Border crosser between church and art

Border crosser between church and art

The Jesuit priest Friedhelm Mennekes, renowned connoisseur and promoter of art in the Catholic Church, turns 75 on Friday. In Cologne, as pastor of the Jesuit Church of St. Joseph, he founded a new church. Peter a center for contemporary art, the "Art Station Saint Peter".

The acrid smell prompted a firefight. Meanwhile, the fumes from large tubs of used oil in the nave had nothing to do with an accident. But with art – trademark of Cologne's St. Peter's Church. The art station was founded by the Jesuit Friedhelm Mennekes in 1987.

In this way, he created a unique place for the encounter between the church and contemporary art. On Friday, the border crosser between church and art will be 75 years old. In the meantime, the clergyman lives far away from his "child" in the city of Cologne – namely in Frankfurt, where he taught for a long time as professor for practical theology and sociology of religion at the Jesuit College Sankt Georgen. He gave up the direction of the art station already in the summer of 2008. Nevertheless, the work of the institution is entirely in the tradition of Mennekes, who was born in Bottrop in 1940 and has belonged to the Jesuit Order since 1961. He has created an exciting venue: contemporary art is presented in a late-Gothic sacred building – and, moreover, contemporary music on a specially built organ.

The scandal of 1994

Not everyone has access to works whose religious reference is not obvious, as in the oil pans by Japanese artist Noriyuki Haraguchi shown in 2008. From the beginning there were conflicts because of the exhibitions initiated by Mennekes. There was even a scandal when Alfred Hrdlicka's sculpture "Crucified" – a torso with arms and legs cut off – was shown in 1994. Mennekes defended the object showing the maltreated man and thus the executed Christ. Others were outraged by the prominent sex part.

Despite such conflicts, the tradition founded by Mennekes of bringing art and religion into a dialogue in St. Peter's lived on and lives on. Art should confront people – including believers – with existential questions, and also provoke them. On his departure from Cologne, Father Mennekes accused the church itself of lacking imagination and of not speaking the aesthetic language of its time. Most altar rooms, he said, contain "little flowers, little blankets, a mixture of seating furniture" and no artwork.

Church often too fearful

But the Christian message cannot be made understandable in this way. The contrast between modern art and the church no longer exists as it did decades ago, says the religious. But out of timidity, the church approaches contemporary artists only in exceptional cases.

Mennekes, who describes himself as an "agent of the Catholic Church for the art scene," has no fear of contact. Among the artists he presents are names such as Markus Lupertz, Joseph Beuys, Kathe Kollwitz, Francis Bacon, Gunther Uecker and also Eduardo Chillida. The Basque sculptor created the three-part cross altar "Gurutz Aldare" for St. Peter's – to the Vatican's displeasure. Rome insisted on a table made of a block – as a symbol of the only Savior Jesus Christ. Chillida's work has at least found a place in the side aisle.

Despite his openness to modern art, he "never wanted to leave the slightest doubt" about his Catholic identity, Mennekes emphasized. "There I am almost a right sock." Modern art, music and literature should not replace theology or sermon. Father: "The most important thing is that art teaches us to see people. Theology can learn a lot by seeing and hearing in a new way."

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