Why a painting in Naumburg Cathedral is controversial

In 1519 the painter Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) was commissioned to create altarpieces for Naumburg Cathedral. But a few decades later, in 1541, they were destroyed by radical Protestant iconoclasts who believed that having extravagant works of art like these distracted the faithful from true piety.

Many sacred works of art were lost in the Middle Ages in the same way. Only two parts of the work of Naumburg Cathedral, considered one of the most remarkable churches in Germany, have survived.

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But now, after almost 480 years, the Protestant cathedral once again has a full altarpiece.

In the three-winged work known as an “altarpiece”, a structure placed on or above a church altar, two of Cranach’s original images have been added to a new painting by artist Michael Triegel. The new altar work is the combination of painters from different eras, and the project is called “Triegel meets Cranach”.

The church itself welcomes thousands of visitors each year. The Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul is located in the small town of Naumburg, located about 40 kilometers (24 miles) from Leipzig. The church, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2018, is world famous not only for its medieval stone carvings from the 13th century, but also for its lifelike donor sculptures, considered masterpieces. work.

Triegel’s painting depicts an almost sacred scene in the style of Renaissance painting. Mary is depicted as a young woman holding out her newborn son to the viewer. At her feet, girls are playing music, while in the background, people are holding a piece of cloth around her as if to protect themselves.

Looking closer, viewers will also spot a rabbi and a man wearing a red baseball cap, unlikely choices for such a religious work.

“Connected to the Cathedral”

Triegel says he has felt “connected to the cathedral since childhood.” The 53-year-old artist from the German city of Erfurt is currently one of the most important painters of religious art in the country. He gained international attention for a 2010 portrait of Pope Benedict XVI.

A few years later, the artist was baptized and became a member of the Catholic Church.

Triegel created a series of religious works in the style of Renaissance paintings, including paintings for the altars of small Protestant churches in Lower Saxony in 2004 and 2005 and large works for several Catholic churches in Franconia.

Yet the Naumburg Altar can be considered the artist’s most ambitious achievement to date.

A man from Rome

Triegel does not hesitate to add personal touches to his paintings. He reproduced his daughter’s features in a young girl standing next to Mary. His wife also appeared in previous works. This is part of the artist’s personal way of approaching the greats of Renaissance painting.

The person in the painting wearing a red baseball cap is a homeless man he saw on a street in Rome. Triegel wanted to paint him, approached him and agreed on a fee for the man to sit as a model. Now he represents the apostle Peter.

Over Mary’s shoulder, Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), executed by the Nazis in April 1945, looks the spectators in the eye.

The United Cathedral Foundations (“Vereinigte Domstifter”), a state foundation independent of the Protestant regional church, deliberately decided to commission the work.

The Vatican’s ecumenical minister, Cardinal Kurt Koch, expressed hope that “the renewed Naumburg Marian Altar” will become “a symbol of renewed ecclesial unity.”

A ceremony to celebrate the new work was also unique, as it was hosted by Protestant regional bishop Friedrich Kramer and his Catholic counterpart, Bishop Gerhard Feige. Cathedral priest Michael Bartsch also called “ecumenical solidarity” a “sign of hope”. Thus, an altar stands as a sign of reconciliation in contrast to the expression of hatred with which the original was destroyed.

A threat to World Heritage status?

Still, whether or not the altarpiece will be allowed to remain in its current position is currently the subject of debate. In recent months, representatives of monument protection authorities and ICOMOS, an international non-governmental organization dedicated to the conservation of the world’s monuments, have raised objections.

The organization claims that the altarpiece disturbs the view of the magnificent statues in the church. Such obstruction could cost the church its UNESCO World Heritage designation, which in turn would lead to fewer visitors coming to Naumburg each year.

The dispute escalated after the erection and consecration of the altarpiece. ICOMOS and the regional government of Saxony-Anhalt urge that the altarpiece be quickly placed elsewhere in the cathedral.

Until now, the United Cathedral Foundations had relied on the altarpiece being able to remain in its central position in the west chancel of the church for the first three years, after which a decision would be made to leave it there permanently. Now they want to shorten the initial period until December 4, 2022.

Yet because one can walk behind Triegel’s work, many opinions argue that they are uncompromised and should not be misplaced.

Triegel’s work was, after all, painted to fit its current location. It remains to be seen whether “Triegel Meets Cranach” will be allowed to remain after December 4.

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