Vienna cardinal explains stand on erotic Last Supper painting

April 9, 2008

Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, 7 March 2008/Heinz-Peter BaderWe recently wrote about an exhibition in Vienna’s Roman Catholic Cathedral which has caused quite a stir — it included a homoerotic version of Christ’s Last Supper by Austrian artist Alfred Hrdlicka. The picture was quickly taken down at the request of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna.

The cardinal has now made a statement about the exhibition regretting the work was ever shown but describing Hrdlicka as one of Austria’s most notable artists. He also says art inspired by biblical subjects is something to be welcomed, even if the artists themselves are atheists. The full statement, sent to Reuters in English, is copied below.

There’s been a lot of criticism of Cardinal Schönborn on religion blogs connected to this exhibition. What do you think of his statement?

“The Vienna Cathedral Museum has dedicated a special exhibition, for which the museum’s director, Dr Bernhard Böhler, is personally responsible, to the artist Alfred Hrdlicka on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Hrdlicka is one of Austria’s most notable living artists who, probably more than any other living artist, has devoted himself to the suffering and downtrodden human being and has appealed for “compassion” with Museum visitors study Alfred Hrdlicka paintings of Jesus’s scourging and crucufixion, 7 April 2008/Heinz-Peter Baderthe “Passion”. He expresses this “compassion” in a most perturbing way. Hrdlicka`s best-known works in this respect are the “Danse macabre of Plötzensee” (Berlin) and his impressive Holocaust Memorial (Memorial Against War and Fascism) in front to the Albertina Gallery in Vienna. It is for this reason that I agreed to an exhibition of his works at the Cathedral Museum, albeit without detailed knowledge of the individual works to be exhibited.

“Alfred Hrdlicka has dealt with biblical subjects all his life, especially with the suffering of Christ. In spite of the fact that he claims to be a communist and an atheist, he nevertheless has a burning interest in the Holy Bible, and has personally admitted that he has a great longing for faith.

Alfred Hrdlicka, 10 March 2008/Leonhard Foeger“This exhibition does not mean that the museum identifies itself with all of Hrdlicka`s works. In some of them he oversteps the essential threshold of respect for the Sacred. From the point of view of committed Christians, certain of his works must quite clearly be rejected. I obviously would not have agreed to have blasphemous or pornographic works exhibited. I therefore explicitly regret that a work of this kind was exhibited without my knowledge. I ordered the particular work – which committed believers find deeply distressing – to be removed on 20 March.

“Nevertheless, I still hold the opinion that we must welcome the fact that artists who do not share our faith, or are still searching for belief, occupy themselves so intensively with biblical subjects.”


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[…] Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, issued, as reported by a Reuters blog, a statement that is noteworthy as a mature example of a spiritually healthy, art-friendly, intellectua…. We reproduce the full statement, in its original English, below: “The Vienna Cathedral Museum […]

Posted by Curator & Collector » Orgies at the Last Supper: Faith, Blasphemy, Art, and Museums | Report as abusive

Thank you so much for this very informative article. I’m pleased to have discovered this blog, and have bookmarked it for the future. Meanwhile, I have created a small post on this subject at .

Best wishes, N.

Posted by Nathan B. | Report as abusive

“Nevertheless, I still hold the opinion that we must welcome the fact that artists who do not share our faith, or are still searching for belief, occupy themselves so intensively with biblical subjects.”


Vile, vile,
Down the aisle
Narcissistic freaks they file,

Not the fools
Who feign their gaiety…
But tolerant white sepulchred laity.

Posted by Hilary Flanery | Report as abusive

Thanks for the news…

While I appreciate Cardinal Schönborn’s due response, it is still rather insignificant.

…the museum’s director, Dr Bernhard Böhler, is personally responsible…..

I agree with the above statement, but the interview is laced with some fallacies. Cardinal Schönborn continues, “I agreed to an exhibition of his(Hrdlicka) works at the Cathedral Museum, albeit without detailed knowledge of the individual works to be exhibited… The Cardinal is also personally responsible for the display and ultimately is the final word in what would be displayed.
The Cardinal goes on to sound very well read on the topic of Hrdlicka as an artist and stated that Hrdlicka admitted to “longing for faith.” One, certainly he is well read NOW on Hrdlicka, but for Hrdlicka’s being one, if not “the most notable of any living artists” in one’s own country and having a reputable museum attached… cluelessness abound.

Two, I will liken Hrdlicka’s placement in the museum to that of a well known regional figure and artist of the past, the ever popular… Adolf Hitler. Why doesn’t Dr. Bernhard Böhler or Cardinal Schönborn agree to put some of his artwork in the Museum…? Hitler also admitted to longing for faith had a great longing for faith, however misguided that may have been.

I am waiting for news of Dr. Bernhard Böhler’s termination of his post…

Posted by Michael | Report as abusive

The Cardinal sounds like a politician. He had the infamous ‘last supper’ removed but left the other pruient ‘art,’ in the name of art, I suppose. The Cardinal’s poor judgement ranks with the poor judgement of all too many Cardinals and bishops. I think in particular of Cardinal Law who has yet to be held accountable for his egreious administration. Is there no accountability for the base judgements of members of the hierarchy. Do they suppose that they shall not be addressed with the words: “Get thee behind me, Satan”?

Posted by Raymond Cote | Report as abusive

A rare example of non-conform, contemporary art, that moves, inspires and motivates own thinking – Greek drama at it’s best… so, this is Old Europe: Refreshing every day!!! Congratulations to the artist!

Posted by Armin | Report as abusive

you really have no idea what damages has been done to the church do you? that’s why you people are talking about this so logically! you say this man; this painter was looking for faith yet his acts only seemed to be destroying the faith of others… it is alright when people outside of the church make or say blasphemous things at least we know where not to look but in the church how we can escape!! this is really bad!!! And the director of a “cathedral museum” not realizing the damage what he allowed we do to peoples faith or the cardinal who is sounding so diplomatic in a issue of this magnitude… is this really a roman catholic church. Men may God forgive you all because i finding it difficult to do so. Yes the fact that such art is a normalty in venice does it make it right as the fact that almost everyone is sexually promiscuous doesn’t it make it right. if so surely Sodom and Gomorrah should never have been destroyed. So i unlike the above statement poster do not praise the cardinal’s because in his words i do not feel any remorse only a lot of deceit … men i am hurting on a very deep level… on a level i never thought possible…

Posted by chukwudi | Report as abusive

I fail to see how Hrdlicka, or any other artist for that matter, can be “destroying the faith of others” when those others were at no time forced to view or consider the works in question. The Archbishop was following a long-standing tradition of Roman-Catholic patronage by supporting the exhibition and an even longer-standing tradition of playing politics for personal protection in the Church hierarchy when he dissembled as to his role in “allowing” the exhibition. Several popes, most recently John Paul II have praised artistic impressionism in creatively interpreting sacred scenes for their ability to create religious dialogue. Certainly this example has done that. Finally, to the unfortunate poster who erroneously and inflammatorily cited the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, those cities were destroyed, according to the Bible, for lack of charity. Perhaps your time would be better spent reading rather than thumping your Bible.

Posted by xander | Report as abusive