New art in the Diocesan Museum: hip Holy Spirit

The new exhibition at the Diocesan Museum in Freising surprises: with works by international art stars and a focus on physical ambivalences.

Red-orange psychedelic light

Installation by US artist James Turrell Photo: @James Turrell

Freising As soon as you enter the Freising Diocesan Museum, there is confusion in the control center of your own synapses. Did you think in front of the door: ChurchGod, dust collector, one wonders now whether an esoteric hippie commune has its common room here with a group Gothic punks in Game of Thrones costumes. Or whether a men’s ballet is dancing bras bas to Rammstein’s dance metal? Or if this is the pyro show from God himself, who is sitting in the corner and lighting the fire.

Once your mind has sorted itself out, you step through the atrium surrounded by high, white arcades and illuminated by a milky glass ceiling in the direction of the colorful light beam. It comes out of an alcove that has stairs leading to it. Bright orange light streaming like dense fog is seen forming an oval frame around a dark red circle.

Almost imperceptibly, the circle turns light green and the oval purple. In dozens of shades and sizes, circle and oval layers alternate colors from blue to pink. It doesn’t matter where there is a wall, where there is a border, whether the circle is the entrance into eternity, the center of an Ayurvedic light ceremony or simply an oversized lava lamp. What flows there beguiles the senses, you want to go there, in there, whether you take the noiseless rushing of the light that you think you hear to be divine or psychedelic rushing.

On the way to the light one passes an occultly crumbling stone pillar on which stands a skinny-legged angel, a ragged, dirty rag slung over his shoulders and bent over slightly so that his face cannot be seen. He half falls, half takes off – but the morbid sadness of the stone angel is less disturbing than just as beguiling as the colorful play of light.

Although the angel’s eyes cannot be seen, one feels his gaze or one hardly dares to take one’s eyes off the angel in the hope that one can reach and soften him through his rags of stone. Cold, rigid stone next to wafting, warming coloring, light and shadow in one room, life and death, joy and sorrow – thematically not a big surprise for a church museum, you just have to understand that that’s what it’s all about.

International superstars

Showing that religion also works in people and societies in which God, Jesus and other biblical figures are no longer considered sacred is the program of the Diocesan Museum, which reopened at the beginning of October. Erected in 1870 as a classical building on the Freisinger Domberg, it was used as a “boys’ seminary” until 1974, then as a museum.

International superstars were recruited to intensify the museum’s radiance: None other than the US land artist James Turrell, famous for his light-space installations, designed the play of light in the former chapel of the boys’ seminary. And the stone angel “Arcangelo” was made by the Belgian artist Berlinde de Bruyckere, who is one of the most important contemporary sculptors.

Also under construction is a votive chapel designed by US artist Kiki Smith, known for her dramatic body sculptures. All three are quite a scoup for the museum, whose responsible head shepherd is also a superstar: Cardinal Reinhard Marx.

But not Marx, but the museum director Christoph Kurzeder and his team have created the new permanent exhibition “As always. Only differently”. And they’ve made sure the museum isn’t going to be a bus tour drop-off point selling cheap incense-scented knick-knacks to seniors, but a museum for the world to talk about.

The exhibition is not aimed at holy amazement, but at entertainment

Located 30 km north of Munich, it houses over 40,000 objects, the oldest of which date back to the 5th century. It is the largest art collection in the Catholic Church – only the Vatican Museums are said to have more. In July 2013, the Diocesan Museum was unexpectedly closed due to fire safety deficiencies and a lack of a usage permit.

“Open House”

“Entrances, transitions, passages” is a motto of the completely renovated museum. At its heart is the “dialogue between church, art and society,” says director Kurzder. The house is “an offer, an opportunity” to get to know Christian perspectives on the questions of life, says Cardinal Marx. It should be an “open house”, “open to critical dialogue”, says Vicar General Christoph Klingan.

Architect Peter Brückner speaks of a house with “open walls”. Passages were created in almost all walls, which provide light, vision and connections. From the artworks to the architecture, the motif of crossing borders, connecting what is only superficially unconnected, is the common thread of the new museum.

The new permanent exhibition on the 1st floor therefore does not have to hide in the dark or behind the spectacular works of art in the atrium. On the 2,500 square meter exhibition area there is a sacred bustle of rosaries, crosses, prayer book pictures, coins, medals, cribs and kitsch behind showcases as well as a spacious and generously designed course that leads through the thematically sorted rooms.

They leave plenty of room to linger and walk around the statues, sculptures and icons. Objects that seemed too “fleet-footed, affected and pastel-colored” to the ancient church and were banned from it are on display.

Again and again, the looks that we encounter here cross borders: slipped, rejoicing, languishing, shocked, mischievous, suffering, dying, eager, tempting, pensively self-confident, funny or stupid, so many looks from so many Jesuses and Marys, angels and apostles. As with the eye-catchers in the atrium, the objects in the exhibition rooms also invite you to look at them from top to bottom, from behind and in front, from very close up.

Supported by the color design of the walls, boredom never arises. There is no feeling of walking past things that once stood in gloomy churches and are now mere dust collectors and symbols of dark times. On the contrary. One sometimes forgets to be in the museum and thinks one is strolling through the cultural landscape of an English garden.

More landscape architecture than liturgy

The impression is reinforced by the huge windows that frame the sacred work of art in Upper Bavaria: the cities of Freising and Munich, the Isar and the Alps lying at their feet. From the visual axes to the exposure to the spaciousness – the Freising Diocesan Museum is more landscape architecture than liturgy, more mythical Arcadia than a meager supper.

The exhibition is not aimed at awe or holy wonder, but at enlightening entertainment. Even the greatest unbeliever should have his eyes opened here. Not mandatory for the existence of God or the Divine. But for the worldly and ambivalent representation of physicality in Christian iconography.

You’ll stand in front of some paintings and look at some faces and think you’ve seen them somewhere before. On Instagram? Maybe. And yet not quite. Because on image-based media like Instagram, things are now much more religious than in the works of art of Catholics. What counts on Instagram is the perfect face, without blemishes, without mistakes. The faces on the Freisinger Domberg, on the other hand, are much closer to reality with all their flaws, pain and desires.

The exhibition in the Diocesan Museum is a good example of how the Catholic Church can market itself in the future if it somehow wants to survive: not by glorifying its history, but by educating about it. The diocese itself can learn something from this. The history of the museum, the boys’ seminar, is shown on the ground floor. On the evening of the opening, however, Cardinal Marx did not address the allegations of mistreatment by former students.

Next year should be really exciting. Director Christoph Kurzder plans to show the exhibition “Damned Lust” in the spring, which will deal with the dilemma of church sexual morality and hypocrisy.

The reactions of the cardinal and his church will be at least as interesting as the exhibition.

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