An exhibition on peace and Christianity is not an easy task. In times of terror, threats of war and increasing racism, religion too is caught between the power of peace and the potential for conflict. Nevertheless, the diocese of Muenster did not deny itself the opportunity to contribute to the exhibitions within the framework of Peace.Europe, which will take place in Muenster until September 2, 2018. Under the title “Peace. As in heaven, so on earth?” the cultural and art historical exhibition deals with symbols of peace in religion, the role of the church in times of war and peace as well as with religiously motivated conflicts. A large complex of topics broken down into meaningful exhibits, each of which tells a story.
Although the exhibition, which takes place in the studio gallery of the old LWL Museum building, initially appears concise and clear, time and leisure are needed to explore it. All rooms are filled with many and very different exhibits. In almost all the works on display there is, in addition to their art-historical significance, a reference to religious-historical contexts that invite the viewer to confront and discuss them. It therefore makes sense not to explore the exhibition alone, but to exchange impressions together.
Thomas Fusenig, one of the three scientists responsible for the development, conception and implementation of the exhibition, will accompany me on my visit. Next to him, Thomas Flammer and Viktoria Weinebeck belong to the curatorial team. The art historian Thomas Fusenig has a lot to share. We spend almost three hours in the museum together. He not only explains the exhibits to me, but also explains his exciting conceptual and research work running in the background.
Room 1: Biblical symbols of peace
The first exhibition room opens with the biblical symbols of peace. Here, of course, the dove with the olive branch cannot be missing. Thomas Fusenig explains that he recently spoke with theology students and to his surprise some did not know the context of this symbol. The dove that God sends Noah and his ark can be interpreted as God’s offering of peace after the Flood.
In this first section, Thomas Fusenig is particularly proud of a loan from the Bavarian National Museum: a wooden relief of the 10 Commandments by Veit Stoß the Elder from 1524. With a little patience you can locate and identify them. “The 10 Commandments are basically Jewish and Christian rules for an orderly and thus peaceful coexistence,” says Thomas Fusenig. To adhere to it would secure a certain amount of peace in a society.
Jesus also conveys this thought in a particularly impressive form in his Sermon on the Mount: “In it he invites us not only to regard the commandments as external rules, but to internalize them. An important step towards peace-loving people,” the art historian explains to me. The Sermon on the Mount is depicted on a folding altar picture by Lieven de Witte (c. 1500-1550). Thomas Fusenig enthuses: “We were very happy that we were allowed to borrow this object from Ghent. The Sermon on the Mount is very rarely found on altarpieces, as it has no fixed place in the service.”
Room 2: Meetings in the name of peace
After seeing these and other symbols of peace in the Christian religion we enter the second room. This is specifically about the “peace in heaven” mentioned in the title of the exhibition. In Christianity, a core element is the belief in a heavenly peace which people can reach after earthly life. This peace is often depicted in the image of a “heavenly city” in which peace and prosperity reign. An impressive exhibit in this thematic complex is a colored woodcut entitled “La Nouvelle Jerusalem” from the diocese of Münster. In a native drawing reminiscent of “Max and Moritz”, the paths to heaven and hell are set into the picture.
The next section of the exhibition is devoted to peace celebrations, the peace banquet and prayers for peace. Here you can find a fragment of a sarcophagus lid, which was specially delivered from the Vatican Museum. It shows Christians eating together, a tradition that prevailed in the third century, as Thomas Fusenig tells me: “Christians met to talk and eat together. The Romans were suspicious of these meetings as they brought together people of different classes and sexes, free and unfree.” Nevertheless, they were tolerated under Emperor Trajan – because they were peaceful, explains art historian Fusenig.
An important historical context in the framework of “peace and church” is certainly National Socialism and the Second World War. So it is not surprising that this period of recent history also finds a place in the exhibition. Documents of resistance, but also the Pope’s silence during the persecution of the Jews in Germany are dealt with. “For example, we were allowed to borrow the original letters from Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Harvard University in Boston. These are unique testimonies of the resistance that we can show here,” says Thomas Fusenig. The letter to his fiancée, written by the theologian Bonhoeffer a few months before his execution, is as touching as it is unforgotten, since it contains his poem “Wonderfully sheltered by good powers”.
Room 3: Religiously motivated conflicts
From these first rooms, the walls of which are painted sky blue, the exhibition area continues into a deep red. “Here we finally descend from heaven to earth. We are now dealing with secular wars and conflicts that are motivated by religion,” the art historian explains. The beginning of this section is marked by “normal wars”. For a long time, war was one of the legitimate means for people to maintain order. War was considered a “just war”, meant “in the sense of God”. This understanding is documented by a series of exhibits from different eras. This understanding was already fundamental in the Middle Ages. Three “classes of Christianity” are documented: God connects the state of the church, the state of the worldly rulers and warlords and the (unimportant) peasantry to a common force for a functioning society. A colourful picture of Bartholomew Bruyn the Elder (around 1535) depicts this “divine order”.
In various ways, the desire for divine assistance in the various wars becomes apparent in the following exhibits: flags with Christian symbols or covers, uniform buttons and belt buckles bearing the inscription “God with us”, pictures and postcards in which God is on the warriors’ side. God should help to be victorious – at all times and for all parties.
But also the resistance against war in recent history and the peace movements often refer to Christian motives or the Christian faith. A central and impressive picture for this theme is Otto Pankok’s woodcut “Christ breaks the rifle” from 1950: “We borrowed the poster for the Monday evening peace prayers from the Nikolai Church in Leipzig, which became the crystallization point for the Leipzig Monday demonstrations in 1989. With the rainbow and the icon ‘Swords to Ploughshares’, it contains several Christian symbols that can be found on all peace demonstrations,” says Thomas Fusenig.
Room 4: Wars as a means of spreading the Christian faith
The second-to-last section of the exhibition is devoted to a very difficult topic: the religious wars and the mediation of the Christian faith through coercion and violence. Thomas Fusenig explains: “At this point we also have to deal with the Crusades. They were originally designed as an ‘armed pilgrimage’. The participants of the Crusades received – like pilgrims – an absolution from their sins. Their homeland was protected by the church. Often in the end the Knights fought wars over treasures and territories.” An actual missionary work had almost never been the goal. This also had to do with the fact that any attempt to missionize was forbidden for Muslims under the death penalty. An active proclamation of Christianity as “the right faith” was thus impossible.
My favourite object in this context is a work by the painter Peter Paul Rubens: the “Allegory of Catholic Austria, which is persecuted” (1620/21). This exuberant picture from the Thirty Years’ War shows Austria in great distress, both from Protestant Bohemia and from the Turks. The highlight for Thomas Fusenig is somewhat less striking: a copperplate engraving from Cologne, made around 1634. It shows the triumph of Christians over the Ottomans. The Brotherhood of the Rosary commemorates the victory in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 by drawing a cruel picture: Mary holds a sword instead of a rosary, and the child Jesus carries the cut off head of an Ottoman in his hand. A unique and truly disturbing portrayal.
An impressive exhibition
The exhibits, which the diocese exhibition combines and shows, are all very impressive in their complexity. They document different aspects of the topic section by section, deal with contradictions and show areas of conflict. They are partly modern, partly very old, originate from church art or were put into the picture by secular artists. This diversity makes it impossible to name and present all aspects of the exhibition. You should therefore take the chance to visit the LWL museum and the diocese exhibition there and explore it yourself.
Image: © Alexa Brandt