Many years ago, while wandering through the seemingly unending galleries of artworks at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, I came upon the works of Adolf vonMenzel. Particularly striking among his works, and yet not among the more celebrated, nor indeed among the larger canvasses he painted, was one titled Kircheninneres (Barocker Altar). As the title suggests, the image is of a Baroque altar, even though Menzel does not detail the altar, but only hints at its complex forms through dark brush strokes. The altar is illuminated only through tiny lights indicative of candles, while its bulk is illuminated from the day light that pours from a window behind the altar, and onto the worshippers who gather around the communion rail of the altar, like an orientalist’s imagination of pagans before their idols. Indeed, the figure of the Catholic priest at the altar is not very clear, and contributing to the possibly ‘pagan’ nature of this image are the clouds of incense that rise from the foot of the altar. The question I faced then, and which remains unresolved is, what exactly was Menzel attempting with this image? Was he mocking the Catholic faith? Or was he alluding to the profound devotion of the Catholics he encountered?
This image of the Baroque altar is not the only image where Menzel captured the rituals of the Catholic Church. Located in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich is a canvas depicting the procession of the Blessed Sacrament celebrating the Feast of Corpus Christi in the Austrian village of Hofgastein. Once again, along with the images of persons devoutly engaged in the procession, Menzel has sneaked in images of dandies and other lofty folk who are clearly spectators, but don’t seem particularly interested in the scared ritual. Rather, they seem to mock the ritual as some engage in conversation with each other, others stand apart and stare at the procession, and one young man in particular, actually looks out of the canvas and straight at the viewer.
Regardless of Menzel’s intentions, what definitely comes across from both these canvasses is the devotion of the Catholics involved in the rituals being represented. In both canvasses one finds people completely lost in the ritual that they are participating. Indeed, it is perhaps for the fervour of the devotees around the Baroque altar represented in Kircheninneres that this particular image is one of my more favourite, returning to me over, and over again. One such occasion was on a recent visit to Vienna.
Competing for attention with the displays of imperial power, were some of the Catholic temples in various parts of the city’s core. One of these churches was Michaelerkirche or the Church of St. Michael the Archangel. Now one does not expect to see tender displays of devotion in Europe anymore given the extent to which European society has become secularized, but this church of St. Michael, as indeed other churches within the historical core of Vienna, displayed a number of touching displays of devotion. Thus for instance, on my visit to St. Michael's, I found a fresh little posy of flowers resting on the side altar in front of the icon of St. Jude, and the wall behind it crammed with plaques of stone thanking St. Jude for his intervention in the lives of these devout. This was not the distant relationship with Catholicism that one would have expected in this largely secular city, but something akin to the devotion of the women one finds kneeling in front of the Baroque altar that Menzel depicted. At the same time however, the altar to St. Jude was a simple altar located close to the more ancient part of the Church and quite unlike the fancy alabaster crafted high altar that would have probably formed the more obvious subject for Menzel’s work. There is a profound lesson located somewhere in this contradiction, but like the answer to the question about the artist’s intention, I am quite unable to find it.
(A version of this post was first published in The Goan, 24 Aug 2013)