Gottfried Helnwein designed an art project for St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna

Gottfried Helnwein designed an art project for St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna
Gottfried Helnwein in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.

An art project by Gottfried Helnwein in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna: This is “not a given,” said cathedral priest Toni Faber on Tuesday at the presentation of the first of three triptychas that the 75-year-old artist created for this year’s Lent, Easter and Pentecost. Helnwein emphasized that he was always fascinated by the fact that the great works of fine art and architecture “were for a long time the only means of communicating with believers.”

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“For a long time no one could read or write,” explained Helnwein; stories had to be told through pictures and sculptures. “That also corresponds to my intention: for me, art has always been a dialogue.” This dialogue runs through the entire history of the Catholic Church: “I feel deeply connected to this tradition. That’s why it is a very special moment for me to be able to show a three-part work here in St. Stephen’s Cathedral.”

Three large-format representations

The tradition of the Lenten cloth as a covering for the altarpieces has been extended in St. Stephan for several years by contemporary artists across the entire Easter festival circuit. The time will be used “to express something of what is important to us Christians in the language of contemporary art,” said Faber. Three large-format triptych representations by Helnwein – sprayed on canvas, combined with a light installation – express the descent into the realm of death, the resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit.

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For Lent, the face of Jesus from the Shroud of Turin will be directed downwards in liturgical tones in front of the high altar, and motifs of the “Memento mori” (roughly: “consider your mortality”), skulls, will be visible on the two side credenza altars. “I am very familiar with the liturgy, Christianity and Catholicism,” emphasized Helnwein. He grew up as a Roman Catholic, was baptized and confirmed, was a youth group leader and Jesuit student – and he sees himself as “deeply rooted in Austrian cultural history.”

“Many works today would create a shitstorm”

In the story about Christianity, the second side is often forgotten in view of the crimes in the name of God, “namely the promotion of the arts, philosophy and Western culture,” said Helnwein. “If you look at the history of images in the Catholic Church: it was always contemporary art, exciting, radical.” Many of the works – Helnwein referred to Hieronymus Bosch, for example – would cause a shitstorm today, “because we can no longer stand a lot of things in the age of ‘woke’.” Unlike Calvinists or Puritans, the Catholic Church courageously opened up to art.

In response to Faber’s statement that Helnwein’s works often shock “and shake us up,” he emphasized: “The important works of art that were commissioned by the Catholic Church always caused excitement and scandals in their time.” The frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, for example, were an absolute shock “because they did not correspond to the known iconography.” A pope wanted to have these removed: “But that didn’t happen because he was hit by a blow. Which could be seen as proof of God.”

“Religion cannot be communicated without art”

According to Helnwein, he considers religion to be extremely important for people, and he treats different religious beliefs with respect. Even an atheist like Napoleon or the homosexual and communist filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini would have recognized the importance of church and faith. And without art, religion could not be conveyed.

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