Graz, Austria: Feeding the soul

When it comes to feeding the soul, there is no shortage of churches in Graz. The skyline is dotted with spires and steeples. Centuries of religiosity hang in the air. It was all rather wonderful.

The mid-fifteenth-century Gothic cathedral dedicated to St Giles is furnished in Baroque style. The frescoes date back to the days of Emperor Frederick III. Perhaps with a nod to his regalness, one of St Christopher could be mistaken for Frederick, especially with the giveaway crown. With so much to see in these churches, it pays to read up on them beforehand so that you don’t miss anything. I missed everything.

I’d have liked to have seen Paola Gonzaga’s wedding chests, repurposed by the Jesuits when they inherited them as reliquaries for the bones of Christian martyrs.

The organ, with its 5000+ pipes and 70+ stops, is the newest addition to the cathedral, making its first appearance in 1978.

On the church exterior, there’s a well-preserved fresco – Gottesplagenbild – which depicts the story of the plague in Graz. Apparently, 1480 was a bad year for the locals.  I don’t know how I missed this.

collage of six photos of the interior of Graz cathedral - full fresco showing a bearded man; half fresco showing the head of a man wearing a crown; altarpiece; carved end of a church pew, pulpit with staircase, organ gallery

Ferdinand III seems to have been quite the character. He made the abbreviation AEIOU his own, one that has left people guessing for centuries:

  • “All the world is subject to Austria” (Alles Erdreich ist Österreich untertan or Austriae est imperare orbi universo)
  • “I am loved by the elect” (from the Latin amor electis, iniustis ordinor ultor)
  • “Austria is best united by the Empire” (Austria est imperio optime unita)
  • “Austria will be the last (surviving) in the world” (Austria erit in orbe ultima)
  • “It is Austria’s destiny to rule the whole world” (Austriae est imperare orbi universo)

Practically next door to the cathedral is the seventeenth-century mausoleum housing the remains of Ferdinand II. At least, that’s what I think it is. There is a much bigger mausoleum on the far side that opens twice a week and has paid entry. This one seems to be open every day and entry is free. Whatever it is, the frescos are stunning. Again, it’s somewhere you’d need to read up on beforehand to get the most out of it.

The staging of a “sacred theatre” is remarkable: from the lantern at the top of the dome, God the Father looks through the oval opening in the floor into the crypt room below. The statues Faith, Hope, Love and Justice are in the round arched niches  Considered a major work by the sculptor Veit Königer, around 1768.

I was on a mission though. I was searching for a church I’d read about that had a most unusual addition to one of its stained glass windows – the Stadtpfarrkirche.

Frederick III had the original fifteenth-century Corpus Christi chapel built in what was once the city’s Jewish quarter. He later donated the chapel to the Dominicans who added the Gothic church we see today. In the late 1500s, Archduke Charles II sent them packing and made it the parish church as the old parish church (today’s cathedral) had been given to Jesuits.

I missed the painting of Mariae Himmelfahrt (Assumption of Mary), said to be the work of my favourite Venetian painter, Tintoretto. I didn’t miss miss it. I saw it. Liked it. Took a photo. But I didn’t give the boy his due. Didn’t know it was his.

During WWII, the stained glass windows were destroyed in an explosion. The commission to make new ones went to a German artist living in Salzburg Albert Birkle, a man with a sense of humour.

He’d been doing quite well in his native Berlin until 1937 when Hitler and the Nazi Party declared his work to be ‘entarted’. I had to look that one up. Fascinating.

Degenerate art (German: Entartete Kunst) was a term adopted in the 1920s by the Nazi Party in Germany to describe modern art. During the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, German modernist art, including many works of internationally renowned artists, was removed from state-owned museums and banned in Nazi Germany on the grounds that such art was an “insult to German feeling”, un-German, Freemasonic, Jewish, or Communist in nature. Those identified as degenerate artists were subjected to sanctions that included being dismissed from teaching positions, being forbidden to exhibit or to sell their art, and in some cases being forbidden to produce art.

Birkle wasn’t impressed but his revenge was sweet.

To the scene depicting the Crown of Thorns and the revilement and abuse of Jesus was added, in the uppermost right pane, a most unlikely pair, namely Hitler and Mussolini.

Right there. In plain sight. Alongside Christ’s persecutors. And no one noticed for a couple of years until a journalist spotted the unmistakable likenesses. The papers wrote it up. The tourists came. And then they forgot. Now you need to know where to look.

We got mass there – the organ music was sublime. Here, at noon each day, the organ plays, offering a respite from the work that goes on around the church. It’s worth being in the vicinity.

Faces of Hitler and Mussolini in a stained glass church window depecting the Passion of Our Lord

The last church on my hastily composed list was across the river – a church that functions as a church and also as an art space. I was more than intrigued.

With words like Fiction and Science written in large type on its outer walls,  Kirche St Andrä sets itself apart from other churches in the city. It’s opened its doors to artists to do as they will.

When we entered as Sunday inched towards noon, we left Austria and went to Africa. We’d happened on the city’s Sunday African mass. The place was a blaze of colour – the people and the walls were ablaze. It was quite something, having come through a haze of Baroque interiors. We had a few minutes before mass started so we wandered. And looked. And pointed. And wowed. Was it art or graffiti, I wondered. I was particularly taken the swing suspended from the ceiling.

Since 1999, very different contemporary artists have been invited to further design the interior of the church. Since then, under the Andrä Kunst logo , there has been a permanent engagement with contemporary cultural creation in the church of St. Andrä. The church is not treated as an exhibition space, but as a spiritually defined space in which targeted interventions open up an important dialogue. One window with acrylic glass and lattice arches outwards in the manner of a dome, while another illuminates inwards with the aid of single-color TV monitors.

People started dribbling in. I decided to stay even though my Sunday obligation had already been discharged under the watchful eye of Hitler. The chap in charge told us things were running a little late. They were waiting for more people to arrive; the priest deserved a bigger audience, he said. Despite his entreaties to move forward, we stayed in the back row. I didn’t want to miss a thing.

African masses would give the Serbian Orthodoxers a run for their money both in terms of length and informality. The collection plate wasn’t passed around. Instead, you walked up to the altar to make your contirbution and then danced back. I managed a White girl’s sashay. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. After the rather dour German mass a couple of hours earlier and the tail-end of mass in the Cathedral, this was by far the most inspiring. Okay, it helped that it was in English, but even so, the congregation, from kids to grannies, were giving it welly.

That the three churches I chose were linked didn’t escape me. When the old parish church became the Cathedral and Stadtpfarrkirche became the new parish church, the displaced Dominicans moved over to St Andra.

Whether you’re into churches as places of worship, repositories of art, or showcases of architectural style, Graz won’t disappoint.


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