Monday, July 17, 2017

A Visit to Innsbruck (1): The "Mariahilf" Icon of Cranach: A Protestant's Contribution to Marian Iconography

Right at the end of June and the beginning of July, I had the pleasure of spending a few days with a friend in the city of Innsbruck, Austria, where I had never been before. He wanted to share with me the cultural and religious treasures of his town. I was deeply impressed. As with every other place in Austria, Innsbruck is permeated with the monuments and the spirit of Catholicism. In a number of installments I will share with NLM readers the best and most interesting things I got to see there.

Today's article will focus on the cathedral church of Innsbruck, the Domkirche St. Jakob, which was rebuilt in the years 1717-1724 in the Baroque manner according to plans by Jakob Herkomer aus Fuessen and since 1964 has been the cathedral of the Diocese of Innsbruck.

In the sanctuary, directly above the high altar, stands the famous Mariahilf icon, a beloved painting by Lukas Cranach the Elder (1472-1563), which is considered the city's patroness (as we would say in English, Our Lady, Help of Christians).

(This last one is from Wikimedia Commons)

Art historians disagree about when this painting was executed. For a long time, it was said to be from 1514, but there is evidence that it dates from much later, when the artist was already close friends with Martin Luther and an artistic propagandist for Lutheranism. Whether the painting dates before or after 1517, one thing is clear: it is a marvelous proof of the truth of St. Thomas Aquinas's claim that we must judge the work of art differently from how we judge the artist as a man. Cranach was a master painter who produced many exquisite images of the Madonna and Child, and this one, full of tenderness, piety, and beauty, has been venerated by Catholics for centuries. Although Luther was not nearly as anti-Marian as later Protestants became (especially in the American evangelical and fundamentalist world), there is still something exquisitely ironic about a famous Marian icon, object of countless pilgrimages and prayers, coming from the brush a fervent Lutheran.

On July 3, 1650, the Mariahilf painting of Lukas Cranach the Elder was brought in solemn procession from the Hofburg to the then-parish church of St. James (St. Jakob), The centennial celebration ("Saekulumfeier") of the image's translation in 1750 inaugurated an annual custom of observing a feast on the first Sunday of July, called "Saekulumssonntag." Because I was fortunate to be there on the first weekend of July, the candles forming a crescent beneath Our Lady were lit up:

As I walked through the city, it was touching to see how many buildings featured reproductions of this icon -- a particular example of a devotion to holy images widespread throughout Catholic Europe, though sadly less and less appreciated or continued with new buildings. Here's a sampling from the streets:

And lastly, a 19th-century painting from the living room of the friend who was showing me around the city:

Back to the Cathedral of Innsbruck, there are side altars in honor of two recent martyrs. One is Blessed Otto Neururer (1882-1940), the first priest to die in a Nazi concentration camp, who was beatified by John Paul II in 1996. Some of his ashes are reserved here in the side altar:


The other is Blessed Carl Lampert (1894-1944) was an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime and was finally taken captive in 1943 and guillotined in 1944. He was beatified by Cardinal Amato in 2011 on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI.

Two other side-altars: that of the Sacred Heart, and that of Our Lady of Sorrows. Above the latter stands a larger-than-life and rather theatrical sculpture of St. Peter Canisius, who is indicated as "Patron of the Diocese."


To one side of the main altar is a tomb of two Archdukes, surmounted with a baldachin:

The organ is impressive. As part of the cathedral's organ recitasl series, an organist from Munich performed on the evening of the morning on which I took these pictures. My friend and I headed back to the cathedral for the concert of Muffat, Frohberger, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and (of course) Bach.

The frescoes in the church are well executed and characteristic of the 18th-century provenance, if not particularly memorable:


Readers of NLM will know of my interest in altar cards as artworks, and the huge variety of such cards one can find in Europe, where, strangely, they often remain at side altars that have not been used for the old Mass in decades. In the Domkirche of Innsbruck, I was delighted to see that all of the side altars had been constructed in such a way that the altar cards were permanently contained within a golden framework that would be impossible to dismantle without rebuilding the altars themselves:

Fairly small print, but then again, these are supposed to be mnemonic devices... Last but not least, one of my favorite features in any traditional church: the giant pulpit suspended from the wall, out of which the Word of God would thunder forth in ages when the clergy felt confident in their message and the faithful felt in need of it. The fact that these pulpits today loom like benign Baroque tumors while the clergy preach from toothpick lecterns is only one of countless signs of the utter loss of public liturgical-hierarchical conviction. It's like having the worst of both worlds: minimalist liturgy with maximalist bureaucracy. But now I am starting to digress.

Part 2 will be a visit to the Jesuit church -- including the tombs of a couple of the most notorious residents of Innsbruck.

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