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.