to let them know that we are grateful for the gift of life they gave us.

The other day a friend on social media observed that he was unaware of which holiday he was supposed to be celebrating on that particular day of the week.  Secularism has provided us with a wealth of these invented occasions to make up for the emptiness that materialism and the objectification of others has brought to our culture.  If you do an online search for holidays, you will find not only the familiar ones, both historic and religious, but ones you have probably never heard of.  The “Great American Grump Out” was one of a dozen “holidays” that just so happened to fall upon the date in question.

Fortunately, as a Catholic, I have other days that I can mark, which are the Feasts and Saints’ Days celebrated by the Church for centuries.  Sometimes these celebrations have a local flavor, like the floral carpets laid out on sidewalks in Catalonia for Corpus Christi, or they may be more internationally popular, such as eating fatty foods on Mardi Gras, i.e. “Fat Tuesday”.  Other opportunities exist to revive or interpret traditions of your own, such as going out for pints on the Feast of St. Arnold, the patron saint of brewers.

While Mother’s Day is really little more than a commercially designed opportunity to make you feel bad and spend money, fortunately it comes during the month of May, which traditionally has been dedicated to Our Lady.  It’s a chance during this Easter season to appreciate the words of the ancient prayer known as the “Regina Coeli”, with its emphasis on how indeed she whom the Angel Gabriel called, “full of grace”, was blessed to be able to see God’s promise to His people fulfilled, in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.  “The Son whom you merited to bear, Alleluia, has risen, as He said, Alleluia.”

Perhaps this Mother’s Day Sunday, that is something for all of us to focus on, more than we do on cards, flowers, or taking our mothers to brunch.  Our mothers said “Yes” to bearing us, their children, and we should each individually be grateful for that.  Yet the “Yes” of this one mother 2,000 years ago in Judea, the one who was made our heavenly mother by her Divine Son even as He was dying on the Cross, led to the hope for eternal life which all Christians share.  Let’s be sure to thank her, too, for being such a good mother to all of us in the Church, through her willingness to seek the Will of God, and for setting an example of perseverance in Faith, no matter what happens, which all of us can try to follow.

Detail of "Christ Appearing to His Mother After the Resurrection" by Jan Mostaert (c. 1520) Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede, The Netherlands

Detail of “Christ Appearing to His Mother After the Resurrection” by Jan Mostaert (c. 1520)
Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede, The Netherlands